The events of September 11th, 2001 weren’t life-altering to me. I simply was too young- I had just turned eleven when it happened, and the odd circumstances of where I was (away from news, television for several days) means I don’t have the sense of solidarity that many other people had during that eventful Tuesday. The main feeling I felt was embarrassment- I had been so jubilant from the trip and finally being home; once home, I realized my enthusiasm was sharply at odds with the state of the country.
It is odd to believe that there are millions of Americans who have no memory of the attacks. Incoming college freshmen have only vague memories, in a few years they will have no memory at all. It seems strange that in a few years people will enter the military, perhaps serving in Afghanistan, and have nothing more than family and textbooks to tell them how we came to be there.
What September 11th did, quite starkly, is mark the end of my childhood, and was the initiation to the rest of my life. As the War on Terror began, I found that my sentiments were that of adults. I no longer had history wash over me, instead I interacted with it. I shared the same confusion in the run-up to the Iraq War. Some aspects of it I listened to, such as the dire world painted by the State of the Union in January, the inspectors finding nothing, and over the radio hearing Sec. Powell’s address to the United Nations. Rather than learning about these events at a later date, and forming a worldview from scratch, my opinions about the War on Terror are traced back to the very beginning, and are an evolution rather than a history lecture.
As each year passes, and the events fade little by little, it becomes a question of what September 11th will influence, and what it means. It cannot eternally be tears and three thousand candles. Neither can we move on entirely- partly because of its terrible scale, but because it has a deep impact on present day America. What has arisen is a national day of service, which I was involved in last year. I helped paint a fence for an American Legion post, with people my age and people fifty years my senior. It feels natural that a day of destruction move to become a day of rebuilding. Of making a better future while respecting the past. Of using our feelings about September 11th to make good in a world that needs it.
I will leave you with a story I learned of a few weeks ago. One that is not often repeated.
The World Trade Center complex had several buildings- not just the Twin Towers, but several smaller office buildings. Also there was a 22-story Marriot hotel, known as WTC 3. It lay between the two towers, and was completely destroyed when the towers fell on top of it.
One employee of the Marriot was an engineer, a Yemeni Muslim named Abdu Mahali. When the first tower was hit, the hotel intercom told guests not to evacuate. As the situation deteriorated and the second plane impacted, the intercom was destroyed, and no evacuation orders could be made.
Abdu, despite being told to evacuate, put it upon himself to go to each room and ensure people had evacuated. Donn Monroe, a survivor, said Abdu was personally responsible for getting him out- and once he had done that he ran back to ensure other guests had gotten out.
When the towers collapsed, Abdu was killed. He was one of the 32 Muslims who died in the attacks.
A part of heroism is that it is not what great acts you do for your friends, but what great acts you do for strangers. A key component of the Medal of Honor is that it requires a “complete disregard for personal safety.” To sacrifice your life to let others live is a quality not many people have. And it is something that is determined in a great crisis.
Abdu was not a firefighter, he did not harden himself with personal danger and learn to rise above it. Instead, he found it in a moment. He had the clear choice between living and dying.
I do not know what choice I would make. I have an answer that I hope is right. But I don’t know. All we can do is prepare for the day when it is presented.