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Twenty Years Later: Reflections on September 11th

Today's post is going to be more serious than most, for obvious reasons. I'm sure many people will be sharing their recollections of September 11th today and while mine are nothing extraordinary, I figured I'd share them anyway if only for posterity's sake. As a caveat, I am willing to admit that I am not a great writer and do apologize for the length of this post as well as any grammatical errors I make. I just felt the need to write down everything I could remember and encourage you to share your experience either publicly or just with your loved ones - particularly those for which this is all just another chapter in history.

The above is a painting I did recently of my high school alma mater. It was commissioned as a gift for a teacher who recently retired and as I was completing it, it struck me - twenty years ago I was sitting in this very building watching the world as I knew it turn upside-down. It's hard to believe that it's been that long and yet it also seems like a lifetime ago. So much has changed in that time frame, and yet, sadly with the recent events surrounding Afghanistan it feels like we're right back where we started.

Twenty years ago on Tuesday, September 11th, I was beginning just another day of my senior year at Upper Merion. It was one of those gorgeous, sunny days that made you wish you were anywhere but stuck inside a classroom. Nothing else about the beginning of the day was exceptional so I honestly don't remember anything up until the point I was in my home-ec class, standing at a sink, washing paintbrushes out before class ended. My parents had mentioned several times how they could remember exactly where they were when they heard President Kennedy was assassinated and I never understood how that could be until later that day. Now I will never forget that moment as so many others will never forget where they were when they heard of the attacks.

The assistant principal came over the loudspeaker and said something along the lines of, "Attention students and staff, we've just received word - a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. At this time we're going to observe a moment of silence for the victims of this tragedy." As we stood there in that moment I couldn't help but think how weird this was. There had been other plane crashes in the past, but we never had observed a moment of silence for them. I assumed that an administrator or teacher must have known someone on the plane or at the WTC and that was the connection. So when the moment was over and the bell rang I shrugged it off and went off to my next class, not giving it another thought. It wasn't until I stepped over the threshold into my physics class that I saw what was being broadcast on the TV and realized this was unlike any other plane crash. But even then everything was total confusion. It was like watching a bad end-of-the-world movie or old footage of some foreign country where violence was a routine occurrence.

That is the thing I think might be the hardest to explain to kids who were too little to remember what was going on or who weren't even born yet. They've all grown up in an age where information is spread almost instantly via social media, but back then (and lord, does it make me feel old saying this) there was no such thing as social media. The only way we were able to find out any information was to just watch the newscast on TV as the anchors scrambled to piece together what was happening. All they could do was repeat the same information over and over and over again as field reporters tried to get out and report on anything they could glean from people on the street. And at this point it wasn't clear that this was an attack; everyone still thought it was some sort of horrible accident. But then the second tower was hit and it became very clear - this is no accident.

Some kids started to cry and many started murmuring around the room asking, "What is going on?? Who could be doing this? Why are they doing this? And more importantly... What is going to be hit next?" Although everyone was clearly upset I don't think anyone felt any immediate danger because this was all happening in New York, which was hours away. But then the news anchor paused and said, "We're going to have to cut away from our reporter in New York as we've just received word... the Pentagon's been hit." That's when the room became deathly quiet and we all looked at each other wide-eyed. Now this was really serious. This wasn't just isolated to New York; our nation was clearly under attack. But what did this mean? Were we at war?? You could feel the tension in the room rise to a palpable level as images of black smoke pouring out of the Pentagon appeared on the screen.

As an aside I've heard the events of 9/11 compared to those of Pearl Harbor, but as I see it there are distinct differences between the two events. The main difference is that there was context surrounding Pearl Harbor while there was none surrounding 9/11. The entire world had been at war for two years before the base was hit and we knew immediately who had attacked us. We were not at war in 2001 so we did not know for at least a day or more who was spearheading this or why it was happening. Also, while Pearl Harbor was indeed a terrible attack on American soil, what was hit was a military base, and for strategic purposes. There weren't thousands of regular citizens who were targeted for no reason. This is why these terror attacks were so, well... terrifying. The not knowing and the feeling of helplessness that overwhelmed us all just sitting there watching was horrible.

