There are moments in life so vivid that they never leave you; their sense is trapped inside your consciousness in a way that stands out from ordinary memories. Your heart still skips thinking about how you met your wife, it stills swells to the breaking point remembering the birth of your children, and it can still drop out of your body recalling the loss of a loved one. September 11, 2001 is one of those days.
Like the Kennedy assassination, 9-11 is an event that everyone who lived through it remembers vividly. In my case I was sitting at my desk in Harrisburg when a silent email popped up from a friend with a one sentence message: "a plane just flew into the world trade center." Nine words announcing that my country’s relative peace was over.
It’s hard to believe that 9/11 was ten years ago – the wound still feels so fresh, even more so as the approaching anniversary brings with it a near endless stream of images that horrify me still.
And yet, to many, the images have taken on a sepia tone. That is not to say that we are forgetting, but rather that the horrible images have now become so ingrained in the American experience that they are akin to seeing Pearl Harbor footage – horrible, but so magnified by historical significance that that the personal loss is muted.
Even the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden a few months ago seemed out of place, as if we had captured Hitler in 1955 in Argentina. It was satisfying, yet at the same time it was almost immediately consumed by more recent events in both the middle east and at home.
9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq – these are all symbols of a turbulent and trying decade that has left us all weary. I understand the weariness; it has been a perpetual sadness knowing that there are nearly 3000 9/11 families and over 6000 military families who have lost a service member in the resulting wars – to say nothing of the communities who lost their neighbors and friends. It is a strain on those families and the families of tens of thousands more who have been forced to adapt to long deployments. It is a deeply felt component of our national restlessness.
But, as a wise man once said, these men and women give everything they have, including in too many cases the last full measure of devotion, so that this nation can be free and not perish from the earth. They do this because they believe that America is a special place – a place WORTH laying down one’s life to protect.
We should never forget that.
And in our weariness and in our desire to move past the pain and the sacrifice these events and their aftermath caused, we must be cautious not to lose the important lesson of 9/11: there are heroes among us everywhere.
Whether it was the first responders charging into a building they knew could kill them at any second, the passengers who overpowered the hijackers on flight 93, or the soldiers who ultimately risked their lives to kill Bin laden, 9/11 showed us that we are surrounded by heroes.
This is not a lesson to consign to history; it’s a lesson we need to remember as we face the inevitable challenges of the future.
America is a special place, and 9/11 proved that. It’s the kind of place that raises heroes out of ordinary people.
We saw that in the actions of a man like Welles Crowther, who helped get dozens of people out of the first tower hit. He could have saved himself many times over – but in spite of this was killed because kept back to help others. He was one of many who did so.
We saw it in the sacrifice of Father Judge, a chaplain for the fire company who ran to ground zero to be there for the injured and dying. He was killed when debris hit him when the South Tower collapsed. He was while administering last rites to victims at the time.
We saw heroism on display in epic proportions. We watched in horror as the towers fell, only later learning that they claimed 421 first responders while injuring 2000 more. These men and women did the unthinkable in a time of uncertainty and panic – they ran toward the fight not knowing what would come next but only that they were needed.
We are surrounded by heroes, and they show themselves in these extraordinary moments. 9/11 is a day of sadness for our losses, but as the memories lengthen this lesson should be celebrated – in our darkest hour, we are our strongest. When we need them, heroes emerge.
It has been our great fortune and the blessing of a divine providence that this country has always seemed to have on hand the right hero for the task; whether it be in the form of a Harriet Tubman inspiring a people to breath free or in a small child helping a nation heal by saluting the casket of his slain father, heroes emerge.
9/11 should be remembered and honored for reminding us of that fundamental American truth; it stands out as a shining example of what we can be at our very best – a nation united in purpose and served by heroes.
I’m Scott Paterno, and may God Bless you and the United States this and every day.