Lessons of Yesterday

It was an ordinary morning. People got their coffee and commuted to work, talked on their phones, and made jokes. Nobody knew this day would be a day of historical magnitude, a day that over 3,000 people would die.

I woke, fed my oldest child, and left her sitting in front of the television to watch Teletubbies while I tended to her baby sister. My mind was filled with the to-do list of chores for the day.

I was just finishing changing the baby’s diaper when my phone rang. Answering, I heard my mother’s audibly shaken voice on the other end. “Are you watching the news? A plane just crashed into a building in New York!” I passed this information on to my sleeping husband and we hurried into the living room, changing the channel from a light hearted children’s show to the tragic scene that would change our lives forever.

Kneeling on the floor, eyes captivated by the smoke that spiraled up from the crash site in the side of one of the World Trade Center buildings, I joined countless others in observing this strange event. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer of NBC were in the process of talking to a reporter who had just came up out of the subway in Battery Park. The woman on the line was trying to relay the events as it was unfolding, her voice shaking with emotion. At this point it was thought that the plane crash was an accident, but the gravity of the situation was still felt.

As live footage focused on the burning tower, another plane came into the shot, just a small speck on the screen, barely noticeable but later that shot would be enlarged and played again and again as it changed the way the United States functioned. This commercial jet flew directly into the second World Trace Center tower before thousands of witnesses. The reporter on the phone was shaking with emotion, barely able to speak. Nobody could believe what they had just witnessed.

Another news reporter called in from his phone and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind “What is going on?”

Little did we know at that time that it was going to get so much worse.

My two girls seemed to sense the gravity of the situation, entertaining themselves while their parents monopolized the tv, unable to take our eyes off of the horror that was being displayed. My husband, a volunteer firefighter at the time, was intensely interested in the logistics of the the emergency crews’ actions, for me I cried for the mothers and fathers who had simply gone to work that day and now were dead. There was nothing to say as my mind grappled to comprehend what I was seeing.

The news station kept replaying the images of the planes crashing, the reporters doing their best to relay what was happening and the chaotic scene that was rapidly unfolding. The familiar wail of the sirens echoed through the city while those on the street looked at the burning buildings in shock. That was the word everyone kept using “shock”. The reasonable explanation was air traffic control issues.

Almost 20 minutes later the Pentagon released word that they believed this to be a “terrorist attack”, a phrase that would later become a part of the American vernacular.

Time seemed to stand still. My morning routine, like so many others, had come to a halt as I found myself unable to move away from the television. Later I would hear from friends and family that they too were rendered immobile. Those that were at work caught snippets through radio. This was a time when instant news did not exist. There wasn’t a 24/7 endless barrage of media platforms. Breaking News really was breaking news. Mass shootings and bombings hadn’t yet become the norm. This was unusual. It got our attention. It shut the country down.

17 years later the apocalyptic images of dust covered men and women emerging from the decimated streets stands as the visual reminder of the tragedy of that day, but there was something else that still haunts my memory from that moment, something that can only be heard in videos – beeping. In the stillness of the gray city came the sound of PASS alarms. Each of those beeps represented a firefighter who was not moving, whether buried in rubble or taking cover from the choking cloud of dust, but they were not moving. It was an audible alert of the fact that people were dead.

Story after story would come forward about the firefighters that went into the buildings when everyone went out, but my husband saw it as doing the job “All we were doing is what we always have done.” I knew he was right. Those men were simply doing their job, as they continued to do while digging through the rubble in the hours and days that followed in a search and rescue effort.

Amazingly some people survived, those were the stories that the country celebrated. People were fixed to the news, watching as bodies were brought out of the rubble. Pictures would emerge showing tired rescue workers taking a break, praying, and crying. The country rallied behind them in grief and hope.

All across the world support and memorials were held. Locally, I attended a candlelight vigil at the Municipal Building in Princeton. The lawn was covered with people of all ages, color, and walks of life. We stood in silence, candles flickering in the light breeze of the evening, heads bowed in silent contemplation. More than one person shed a tear but in the loss was the beauty of unity.

It was all overwhelming, trying to comprehend the lives lost much less the reason why. These weren’t soldiers in a war but men and women who were simply going about their day. The idea that civilians had been victimized was not only frightening but an eye opener for the United States which had grown comfortable in its status as a super power. A stubborn determination took hold and a wave of patriotism that I had never witnessed in the States filled the heart with pride. The American flag flew high and proud. There was no division of race or religion, we were simply Americans and we rallied behind President Bush as he took action to find those responsible.

Over the years the overpowering shock and horror has ebbed, replaced with bombardment of mass shootings, hatred, anger, and politics. The country that was once united feels sadly divided.

We argue over everything from whether or not a dress is white or blue to if a man should stand or kneel during the National Anthem. We fight simply for the right to have an opinion and get angry if others do not agree with that opinion.

The idea of one enemy has turned into a concept of believing that EVERYONE is your enemy. The land that once promoted freedom now polices everything, ignoring the law if you are deemed “unworthy.”  Where once other nations rallied behind us, we have now created our own island where it is “Us against Them.”

What Bush united, Trump has divided by feeding on the fears of the American people as any good tyrant would do.

The progress this young country had made has quickly become unraveled. No other nation or group of people need attack us as we are destroying ourselves quite sufficiently from within. As the saying goes “a house divided cannot stand.” Everything we learned from history we are blatantly ignoring like spoiled, arrogant children. We laugh at the warnings, call naysayers radical, and boldly storm about as if we know best when in truth we know NOTHING.

In my house, September 11 is talked about and honored simply because of the ties we had to the fire department. My children know and are taught that they have a duty to remember and tell the story because if the country forgets then we are susceptible to it happening again. But it is not just this event that should be remembered, the Holocaust, the Japanese Relocation of WWII, the Berlin Wall, and so many other events that were rooted in division of people should be recalled. Nothing good comes of ostracizing a people.

Fear is rooted in ignorance. Educate yourselves. Research everything. Do not take the word of your neighbors, family, or President. Read and make your own decisions. Heed the wisdom of the elders, learn from history.

In the days following 9-11 the phrase “Never Forget” came out. It was not a call to become a racist group of people that conducted head hunts due to a person’s religion or skin color, but as a call to remember that we should not be lax, arrogant, or ignorant. America had grown complacent and cocky, this was its wake up call that we are not liked by everyone, and that’s okay. It was not a cry to make war on everyone who thinks differently from us, and yet in our arrogance and pride that is precisely what we have done….. and the Wolf leads the Sheep to slaughter.






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