Honestly as clear as those moments are for me the rest of the day was sort of a blur. It almost became too overwhelming to take in any more as we watched people running down the steps of the Capitol as it was evacuated, thousands more die literally in front of our eyes with the collapse of the towers, the word coming in that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania, smoke and debris enveloping the entire island of Manhattan as people scrambled to get away... As each class ended we would get up, walk like zombies to the next room, sit down and continue watching the TV, stunned and sickened. And even though it was really all over before noon we couldn't tear ourselves away from the broadcasts, desperately hoping for any new scrap of information that could give us the answer to the question we all wanted most to know - why?

Finally, I reached the last class of the day - AP Government and Politics - and my teacher turned the TV off as soon as we all got settled. "I'm sorry guys," she said, "but it's pretty obvious that they have no new information at this point so I think it's in our best interest to just turn the TV off for a while and attempt to focus on the lesson for today. Then, for the last ten minutes of class I'll turn it back on just to see if they have anything new, but for now we all need a break." I confess I was rather annoyed by that. How in the world did she expect us to focus on a lesson after what we'd all just seen and been through that day?? What if something important was shared with the nation while we were trying to focus on a lesson we all knew no one would remember tomorrow? But as we started to go over whatever it was she had planned to teach that day I realized just how exhausted I was and what a relief it really was to pause from sitting on the edge of my seat, holding my breath and hearing nothing but the same thing over and over again - 'There is still a lot of speculation about who these attackers were...', '...the death toll will be massive...', 'We're not sure when the President will be on to address the nation...' It was what we really all needed and looking back I applaud her for making that call at that time. By the time I got home I (and I think it's safe to say everyone else in the country) felt like I had lived a year in just one day. The grief over what we had witnessed had just drained everyone.

Then the next day, and in the following weeks, it was amazing how our country pulled together. American flags could be seen flying everywhere, a sign of unity and defiance against those who thought they could bring America to its knees. We all were determined more than ever to help each other in any way possible, never forget the heroes who stepped up in the middle of the crisis and fight harder than ever against those who would do evil and threaten our freedom and security. We vowed never to forget, but I wonder, as time has gone on and I hear many younger people claim that the American flag makes them feel 'uncomfortable' and that we're not really overwhelmingly blessed to live in the country we do... have we forgotten?

Afghanistan is in crisis again, held by a group of terrorists just like those that were the masterminds around this evil plot twenty years ago. We can debate all day about whether we should have gone there to fight in the first place and how long ago we should have withdrawn, but that's not really the point is it? The fact of the matter is so many of our soldiers bravely fought and died to push these terrorists back not only to protect our country but to give the Afghan people a taste of what it's like to live in a world where people can practice their religion without fear of retribution and girls can actually get an education. Now women and girls are beaten in the streets for not following the strict Sharia laws of the Taliban and Christians are hunted down door to door and murdered because of their faith. Those that gave our soldiers any aid are also tortured and killed while many others are desperate to find a way out because they were left stranded when the last planes took off. And it feels like everyone in our own country is at each other's throats. Have we forgotten?

This is the sort of environment that breeds extremism and it both infuriates me and breaks my heart that this is where we've ended up twenty years later. It is a sad thing to watch as we take this day to honor those that were lost, both on 9/11 and in the years following, and see that not much has changed; to hear our service men and women who gave so much wonder what it was all worth. It would be very easy to fall back into that same feeling of helplessness as I watch what is going on now, but what I am determined to do to combat it is to remember what it was like on September 12th, 2001. Remember what it felt like to hear stories of random acts of kindness happening all over the country. To see people put aside their differences and their conflicts with one another in order to come together and help in whatever way they could. Yes, there were those who treated others poorly and unfairly in some cases. As long as there is sin in the world that will always be the case. But as I recall the majority of the country banded together and that's what I want to remember. The only way to stand against evil like this is to stand united as one nation and thank God for blessing us with the life we have here. Evil wants to divide; evil wants to isolate and feed on hurt and bitterness until it becomes all-consuming. We cannot allow that to continue to happen or we will be doomed to repeat the past. If we want to honor those we have lost we must remember this. We must NOT FORGET.

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