The Photo News asked an array of people for their thoughts on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the World Trade Towers and America.
The first question was: Where were you? The second was: Where are we now?
There were common threads in the responses:
How blue the cloudless sky was.
How the day began with mundane activities like dropping a truck off for repairs or making lunch and then getting the kids off to school.
And how out of this tragedy came unity. At least for a while.
A number of writers compared what happened 20 years ago to events happening today. Another essayist called Sept. 11 a date of demarcation: The world before that day and the world since then.
The conclusions, of course, are personal.
Sept. 11, 2001, began like every other day. I dropped my daughter off at Monroe-Woodbury Middle School then off to my office, Plaza Optical in Monroe, to do some paperwork before the day started in earnest. It was quiet and peaceful.
My peace was shattered when my husband Paul arrived at work and told me what happened: He’d seen the second plane hit Tower 2 on the news at home. I felt like the only person on the planet that didn’t know.
The news went on immediately. We were all glued to the coverage. We watched the Towers fall, along with our tears, taking with them the sense of safety we enjoyed as Americans.
Early in my professional career I worked Downtown. I remember the joy I took seeing the progress from week to week as the towers went up, reaching toward the sky. They were nothing short of an engineering marvel.
Then just like that, on a clear September morning, they crumbled in front of my eyes.
Everyone who came and went from our office that day, like us, moved around in a trance. At the time we had been in business in Monroe 26 years. We knew so many of people that worked in the Towers as well as the brave first responders, personally and from the community. The images of the day are forever engraved in my mind.
I remember grieving for the innocent lives lost and for the loss of our country’s innocence. I remember the bravery and selflessness of the people on Flight 93, the firefighters, the police and others that day who ran toward the fire.
I remember how that horrible day brought Americans together, united in our grief and resolve to stand with one another.
‘That morning’s stainless blue skies’
Most of us remember where we were on September 11th, 2001. We remember that morning’s stainless blue skies and gentle, late summer winds. And we remember - alas, we are unlikely ever to forget - the ugliness and horror that followed.
I wonder, though, how many of us recall what Osama bin Laden said a few years later about the goals of al Qaeda, the extremist group that carried out the attacks. The plan, he stated, was to bankrupt the United States by drawing the country into costly, unwinnable wars that would drag on for years.
Although Qaeda’s plan seems to have worked in part (as the lengthy wars of our recent past attest), our economy remains robust. But there are other ways in which we have been damaged, and it is important that we address them. It doesn’t take a political scientist to know that we live in a house divided. Our beliefs, ostensibly, have never been more polarized. Our understanding of others’ political positions appears to be at an all-time low. And our willingness to reach across the divide is, by all evidence, nearly nil.
A nation of such diversity as ours is sure to have its disagreements. But the current levels of fear, distrust and violence among our people are potentially devastating. As horrifying as the events of 9/11 were, I fear that an even greater disaster awaits if we cannot find a way to weave back together the torn fabric of our society. Working toward peace despite our differences is the least we can do to honor the memory of those who lost their lives in the incomprehensible tragedy of that day.
‘Each of us knew the exact same America’
That’s the way I’d categorize the rumors flying up and down the halls of Monroe-Woodbury High School as I, a freshman, made my way between classes on a day unlike any other.
I heard it was a planned explosion.
How many people were on that plane?
Maybe it’s the Russians.
I know someone’s sister’s brother on the 101st floor.
Was it even real?
It was. It is.
In history class that morning, my instructor cautiously explained what happened, or what was known at the time: the hijackings. The destruction. The loss of life on an unfathomable scale. The sudden realization that America as we knew it was upside-down, a wobbling, distant relative of the nation I grew up in.
Days later, the pit in our collective stomachs became a unified drumbeat. As if, all at once, each of us knew the exact same America, inhaled the exact same air, felt the exact same despair ... we came together as one. Partisan politics fell away to strengthen resolve in our singular mission: democracy, shaken but indomitable.
‘We are less a united people but more of a collection of tribes’
I’m not sure I am able to respond directly to your request since the recent events of the last five years leave me more lost and confused than I was on the very day the Twin Towers were struck.
For a short time, We, as a nation stood together.
And for a short time, We, even took action with a resolve and determination to recover each body held captive under the rubble, rebuild what was destroyed and deliver justice to those who orchestrated this horror - all while working together to build a better and hopefully inclusive future.
Other countries marveled at our spirit and stood by our side.
