I was fortunate; the events of September 11, 2001 did not touch me personally. I knew no one on any of the four planes hijacked, nor in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, nor on any of the teams of firemen, police and rescue workers who died trying to help victims in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. I followed the unfolding events at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and Shanksville through television, radio, newspapers and the internet. Detached as I was, my memories of 9/11 and the days following remain as vivid as any in my life. I can’t imagine the emotions this day stirs in those who were directly affected by the terrorist attacks. My thoughts go to them and those they lost every year when September 11 comes around. This isn’t a day I think of war. All that came later. This is a day I try, in my own poor way, to remember the dead.
Talk that puts 9/11 in a nationalistic context annoys me. We are tribalistic and ethnocentric by nature, so it’s only natural that the first impulse of many Americans after the attacks was to fly the flag and sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” This was the reaction of my mother and my grandparents. It’s an honest reaction, and I have no problem with it as long as it isn’t the end of the discussion. To view 9/11 as an attack on America, to speak of it only in those terms is to make it smaller than it ever ought to be. Many of the victims that day were Americans. Many were not. Likewise, the nineteen terrorists who murdered them were not of a single national origin. The attack transcended national boundaries. It was a day when a small group of people killed nearly 3,000 of their fellow human beings. To describe it any other way is to engage in politics, and it’s bad enough when politicians do it.
Instead of the politics, I try and remember the people. Entire companies of the New York Fire Department were wiped out when the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. An unknown number of people trapped on the floors above the points of impact leapt out of windows rather than wait for death at the hands of smoke and fire. Burning jet fuel traveled down elevator shafts and burned people in the lobbies of the towers. At the Pentagon, American Flight 77 smashed into the side of the building and exploded, incinerating some while they sat at their desks, miraculously sparing others only a few feet away. When the passengers aboard United Flight 93 learned of the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon and realized that their hijacked plane was likely headed for Washington, D.C., they rushed the cockpit and forced the hijackers to crash into a Pennsylvania field, sacrificing themselves and saving God only knows how many others.
To honor the victims and heroes of September 11, 2001 requires no political statements, no oaths of revenge, no patriotism. All you have to do is take a moment and remember — not the slogans, not the prayers, not the flag-waving, not the misguided and disingenuous country songs, not the shameful, cynical manipulation by the president and other politicians, and not the war — the ordinary people from many nations and all walks of life who died senselessly, who no amount of sloganeering, praying, flag-waving, singing or war-mongering can ever bring back. Give them a moment. Worry about the rest of it later.