Who we were then, who we as a country are now and who we need to be
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, thousands of first responders converged on the sites of destruction, climbing through mountains of smoking debris and rubble in a race to find survivors. Ultimately, 8 EMS providers and 343 firefighters died that day and countless more have succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses from their time working at Ground Zero.
We’re now approaching the 21st anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on America. There will be the usual gestures of remembrance and solemn memorials, expressing sympathy for families who lost loved ones and children who grew up never knowing their parents. We’ll all be reminded of numbers etched into the memories of every military member or public safety provider of that generation:
- 343: The number of FDNY firefighters killed
- 23: NYPD officers killed
- 37: Port Authority officers killed
- 184: Military service and staffers killed at the Pentagon
- 40: Innocent civilians and airline crew killed in the crash of United Flight 93
- 2,977: Total killed in the initial attacks
- 19: Cowardly and vile terrorists who carried out the attacks
Each of us, in our own way, will whisper silent prayers in the memory of heroes such as Todd Beamer, Rick Rescorla or Yamel Merino. We’ll be exhorted to “never forget,” as if any of us who was watching television that day ever could.
While the media and our own consciences may never let us forget the losses we suffered on 9/11, what I’m no longer sure of is how we should feel about it. Children born on Sept. 11, 2001, will be old enough to buy alcohol on this anniversary of the attacks. For children who were seniors in high school then, the election of Ronald Reagan and the Iran hostage crisis were as far back in time as the 9/11 attacks are for us now. That’s as far back as the assassination of Malcom X and the Vietnam War was for me as a senior in high school. An entire generation has arisen that has no direct memory of the attacks.
While we may remember the events, like anything else, time dulls emotion. The time for grieving passed years ago. The anger we felt back then has dimmed, and for those of us for whom it hasn’t, must ask ourselves if holding on to hate isn’t more corrosive to us than our enemies.
We’ve even forgotten the thousands of people who worked the pile at Ground Zero, abandoned by their own government when they began to suffer the long-term health consequences of breathing the air there. It’s a sad indictment of our political leadership that of all the Congressmen and the four presidents we’ve had since that day, the only one to keep the faith with the people who risked their health that day is Jon Stewart.
What we’ve lost
What I do think is appropriate at this point is to take stock of what we gained and lost in those attacks.
As to what we’ve lost? Take your pick. The numbers of lives lost speak for themselves. We lost what sense of invulnerability we once had within our own borders. We’ve lost many of the freedoms and civil liberties we took for granted before that day.
Way back in 1755, Benjamin Franklin wrote:
“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
We have purchased a little temporary safety and security at the cost of a massive, costly bureaucracy and granted the government unprecedented power to spy on its own citizens. The vast majority of the provisions of the Patriot Act are now used to fight the war on drugs – a war we’ve long since lost, by the way – not the war on terrorism. We incarcerate a far higher percentage of our citizens than any other developed nation in the world, most them for drug offenses, and people of color routinely receive much stiffer sentences than white people who commit the same drug crimes.
And yet, despite all the laws against it, we are still in the midst of the biggest drug overdose epidemic in history. Poisoning and drug overdose deaths now outpace motor vehicle collisions and firearms deaths by a wide margin.
The politicians we have elected keep themselves in office with the time-honored tactic of pitting one side of the populace against the other, while holding no firm moral beliefs of their own. They appeal to our baser emotions and instincts, rather than to the nobility of the human spirit and the ideals of freedom America was supposed to represent. Every topic in the public discourse has been reduced to a binary solution set, with no room for nuance in between:
You’re either for law and order, or you’re pro-criminal.
You’re either for open borders and immigration with no restrictions, or you’re a racist xenophobe.
You’re either for personal responsibility, or you’re one of those shiftless freeloaders who expects hardworking Americans to pay for your useless college education.
You either love America unconditionally, or you’re an unpatriotic traitor who kneels during the national anthem and needs to get out of this country if you hate it so much.
You are either concerned with the rise in mass shootings, or you’re a mindless NRA pawn who values an AR15 over the lives of innocent children.
You either believe in MAGA, or you’re a brainless liberal out to ruin this country.
You either think EXACTLY like I do, or you’re an idiot. Or even worse, just plain evil.
Civility has evaporated from our public discourse, and now it’s a rarity to see one side trying to understand the perspective of the other. That’s what we’ve lost since 9/11. Now, I’m not so naïve to believe that civility has ever been a part of politics. Read political cartoons from 100 years ago, and they were every bit as vicious as they are today, if perhaps somewhat more eloquent. But what is distressing is how easily we are influenced by people who appeal to our ignorance, our prejudices and our hatred.
In 1861, another tumultuous time in American history, Abraham Lincoln closed his inaugural address with this passage:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
And maybe, in a perverse way, that’s also what we gained. Never were the better angels of our nature on bigger display than on Sept. 12, 2001. There were no divisions.
We were, all of us, New Yorkers. We were Americans. We were united with far more commonality than divided by artificial divisions of racial, creed or political beliefs. For months, perhaps even years afterward, we were fellow members of the tribe of humanity.
I’m not sure what it says about us that it takes a devastating tragedy or a war to make us stop bickering and start listening to one another, to appreciate our fellow people, to treat even those with whom we disagree with kindness and respect. I’d like to think that it just takes a galvanizing moment to make us remember what is important, and what is too trivial to fight over, and maybe such galvanizing moments can be an individual epiphany rather than a national tragedy.
I’d sure like to get back to that. Maybe it can happen if we stop shouting at each other long enough, that in the silence, we can hear those better angels of our nature.
Because if we can’t, then the terrorists achieved their goals.
Light through the darkness: Lessons from a 9/11 survivor
Port Authority Officer Will Jimeno, who was trapped in the World Trade Center rubble, shares what he has learned from his recovery post-9/11
This article, originally published in September 2022, has been updated.