At 8:46 a.m. on September 11th, 2001, I was asleep in the top bunk in my college dorm room when American Airlines Flight 11 and it’s crew of 11 people and 76 passengers – not including the hijackers – tilted it’s wings and body and entered the North Tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. My roommate, a Long Islander, having forgotten his keys when he left for class that morning, banged on the door. “Oz, open up.” He had just seen, from the hallway into someone’s room, an incident in New York. At this point, the event – it was singular at the moment – in New York City was being reported as an accident.
I yawned through the banal reports of the flight coming from Logan Airport. A news reporter on WWLP 22-News from Springfield sent it live to the national station in New York. We watched the second plane hit the South Tower just after 9 a.m. I remember him turning to me and, in awe, “Wow, they have video of the crash?”
Seconds later, we realized the awful truth.
I remember the flood of misinformation of that day. The phone rang often in those hours. There were cell phones, but they were luxuries, and most communications took place over crowded landlines. Part of the suspense was the inability to connect through these landlines, especially if you were making a call into New York. We heard numbers: Ten thousand, four thousand, fifteen thousand victims. It would be days, weeks maybe, before we got the official total: just under three thousand, which seemed low and perversely disappointing.
We heard stories of heroism. The first ones in, the last ones out. The man who held the door for strangers, making sure they get out, only to perish himself; a business class coup in a plane designed to hit Washington D.C. that led the plane to fall in a Pennsylvania field. We are used to this, Americans are. We are taught of heroism in school – of George Washington, Daniel Boone, Babe Ruth, historical figures of colossal magnanimity – and maybe that’s what made it so easy for the people in 9/11 to act in these manners. Maybe, too, it’s the reason that we were so willing to believe them.
We were willing, at the time, to endure some restrictions on personal liberties in the name of defense. But I think over time the ease of these commemorations, save for those people who were directly affected, is a little greater. Our American narrative was never meant to be so linear. I do believe the events of September 11th strengthened us as a core, even as we remain a vastly divided political public. There is now a greater empathy, not just for American tragedies like last year’s Boston Marathon bombing, but globally. The world flattened, evenly, sea level for everyone, for good that day.
It made us closer not just emotionally and spiritually, but physically and geographically, in the literal and figurative sense of the word.
I don’t know what to do to commemorate the events of 9/11 in years going forward. It seems like an event that, while not being entirely pushed aside, will eventually become an abstraction, an event that happened generations ago. Students will learn about an event they weren’t old enough – or born – to remember. Soon, teachers teaching the events will be too young to accurately explain what it was like to be alive in this little corner of the world that Tuesday morning. The people we know affected by the events will, too, fade into some proverbial sunset, the hurt easing with each day.
What we choose to remember, how we chose to tell the story of that day will become a collection of snapshots and minor fabrications as the edges to our stories blur. It’s a banal platitude to tell people to “never forget.” No one “forgets” an event of that magnitude, but there’ll be a day when those events no longer dictate how we live our lives, how we choose to treat ourselves, how we choose to treat other people.
Maybe we should forget some aspects. Maybe we should forget the fear and uncertainty of that day. Maybe we should forget the tears, anger and confusion. Let’s forget ash and paper and bodies falling from the sky; let’s forget the snake of smoke funneling down Canal St. Perhaps we should even forget the number of people lost on that day, and the subsequent wars fought on behalf of freedom. Honor that figure, but do not let it be the prevailing piece of information when we think of September 11th.
Instead, let’s remember the compassion we all felt. Let’s remember, for that small, purposeful stretch of time in contemporary American history, how eager we were to help one another up. How we went out of our way to donate blood or our time, to call our parents, our brothers and sisters, our friends to let them know – earnestly – how deeply we care for them. Let’s remember the compassion of those people who spent the last hour of their lives selflessly getting people out doors, and down staircases. If there should be one enduring legacy of 9/11, let it be this.