On September 11, 2001, the world was forever changed when the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda orchestrated the largest non-wartime attack on US soil by hijacking four passenger airlines in a suicide mission. Two of the planes, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center causing the collapse of the two towers and the full or partial collapse of all the other building in the World Trade Center Complex.
A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, in Arlington, Virginia which resulted in partial collapse of the Pentagon’s western side.
A fourth plane, United Flight 93 was initially flying in the direction of Washington DC but crashed in Shanksville, PA after passengers endeavored to overcome the hijackers. The attacks resulted in the collective loss of 2,996 lives including the nineteen hijackers and over $10 billion in property and infrastructure damage. September 11 also claimed the lives of 343 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers, marking it as the “deadliest” day in history for first responders.
At the time of this horrific attack, the world was shell shocked by the idea that terrorists would use planes as weapons and sacrifice their own lives to destroy the lives of others. The day was viewed as not only a tragic loss of life, but also a symbolic and practical attack on the US’s economic and political infrastructure. President George W. Bush received positive comments from many for the way he endeavored to comfort the country in the aftermath of the attacks. People were simultaneously outraged, saddened and emboldened. People were reaching out to neighbors, colleagues and strangers with a recognition that we are part of greater community. And the cry of “We must never forget” September 11, 2001 was ringing everywhere.
For me, September 11 started off like any other day. I left my midtown Manhattan apartment and took the subway to my job in lower Manhattan three blocks from the World Trade Center. I had no idea when I left that morning that the towers which dominated the skyline since the 1970’s would no longer be standing by mid-morning. I had no idea that I would be sequestered in a building for several hours with co-workers where I had the “opportunity” to watch Tower 2 and the ancillary building fall on television. I had no I idea that I would be ushered to the hallway and told to put a wet cloth over my head. I had no idea that I would eventually be released from the building and spend hours walking home in streets powdered with debris. As September 11 was originally supposed to be the day of the NY State primary election, campaign posters were everywhere. The combination of debris and campaign display materials gave New York a snowy, Twilight Zone feel.
I also was completely unprepared for the sadness that I would experience when I would learn that a friend from my ski club who I had just seen a few weeks ago perished in the towers. I would also learn of the death of a grammar school classmate. I also had coworkers who lost siblings and significant others. Lower Manhattan experienced significant power outages and infrastructure damage. Consequently, like many others I was displaced from my office for about a week. And when we returned the smoke from the towers was present for months. The reminder of the tragedy was ever present in the physical environment. And of course for months September 11 dominated the news and our personal conversations.
Now, fifteen years later, for many September 11 has become just another day. After all, our current President Barack Obama refuses to even speak the words “radical Islamic terrorism” despite the fact that there has been a plethora of terrorist attacks implemented by radical Islamic extremists within 2016 alone. Ironically, President Obama did not hesitate to take a victory lap when the orchestrator of the September 11 attacks Osama Bin Laden was captured and killed in May 2011.
Many of us have completely stopped thinking about September 11 and just think of it as another day on the calendar. This distancing is in part a natural emotional defense mechanism. We are ultimately survivors and the best way to survive is to ignore or to forget physical and emotional pain. And while this may be a survival technique, I think it is misguided. For if we forget the gut-wrenching pain of the loss of close to 3,000 lives in one day, we start to become complacent about potential acts of violence or insurrection which could be right under our noses.
So I call upon everyone to find a significant personal way to remember September 11, 2001. Revisit the day in some way. Read an article, watch a documentary or listen to a piece of music. Pick up the phone and call a friend or family member. Remember life is short. We need to take the time to express gratitude for the blessings in our lives and to thank the people who enrich our daily existence.
photo credit: World Trade Center – Rose placed in the inscribed names via photopin (license); John Cunniff