18 years ago our nation stood together in pain and resolve against the forces of evil that managed to kill almost 3,000 of our citizens in premeditated attacks in three locations. We wept, we prayed, and we stood as a nation without partisanship and hate. We were united not only in grief but also in patriotism and resolve. There were no Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or Socialists. There were only Americans. That was that, and this is now.
There are American kids who 18 years ago were not born yet. What have they learned? What story have they been told? Who is teaching them about a moment in time when our country stood still in horror? How many of us thought it was a movie as we watched planes determinately fly into the Twin Towers? How many of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the attacks changed the New York Skyline forever? Does anyone care anymore? How many will actually remember? How many will continue to remember? On this 9/11, we might tune in to watch the annual remembrance ceremony in New York City, and we may even remain tuned in to listen to the slow and somber reading of the victims’ names. Then we will continue with our day.
Lower side Manhattan has been rebuilt and a new tower looms above the 9/11 Memorial Glade fountains and 9/11 Memorial Museum that keeps the memory viable and also brings in much needed visitor dollars. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is partly funded by private donations and memberships. The first time I visited “Ground Zero” it was still in rubble and the scars and pain were still fresh. Pictures of those missing hung adjacent to placards of united support on a make shift wire fencing that surrounded the debris and the hot steel. A cloud of dust and smoke still hung in the air. People moved about slowly and in relative silence; some wiping tears that were unintentional but honest. I was one of those people. It was difficult standing there and looking down at a crater filled with smoldering twisted steel. It was easier watching it on television from the comfort of a couch. Surrounding buildings were covered in steel netting and American flags flew from their bare walls paying tribute to the lives that had been lost a few months prior. On 9/11 all lives mattered.
Through my consecutive visits I watched as tragedy morphed into remembrance, memorials, museums, and eventually a quasi tourist attraction and park. The wire fences are long gone, trees have been replanted, and One World Trade Center rises above the skyline as if in defiance. But in my opinion, something has been lost in an attempt to keep the memory alive. The two large deep fountains are etched with names of those lost in the three attacks. Included are also names of those who had perished in the 1993 Twin Towers attack. The memorial to the latter was lost on 9/11. Among the 9/11 names etched on the dark granite walls surrounding the fountains, are eleven with the significant byline: “and child”. Eleven mothers died with their unborn child. This did not escape me, but I am sure it escapes the many who pose to take selfies or who lean across the walls and etched names to take pictures, smile, and even imbibe in a Starbucks or two while “remembering”. A jovial outing atmosphere in an otherwise morbid graveyard.
I refuse to pose and take pictures leaning against victims’ names. I refuse to forget the pain that we felt 18 years ago. I refuse to be a tourist where 3,000 ordinary folk went to work on a beautiful New York City fall day and never returned home to their loved ones. I refuse to give a pass to idiots who blame America for the attacks. I refuse to forgive the terrorists who planned and carried out the heinous crime. I refuse to turn 9/11 into just another day. I refuse to forget.
The first time I visited the new 9/11 Memorial Glade fountains, things were different. The museum had not yet opened and the area was still relatively closed to the public. Visitors had to go through TSA-like security, and One World Trade Center had not yet risen into the New York City skyline. The park was still relatively quiet and those who had stood hours waiting to get in still maintained a semblance of respect and grief. I remember looking down at all the names and feeling a knot in my stomach. I suddenly realized that I was in the presence of a loss on a grand scale. As I slowly walked the parameter of each fountain I instinctively ran my hands across each name. Three rows of names etched on each of the eight fountain walls. Glancing down rapidly and stopping only at short intervals; it took me close to an hour to complete the eight walls. In the space of a lunch break, I managed to give each and every name relevancy and significance in my life. For a fleeting moment I made my acquaintance with each victim. I do not remember any of the names, but I do remember every touch.
We fail to understand that the 3,000 murdered came from all over the world. The Twin Towers were home to international investment companies and global corporations. The victims had diverse religions, ethnic backgrounds, languages, and partisanship. But terrorists don’t care about diversity, tolerance, or political correctness. I doubt that they did roll call of who worked in the Twin Towers. Their sole objective was to kill. Those who now diminish the War on Terror need to take a short trip to the fountains and run their hands over all the names as I did. They should visit the museum next door and see the quasi melted frame of a fire truck; it had gotten too close to the burning steel in an attempt to save lives and put out flames. They should walk around Lower Manhattan and visit a few fire departments where names of fire fighters are displayed on plaques. Over 300 of them gave their lives trying to save those trapped in the Towers soon after the attacks. There should be nothing dismissive about 9/11.
Yes, 18 years have gone by but the deaths continue. Recently, New York City has unveiled a new memorial at the National September 11 Memorial. Large boulders have been dedicated to the first responders, recovery workers, and survivors that assisted at the aftermath of the attacks. Months of exposure to debris, dust, and smoke has caused cancer and other related diseases at an alarming rate to many 9/11 first responders and recovery workers. These silent heroes are finally being recognized as relevant victims of the attacks. Some have already died from the rapid onset of illnesses. Another poignant reason why the story must continue to be told.
At approximately 1430 on September 11, 2001, I had just arrived at one of our bank’s customers to drop off documents. I noticed the receptionist, a young man, staring at the silent television set in the lobby. As I followed his eyes, I realized that he was looking at one of the Twin Towers with a large gaping smoking hole in its side. I thought it was a cheap afternoon flick. I joked with him about watching movies in the afternoon. He did not smile. He just kept on staring at the silent television set. I turned my head to the screen in time to see a plane hit the South Tower. In an ashen face, the young man uttered: “I don’t think it’s a movie Mrs. Brown.” “Neither do I”, said I. And all our lives changed forever.