Remembering: We all watched. First, the north tower of the World Trade Center, just after the initial jet ripped into it. When another plane struck the south tower, the horror deepened. We knew we were under attack.
On that day, a group crowding in Times Square exhibited a wide range of emotional responses: New Yorkers traded every bit of news, trying to allay confusion. A woman with her hands to her face in disbelief. A man with his arms folded, trying to process what he had just learned. A woman making the sign of the cross and crying out, as many of us watched in stunned silence.
Then, another plane crashed into the Pentagon, and the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 went down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Confusion turned to panic, as the buildings crumbled into a heap in lower Manhattan and sent a towering plume of ash and pulverized concrete over the island.
What we witnessed that day was immediately seared into our collective consciousness: office workers tumbling hundreds of feet after jumping from a jet-fuel inferno. Three firemen somberly raising a flag at Ground Zero with the ghastly rubble piled in the background. All air traffic grounded in a matter of hours.
We watched helplessly as symbols of economic and military power burned. Even the United States President, the most powerful man in the world, later stated he felt “powerless” as he watched men and women leaping from burning buildings.
Indeed, we had entered a strange new world, ushered in by 19 men who hijacked four planes. The event changed everything: how we travel, how wars are fought – how we live.
Though many years have passed, images of September 11, 2001 still stop us cold. The events of 9/11 caused America to promise, “We will never forget.” This meant to never forget the 3,000 victims of mass murder. To never forget the heroic actions of emergency personnel and average citizens. To never forget how that day felt, to ensure a similar event would never happen again.
President George W. Bush set the tone for “remembering” on the evening of September 11 in the Oval Office: “This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace. America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.”
The horror of September 11th lingered, but something else did as well. New Yorkers felt increased camaraderie after surviving the disaster, often asking each other, “Where were you on 9/11?” Strangers would recount their stories to one another.
A similar feeling of solidarity swept the country, starting with candlelight vigils and memorial services. It was seen in a sea of waving American flags, then in pins, T-shirts and bumper stickers. In the face of losing the freedoms and prosperity they had long enjoyed, Americans better appreciated them, and were prepared to work hard to ensure their continued existence.
Historically, tragedy and hardship have a great effect on Americans. It is then that they come together as one, ready to tackle any challenge that comes their way. In the wake of September 11th, this seemed the towering lesson. People felt, “We are strong” and “We will make it through.”
Without concerted effort, however, as a horrific event fades in the rearview mirror, so can any lessons learned from it. Some changes after September 11 lasted only a few months. Other changes lasted a few years. Volunteer numbers increased until 2006, and have been waning since.
Patriotism reached its high point in 2003, when a Gallup poll revealed that 70% of those polled were “extremely proud to be an American.” Since then, the number has continuously declined. While some scars of that day remain, the lives of most have largely returned to where they were before September 11.
Yet look at problems besetting the nation today: nearly $18 trillion in federal debt, bickering politicians, bloated government budgets, increased weather-related disasters, the list could go on.
Taken together, these problems cry out for America to again unite, to look back on 9/11 and the country’s history, then seek out and truly apply lessons gleaned.
Most would say that it is this same resilience that has greatly contributed to America’s historical success – that for two centuries it has caused the U.S. to hold the greatest army, be a world leader, and hold crucial strategic sea gates and defensive strongholds throughout the world. Throughout that time, the nation repeatedly overcame challenges – the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the Great Depression – and almost always emerged even stronger.
Yet America’s patriotism is a double-edged sword. While it contributes to showings of national kindness and heroism, it blinds the nation from what it should truly remember from 9/11.
What to Remember
The September 11th memorial that now stands where the towers once did is designed to help visitors never forget that historic day. Entering the site, they must follow a predetermined path that leads to a museum pavilion dedicated to the unforgettable day, with the nation’s tallest building towering in front of them.
With each anniversary of 9/11, we call to mind the events of that day. We remember the horror we felt as the towers crashed, the sadness of mourning loved ones, and the renewed appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy. Never forget that day. W