On this day every year, people obligatorily pose the question to friends on social media or in person of where they were on this day in 2001. If not a question, people will volunteer their own memories of where they were, what they were doing on that day.
Like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of John F. Kennedy, there’s something of a mystique surrounding the remembrance of one’s everyday activities abruptly interrupted by a life-altering event like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. We’re all a little fascinated by others’ accounts of their morning when they heard that something terrible had happened in New York City; Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania. It’s eerie to think about someone in Tulsa, Okla., pouring milk over her Cocoa Puffs while the death toll in the Eastern time zone rose.
Me, I woke up with a countdown in my head. Eleven days until my eleventh birthday. My mom left my bedroom after rousing me, and I heard my dad’s radio on in the bathroom across the hall as he got ready for work. The morning DJs were talking in between the usual country music playlist, or so I assumed. Before I could leave my bedroom, my dad said, “Hey, this sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. Can you hear what they’re saying, Monica? A plane just crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.”
Why was he telling me this? “I don’t know what that is. Where is it?”
“It’s two large skyscrapers in New York City,” he said as I entered the bathroom. His electric razor was in his hand, but it was silent as he held off on shaving to listen to the information coming through the speakers. Meanwhile, my mom had reentered my room and turned on my TV. I joined her, and that’s when I saw that image that none of us can forget.
But really, it’s inconsequential what I was doing that morning in Paducah, Ky., while victims jumped to their deaths as the only means of escape from the burning wreckage that would otherwise be their grave. It doesn’t matter that a man in Toledo, Ohio, was just coming in from his morning jog, or that a plumber in Little Rock, Ark., had gotten an early start on fixing a sink. Nor does it matter that a fifth grade girl was listening to the president of the United States read a book to her class when a man leaned down and whispered in his ear.
There’s no harm in honoring that day by reflecting on our thoughts and feelings in those hours when we wondered what to do, where to go, what was happening and when we would know more information. But I’ve never understood why we continue to place more emphasis on what we were doing 15 years ago than who we have become 15 years later.
After evil people brazenly invaded our soil and killed thousands of our own, our country came together. Even as a 10-year-old, I was consciously kinder to people, prayed more and tried to make sure my family knew I loved them. We, as Americans, for perhaps the first time since World War II, became a country of emotional strength, of kinship, of encouragement, of grit. Whether folks were religious or not, everyone seemed to truly believe that we were one nation under God, and we would prevail. We were unified. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
No, this was not every American’s viewpoint after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it was certainly a pervading feeling. We felt it among our families. We felt it among our neighbors. We felt it through our television screens.
Now, in 2016, out of many, we are many. We spew vile thoughts about the other side’s politician. We cry out for everything to be fair, without ever really defining what we mean by that. We riot. We praise those who exercise their right to spit upon the red, white and blue, but verbally stone those who speak out in disagreement of the act. We look for arguments to join on our Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. We seek out every opportunity to publicly tell the liberals, conservatives or independents how foolish and backward they are. With both eyes fixed upon the sensibilities of groups whose size is vague, we don’t even have a blind eye left to turn upon tragedy, sickness and loneliness a block away. We mock people with different opinions and make sure everyone can see it. We insist that we’re bickering and fighting to achieve unity and love.
We fan our feathers and strut with pride in our division.
We promised to never forget Sept. 11, 2001. But it seems we only kept our promise for a few years. We’ve forgotten the lessons we learned. That day taught us that life isn’t fair. There are no safe spaces. There is no protection from offense, threat, or danger, much less hurt feelings, harsh words or opposing opinions. We met the reality that death comes for us all, and we only have a little while on this earth to make our mark. Every person we pass on the street is a brother, a sister, not just to someone else, but to us. There is no guarantee of tomorrow, and we learned 15 years ago to live and love like yesterday was the last time we would use the word “tomorrow.”
Admittedly, I, too, have shaken my head at friends, acquaintances, politicians, activists and celebrities I disagree with. I have vented to my family and fiance my frustration with the direction of morality and common decency in America. I am not innocent of the negative items in the list above. I count myself just as guilty as many other Americans who honestly believe that their opinion is the right one, the one to save our nation.
But today, even if it’s just for 24 hours, I will make myself be that almost-11-year-old fifth grader again. I will remember that childlike understanding that my life in the United States – and the world – would never be quite the same.
Not because it matters where I was that morning, but because it matters who I am today.