9/11: Why We Have To Remember


President Barack Obama recently announced the withdrawal of 90,000 combat troops from Iraq, marking “the end of America’s combat mission.” 50,000 troops remain to continue training Iraqi forces in the region.  Another 94,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan, where, according to Obama, “we will disrupt, we will dismantle, and we will ultimately defeat al-Qaeda.”

The timing wasn’t lost on me.  The withdrawal date is eleven days short of the ninth anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks on this country on September 11, 2001.

Before September 11, 2001 most people didn’t consider the possibility of an enemy attack on our soil.  We surely didn’t imagine that anyone would highjack airliners and fly them into U.S. landmarks killing thousands of people.  And none of us could have dreamed that nine years later we would have a death toll of over 4,000 troops to add to the thousands who died on the day that “al-Qaeda” became a household word.

The President’s statement was a reminder of that day nine years ago.  I don’t need a reminder.  Every year since 9/11, I am compelled to watch documentaries about the attacks.  My husband is concerned that the shows will make me sad.  Every year I assure him that they will not.

We all remember where we were and what we were doing that day. I was in my office earlier than usual, trying to come up with an ad for a local bank.  I had a deadline, but that morning I was oddly uninspired.   I was on my second cup of coffee when the phone rang.  My husband’s voice was taut as he told me to turn on the television. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center,” he said.

I switched on the little TV on my desk and watched the attack on America unfold. I saw the second plane strike the South Tower.  I watched both Towers collapse.  A third plane hit the Pentagon.  A fourth went down in a field in western Pennsylvania.  I could not move.  The death toll neared 3,000.

For the thousands who died and the thousands more who lost their friends, family, and co-workers, the unthinkable had already happened.  For the rest of us, the worst was yet to come.

In the days following September 11, 2001, I remember feeling a sense of desolation unlike anything I had ever felt.  I found myself watching the endless stream of anguished faces on TV as friends and relatives pleaded for news of their loved ones who had been in the Towers.  I watched until I could no longer stand to look at their pain. I climbed the stairs to my bedroom, keenly aware of the silence in the skies – a further reminder that life as we knew it no longer existed.

Even the smallest sound disturbed my sleep.  I woke with an intense anxiety about what might happen next.  I carried the fear with me throughout the day.  I did not turn on the news.  Every evening when my husband walked in the door I said, “Is everything okay?” If it was not, I wanted to hear it from him.

I remember the World Series that year in New York – just six weeks after the attack on the city – as George Bush took the mound and threw the ceremonial opening pitch.  It is the only opening pitch I will ever remember.  I breathed a sigh of relief when the game was over and nothing catastrophic had happened to the stadium full of people and the President as they enjoyed America’s favorite pastime.

I remember the sense of warmth that pervaded nearly every encounter with another person.  People who had been reserved or curt were gracious and friendly.  Little acts of kindness were commonplace, as though we treasured our lives and the lives of those around us.

Every year I watch the documentaries.  As much as I would like to forget, I feel an obligation to remember.

Today, remembering is not so much about the terrorist attack but rather about our immeasurable capacity to be human.  For me, the documentaries inspire an intense regard for the heroism shown by both emergency responders and civilians alike.  9/11 serves as a reminder that we are Americans, and we can be breathtakingly generous and kind.  If we can summon that kind of unity once a year because we remember what terrorists did to our nation, then the terrorists will have failed.  And when that generous, unconditional regard for others becomes a part of our daily lives, we will be better people than we were before 9/11/01.

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