Since 1968, those living, working and visiting the United States have been able to dial one number—911—to seek assistance in an emergency. What must those lines have been like in the New York City emergency call center beginning at 8:45 EST on September 11, 2001? And in call centers around the country within the next few hours?
The term nine-one-one still refers to an emergency hot line. But if those same three digits are expressed as nine-eleven, a meaning quite different is conveyed to most Americans.
I just made my third trip to the 9-11 Memorial, this time with my wife. Unlike prior visits, we also visited the museum. To say that it was a moving, gut-wrenching experience would be an understatement. It was that, and much more.
For those who have never visited the Memorial, I suggest that you do so early in the day, when it is quiet and less crowded. The still of the morning, undisturbed by throngs of visitors, allows reflection on just what it is you are witnessing. And that is something beyond the imagination.
As my wife and I stood by the South fountain, I watched as tears welled up in the corners of her eyes. And I understood. Unlike so many others, we did not lose either friends or family on that terrible day. Yet a piece of who we were was lost, just as it was for all Americans. Indeed, all mankind suffered a loss on that day. Individuals from 90 different countries, from all races and religions, lost their lives that day.
It was the memory of that loss that brought tears to her eyes.
Listening to the waterfall, reading names inscribed on the plaques surrounding the pool, I recalled my first visit, made with a dear friend, who happens to be a fireman. I remembered his reaction when we got to the point where the names of first responders were etched. Company after company with one, or two names emblazoned, and for some, the entire roll call listed. He made it about three or four plaques before he simply could read no more. I understood his feelings as well.
The memorial is truly a spiritual place. It calls to mind so many memories, horrible images. Yet it is also a study in contrast.
The magnificent reflection pools combine power with tranquility. The water flowing underneath the plaques is nearly flat, glassy. As it cascades over 30 foot granite walls, it gains power. While my wife and I walked around the grounds, we could hear the water falling to the pools below. That soothing sound helped mitigate the painful memories of that day. The contrast reminded me of an old saying, one that sums up that horrific day, and the different feelings evoked by the fountains.
After about an hour, we made our way into the museum. It was unlike anything I expected. So many stories, so many feelings, such tragedy and such bravery. Actual voices. Photographs and video. Thousands of artifacts. In hundreds of exhibits the faces and voices compelled you to read more, to feel more. They drew you in without let-up.
And once again, the dichotomy of the memorial, of that terrible, tragic day struck me.
The events of September 11, 2001 occurred out of one thing—unreasoning hate born of religious division. Division! Man against man! Yet as we made our way through the museum, I saw men and women, young and old, strong and infirm, black and white, those who outwardly appeared to be Muslim and Jew, and those for whom a religion could not be discerned, if they had any. And, in every face I saw the same awe and respect, and sadness, that I felt.
And in dozens of exhibits, picture after picture gave witness to first responders, men and women, black and white, helping others, helping without regard to who or what they were. Yes, I saw evidence of the senseless divisiveness that exists in the minds of some. What I did not see was any evidence of division between the victims of these cowardly attacks nor between any of those coming to their aid.
The meaning behind the date chosen has been examined and discussed, debated and written about. Many claim it is the anniversary of the September 11, 1683 defeat of the Muslim army at Vienna. I don’t know, but the truth is, the reason for these senseless attacks does not matter. There can be no justification for these unspeakable atrocities.
What does matter is the unimaginable loss. Thousands of lives, tens of billions of dollars in property, untold opportunity lost. During an early afternoon news conference on that day, Mayor Giuliani was asked about the number of people killed. His response, “I don't think we want to speculate about that—more than any of us can bear.”
Husbands lost wives who lost sons and daughters. Wives lost husbands who, in turn, lost fathers and brothers. Families lost friends and loved ones. Firemen and policemen lost those with whom they faced danger every day. But as we moved through the exhibits an unsettling sense of opposites again occurred to me.
First one, then another exhibit clearly depicted the terrible loss. Names marked by a leaf. Pictures and faces. Although the loss was unbearable, something else was being honored. Many of the exhibits affirmed what was not lost that day.
The museum captures the worst inhumanity that man is capable of demonstrated on that dark, sunlit day. Every twisted piece of steel, every torn artifact, reminds visitors of that reality. However, among all of that inhumanity, what is also on display is example after example of the truth that we did not lose our wondrous and wonderful humanity, verified by pictures and recordings of people rushing to help those known and unknown.
On a day of unimaginable and unfathomable tragedy, we did not lose our courage. Despite the unspeakable, incomprehensible cowardice of 19 individuals, exhibit after exhibit demonstrated remarkable bravery on the part of hundreds of victims and responders. Firemen, weighed down with rescue equipment, trudged up stairs knowing their lives were at risk and they likely would not be able to save those trapped above. Knowing they might not make it back down, they continued their way up the stairways and into halls filled with smoke and fire.
Exhibits offered evidence of the remarkable courage of everyday citizens, who, because of nothing they had done, had become unwilling participants. Passengers on United Flight 93, armed with only a fierce commitment to do what they could, refused to allow these cowards, these men who would inflict terror, to control their destiny.
There was something else not lost that day. These cowards—a better description in my view than the word terrorists—these cowards came to instill terror, to take away our sense of security and our freedom. They were neither victorious nor successful despite the murder of thousands of innocent people. We lost loved ones but we lost neither our freedom nor our hope. Those truths are evident in the exhibits as well.
This country has many faults. But on that day so firmly etched in the minds and hearts of all Americans, we did not lose our resolve. America offers a greater chance at freedom than any that has existed before. And despite those unconscionable acts—perpetrated by those who pervert religion—despite the brutal murder of almost three thousand innocent men, women, and children, we survived. We survived with our strengths and our faults—our humanity—intact.
We held to our values and beliefs. We held to each other. More than anything else, that is the truth that the Memorial offers to visitors. The exhibits tell the true story of that day. They tell stories of strength, of faith, of courage in the face of death, and of the selflessness of so many people.
I could not write this post without speaking specifically of the first responders. About half-way through our museum tour, I told my wife I was surprised at the lack of exhibits specifically honoring those men and women. I just needed more patience. We had not yet gotten to the many such exhibits.
You cannot stand in front of the exhibits dedicated to the fire fighters, the police and rescue squads, without feeling a sense of gratitude, of respect and honor for these men and women. And so I say to all those who wear a uniform, in police departments and fire departments around the country, in any branch of our armed forces, thank-you.
If you find yourself in New York City, you should visit this memorial. It does not celebrate the infamy of that day. It celebrates a victory of humanity over villainy. It will restore your faith.
If you go, and if you have the chance, shake the hand of any uniformed fireman or policeman you pass by and say thank you.