The value of remembering 9/11

I vividly remember 9/11.

I was sitting on my loveseat in the living room for quick mental break with the Today Show before I sat down to finish up my plans for my son’s birthday on the following day. Katie Couric and Matt Lauer were commenting about an apparent accident at the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. (Watch the original broadcast I saw here.)

While I sat and watched the live footage of smoke and flames billowing from the tower, a second plane flew right into the South Tower and exploded into flames. A half an hour later, a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. And an hour and fifteen minutes after the first attack, a group of heroic passengers took out four hijackers, including their pilots; Flight 93 dived into a Pennsylvania field instead of arriving at its intended D.C. target. (Click here to read through the events of September 11, 2001 chronologically.)

I remember a morning of misery and terror, followed by weeks of fear, anger, and patriotism. The footage never stopped. The stories kept coming. Businessmen leaping from the Trade Center buildings, a hundred floors up, trapped above an incinerating jet. Heroic firemen, racing up sixty floors, carrying a hundred-plus pounds of equipment, while thousands of people flooded past them down stairways, desperate to reach the street. And those thousands of New Yorkers, fleeing from the falling debris and engulfing smoke, covered in ash and blood, fleeing Uptown and across the Brooklyn Bridge. Hiding in buildings they hoped wouldn’t crumble. The skies above Lower Manhattan filled with falling debris, beige ash, gray smoke, and a million sheets of floating paper. It was like a movie, only it was real. (Click here to see video and photography.)

9/11 is the defining moment for America, the fulcrum of change for the 21st century. It deserves honor and remembrance, as horrible as it was, because almost 3,000 civilians died that day from senseless violence by an extremist terror organization determined to crush the American economy and system of government.

9/11 is the single greatest attack on American soil by an outside enemy, toppling Pearl Harbor’s 2,335 dead. (Click here to read about the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.) The attacks of 9/11 reminded us all that we are not infallible as a country, but that we are fearless and proud and determined as a people. 9/11 unified us behind one purpose (oh, that we could function this way all the time!) Yes, we may have made some additional errors as a country after 9/11, but I think the attacks and recovery defined and strengthened us as a people.

But the shock and grief of 9/11 was overwhelming.

The New York subways stops were covered with notices—faces of loved ones missing and phone numbers to call. “Have you seen this person?” “When did you see them last?” People trying to connect, to find out how someone died, to talk to the last person who talked to the person they loved and lost. It hurt my heart to read those papers; it still hurts now, just remembering it.

I had never before seen an American flag on every house or an American flag sticker on every car. But I did in 2011. It turns out, symbols matter after all.

Symbols in history, culture, religion, and literature alike are unifying and defining reminders of a consistent theme or rallying point. A symbol tells us who we are and who we belong to. Like a Jesus fish, college logo, or a sports team decal, the Stars and Stripes says “I am American.” I belong here, and I belong with everyone who is also American.

That doesn’t mean I can’t be other things or that I think everything America does is right or that my patriotism should be the lens through which I see race, religion, and politics. How simplistic would that be?

I am many things; being American doesn’t determine what I believe about everything. In my opinion, the flag serves to define me with a culture—flawed and beautiful—to which I belong. To which I am indebted for so much. America is more than a place to live and succeed. It is an identity, much like a family is. Good or bad, I can’t change who I’m related to. This is why September 11 is called “Patriot Day.”

Love for country is patriotism. It’s not blind faith in an institution or a particular leader. It’s not religious fervor for something other than God. Patriotism is ascribing to a system of government and the people who should be protected by it, not because it’s perfect, but because it’s yours.

Patriotism is family love on a national level. It’s the stories of people carrying the elderly down fifty flights of stairs to get out of a building before it collapses. It’s firemen digging for days without sleep, trying to find living souls buried under a ton of rubble. It’s also remembering events we’d rather forget.

But when you choose to remember and grieve, you actually give life back to the people who are suffering. When you grieve, you kill fear and you rebuild perspective. (Click here to read about today’s remembrance at the World Trade Center Plaza.)

In August, I toured the World Trade Center Memorial and Museum. I have been to the Plaza multiple times and read the names of the victims; I’ve stared into the massive fountains in the shape of the two towers’ foundations. But this time, I bought a ticket and entered the museum. I walked underground to the place where fireman and excavators worked tirelessly to find bodies and clear debris. Some of the original structures still stand there. On those halls, I studied the faces of the lives lost and the faces who took them.

You must go there. Don’t say, “That’s too sad; I can’t handle it.” Understand the power of grief to start positive change. You can handle it. You should handle it. That’s how healing works.

This is not merely a museum that takes artifacts from a terrible event and displays them for the price of a ticket. It is a museum that’s built around what survived an attack where nothing and no one should have survived. The exhibits mark the actual spots where history happened, where people were saved and where people died. It celebrates life and heroism and grief. (Click here to read about grief and patriotism.)

The World Trade Center Museum is a place of honor, respect, healing, and hope. This is what we should remember on 9/11, because hope and healing validate those who still grieve. (Click here to read about my own process of grief over losing my dad.)

Grief is not an enemy. It’s actually a friend, arriving painfully and unannounced to help us cope with something from the outside that attacked our sense of safety and belonging.

Free stock Photo credit to Iago Godoy.