Eight years ago, as most of the eastern United States was on its way to work or starting its day at school, two hijacked commercial airliners, American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Less than an hour after the first plane hit the North Tower, another hijacked flight, American Airlines Flight 77, was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon, the seat of power of the United States military. Just after 10:00 a.m. yet another flight, United Airlines Flight 93, whose ultimate target was likely the White House or the U.S. Capitol, crashed into a field at the site of a former coal mine near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after the passengers, having learned of the previous three attacks, rebelled against their hijackers.
In total, 2,974 people were killed on September 11, 2001. It was the bloodiest single day on American soil since the Battle of Antietam had occurred on another September day in 1863.
Barack Obama, then a state senator in Illinois, wrote a brief statement that was published in the local newspaper for which he wrote a column, the Hyde Park Herald. Published eight days after the attacks, when most Americans were about equally divided between their grief and their fury, Obama’s commentary asked for justice, but also for reason and understanding. It read,
Even as I hope for some measure of peace and comfort to the bereaved families, I must also hope that we as a nation draw some measure of wisdom from this tragedy. Certain immediate lessons are clear, and we must act upon those lessons decisively. We need to step up security at our airports. We must reexamine the effectiveness of our intelligence networks. And we must be resolute in identifying the perpetrators of these heinous acts and dismantling their organizations of destruction.
We must also engage, however, in the more difficult task of understanding the sources of such madness. The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.
We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes and prospects of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and within our own shores.
(Reprinted in this July 21, 2008 article in The New Yorker.)
Few outside of Illinois knew who Barack Obama was at the time, so it was no surprise to anyone that the future president was not invited to join the nationally televised America: A Tribute to Heroes, a fundraising effort that aired live on September 21. It was a charity concert, featuring performances by Neil Young, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, U2, Wyclef Jean, and Alicia Keys among others, and brief spoken messages from celebrities like Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Clint Eastwood, and Muhammad Ali, who memorably pleaded with viewers not to blame the horrific attacks on the whole of Islam. “You know me as a man of truth,” he said, barely audible, trembling from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. “This was not Islam. Islam is peace.”
The show opened with Bruce Springsteen singing, accompanied only by his harmonica and acoustic guitar, and a group of back-up singers containing a few members of the E Street Band. He sang “My City of Ruins,” a song he had written for a benefit aimed at revitalizing his hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey held the previous Christmas. The song had never been recorded, and most of us had never heard it. Not knowing the song’s history, it seemed as though Springsteen had stepped out of the smoke and dust and written the best song anyone would ever write about September 11 through sheer force of will.
So it didn’t actually happen that way. He had an obscure song already written that happened to suit the occasion. It’s still the best song anyone’s ever written or recorded about 9/11. Below is video of that original live performance. One of my only personal 9/11 rituals to have survived these eight years intact is listening to this song. There’s a studio version he recorded for his album The Rising that came out in 2002, but it doesn’t stand up to this one. Hearing it, let alone seeing it, takes me right back to where I was. Which is good. I don’t ever want to forget. What a time.