The events of Sept. 11, 2001 are so fresh in my mind. It’s hard to believe that today’s high school seniors were not even born when terrorists took so many lives and changed our world forever.
A few years ago, I was asked to speak to a group of high school students about 9/11. I thought it might be helpful to show video of the news coverage from that morning, as it was broadcast live on NBC’s Today Show. When the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, we all hoped and prayed it was just a random accident.
Seventeen minutes later, our worst fears came true. Another hijacked plane crashed into the south tower. This was no accident. America was under attack, in its busiest, most populated city. The news cameras captured it all: the smoke, the debris, the brave rescuers, the horrified onlookers and survivors. The images were gruesome, then and now.
Looking at the student audience, I was stunned by their reactions. To my surprise, many of them were seeing this for the first time. Many were visibly shaken and began to sob. I’m sure they had heard the term “9/11,” but perhaps they felt it was ancient history. I guess it’s not all that different from how many of us learned about the Civil War, or the Great Depression. Sad events, to be sure, but with the passage of time, they became black-and-white pictures in a history book.
As the video revealed the images of the later attacks and tragedies of 9/11, from the Pentagon to Pennsylvania, all of which happened within a ninety-minute time frame, we had all seen enough. It was time to discuss what we’ve learned, and how our lives had changed since that terribly dark day.
1. We are a good nation. Our people came together. We showed we can overcome our differences during times of great need. Churches, businesses, neighbors and strangers helped pick up the pieces of so many broken lives. As for our first responders, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice that day, we can never thank them enough.
2. We are a strong nation. We sent a message in the aftermath of 9/11: We told the world we would defend the freedom for which our parents, grandparents, and previous generations had fought.
3. Kids care. It was heartwarming, and life-affirming to see so many young people wave the flag, send cards and letters to police officers and firefighters, and collect money for those who had lost everything. For elementary and middle school students in particular, they were reacting to the unsettling events in a nation where they had once felt so safe. Those kids are are adults today. They haven’t forgotten.
4. History is important. Now, more than ever, with the tools that are available, young people must learn about the world, and how we got to this point. I often regret that I paid less attention to world history than other subjects in school. You may not approve of other countries’ religions and cultures, but it helps to understand why they believe as they do.
5. We should be thankful for every day. Almost three thousand Americans lost their lives on 9/11. Most of them were just regular folks, at work or on a plane. Their day started out like any other. In the blink of an eye they were gone, leaving behind grieving spouses, children, and parents. We all started hugging our children more often, telling them we love them.
My most vivid memory was on the evening of 9/11, comforting my sons, who were then 14 and 11. They were “big boys,” so to speak, unafraid to swing at a fast ball or swim in the deep water. But that night, they were very small in a large, terrifying world. “Is our school safe?” “Will the terrorists return tomorrow, or even while we’re sleeping?” “What will be their next target?”
I gave my most fatherly, reassuring answers. “We’ll be all right. The worst is over. Soon, everything will be back to normal.” Of course, I was faking it. I had no idea. I was just as worried as they were.
It’s never really been back to normal, as anyone who has passed through security at an airport or a ball game can testify. We’ve been forced to live our lives more cautiously, with uncertainty lurking everywhere we go.
If your children or grandchildren view the events of 9/11 as ancient history, make sure they understand the loss, the sacrifice, and the lessons of that day. We’re still standing twenty years later, but we should never forget.
And sadly, as we face a different deadly crisis today, we are anything but united. I will never understand that.