Today is the 18th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. I was only four years old then, so I don’t remember what happened on that day. It’s always been a bit strange for me when someone asks where I was on 9/11. I have to confess that I don’t remember. I know something important is missing from my memory.
Yet, I marvel at how well those who are a bit older do remember that day. Ask any American today in their mid-twenties or older and chances are they will be able to tell you exactly where they were, what they were doing, and what they were thinking when they heard the news that the Twin Towers were hit.
Since I don’t remember the attacks, I’ve always had a special affinity for Alan Jackson’s song, “Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?” Since I can’t answer that question, it’s always seemed to help me understand the mindset of those who do remember. Jackson sings, “Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day? Were you in the yard with your wife and children or working on some stage in LA? Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke rising against that blue sky? Did you shout out in anger in fear for your neighbor? Or did you just sit down and cry?”
Tragedies like 9/11 simultaneously bring out the worst and the best in humanity. Though the attacks were perpetrated by evil terrorists, it also turned ordinary Americans into heroes.
American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked by five al-Qaeda terrorists. Before they flew the plane into the Pentagon, pilot Chick Burlingame fought back against the terrorists trying to take over his plane. Chick, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and a Navy Captain, was no stranger to bravery. His sister, Debra Burlingame, highlighted her brother’s heroism in a speech: “On the morning of 9/11 it took hijackers 12 minutes to take control of the cockpit of my brother’s plane. It took 6 minutes for them to kill my brother and his co-pilot. 6 minutes in a closed cockpit is a very long time. I am not the sister of a victim; I’m the sister of a fighter.”
When I visited Washington, D.C. with my family, I had the opportunity to visit the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. The tranquil site is directly outside of where the Pentagon was hit. It is a peaceful memorial to the 184 victims of the attack. There are 184 seats shaped like wings that are inscribed with the name of one person who died during the attack. Each cantilevered bench hovers over a shallow stream of flowing water, allowing for a silent moment of reflection.
During an internship in D.C., I had the chance to tour the U.S. Capitol. At the end of the tour, my guide showed me a plaque on the wall of the Capital building which commemorates the lives of those lost on United Flight 93. After four al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked the flight, several passengers made telephone calls and learned about the attacks on the Twin Towers. Unwilling to allow their flight to become a tool of terror, the passengers courageously tried to take back control of the plane to prevent the terrorists from reaching their target.
The plaque reads, “In memory of the passengers and crew of United Airlines Flight 93, whose brave sacrifice on September 11, 2001, not only saved countless lives but may have saved the U.S. Capitol from destruction.” Below that description, the plaque lists the 40 names of the heroes who will forever be remembered in our national conscience.
One passenger, Todd Beamer, was able to reach a telephone operator before joining in the attempt to reclaim the airplane. The operator recalls the last thing she heard on her call with him. “Todd turned to someone else and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I could hear them; they responded. He said, ‘OK. Let’s roll.’ That was the last thing I heard.” That kind of bold and brave attitude became common that day.
Of course, many other heroes acted with courage and kindness in the aftermath of 9/11. Of the 2,977 victims of 9/11, 412 were emergency personnel who responded to the scene including 343 fire fighters, 60 police officers, 8 medical personnel, and 1 patrolman from the New York Fire Patrol. These people died not for someone they loved, but for total strangers whom they didn’t know. They sacrificed themselves to save other Americans they had never met. Truly, the best of America is not found in buildings or banks, but right here in the lives of these heroes.
Then there were the military personnel, hospital workers and numerous other Americans who responded out of love for their country. Current U.S. Senator Tom Cotton left his law practice and joined the military to defend our nation after the attacks as did numerous other service members.
On the evening of 9/11, President Bush addressed the nation. He said, “Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature. And we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
It’s important to honor those killed in these attacks 18 years ago. Younger people like me, who don’t remember these events, need to be told about these extraordinary acts of heroism from ordinary people. We can never repay those who were killed in the attacks or who gave their lives for others, but we can remember their courage and sacrifice.