That very same determination and resolve has since evaporated and what has taken its place is perhaps more dreadful and disturbing. While 9/11 resounds as a call to unite and take arms, January 6th now stands as a frightful rise of an insurgency fomenting from within seeking to destroy any hope of unity. Instead of “We The People” we have degraded into “ME against you.” We are less a “united people” but more of a collection of tribes.
I can appreciate the frustration that some might feel and I can certainly empathize with their anger. But as the great Harlem poet Langston Hughes wrote, “I too am America.” As Americans we should encourage and invite equal participation. As Americans we should view diversity as our strength. And as Americans united by every color, race and creed, we should all equally embrace a shared burden of responsibility. Our flag is not only white, but includes other colors as well.
It is purported that on September 17, 1787, as Benjamin Franklin was exiting from the Constitutional Convention in Independence Hall in Philadelphia he was asked what kind of government do we have?
“A Republic,” he replied, “if you can keep it.”
My hope is that we can, but my fear is we may well lose it.
‘We are experiencing here in America what they constantly experience in Israel’
I stood atop Chabad World Headquarters in Brooklyn as I watched the sky burn. It was just two months after I married my wife, Chana, and we were living in Crown Heights. That morning, as I was walking to services, a colleague informed me that if I were to go to the roof of the synagogue I would see “a fire on the top of the Twin Towers.” It was not long until we learned it was not just a fire, but a terror attack. It was on that rooftop where I heard the reflection of a rabbi standing nearby, “We are experiencing here in America what they constantly experience in Israel.” Terror hit home. As we mark 20 years, we reflect on the horrors of that tragic day – as well as the triumphs.
We reflect on the things that were taken from us on 9/11: the lives lost, the families broken, the collective pain of our nation and the need for heightened security. We also continue to pray for those today battling 9/11-related illnesses.
We also reflect on the things the terrorists could not take from us: Our American pride and values. They destroyed towering edifices of steel and concrete, but the foundation upon which our country was built remained intact. They could destroy the tallest buildings, but our moral rectitude stands taller. They cruelly ended thousands of lives, but our commitment to life itself shines brighter.
Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches that every creation has a counterpart “twin.” Just as there are negative energies, there are positive energies. How do we combat terror? Of course, there is the physical and practical avenue: Taking security seriously and saluting the courage of law-enforcement agencies in their fight against terror. But, in addition, there is the “spiritual twin:” Darkness cannot be countered with more darkness; it can only be dispelled with light. The terrorists sought to break our spirit with an evil we never imagined, we need to combat that by uniting with similarly unimaginable love.
As we enter the Jewish New Year, I pray that we all be inscribed in “The Book of Life,” with prosperity, mutual respect, tolerance, happiness – and good health to enjoy it.
Rabbi Pesach Burston
Chabad of Orange County
‘Who can count on us now?’
On 9/11 I was working in a new job at the U.S. Military Academy. I had found myself there starting a second career after 24 years in the Army.
I had been stationed there in the 70’s and 80’s as a soldier, I liked the area.
I must say that the initial news reports I looked at and went back to my office. I was either in disbelief or denial.
How could this happen in America?
A day later in the late night I was outside walking. It was eerily silent until I heard a familiar sound of two jet fighters passing overhead in close formation and quite low, a tear came to my eye. There were no planes except for military aircraft.
It was real and it was sad. I saw America come together in a way I hadn’t seen since JFK was assassinated.
Today we are closing out a 20-year war in Afghanistan. I’m again in disbelief.
The actions of many “leaders” saddens me but also brings about rage.
My fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who went to Afghanistan gave some and some gave all. For what?
That place is now run by terrorists, maybe the same terrorists who planned and executed 9/11.
My heart goes out to the tens of thousands of Afghan civilians who aided my brothers and sisters like the humble villagers that protected and saved Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell.
We owe them our lives and our country has abandoned many of them. I’m so sad for our country. We were once a great land, but I fear those days are now numbered.
Who can count on us now?
Master Sergeant, US Army Retired
The end of innocence’
On September 11, 2001, I was working in a high-rise office building in Rockland County. Since it was a clear day, I could see from my 12-floor window that something strange was happening in lower Manhattan, 30 miles away. There was a column of smoke coming from the Towers. Inexplicably the smoke column suddenly became a vast pyramid and the Towers disappeared.
Later our daughter came home from kindergarten. We sat her down and explained that two planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
Wide-eyed she asked, “On purpose?”
Yes, we said.
She went in her room, closed her door, and cried.
It was the end of her innocence. I felt helpless, unable to fully protect her from our sometimes dangerous global society.
Still later, in church, an elderly gentleman asked, “How could they hate us so much?”
They had their reasons.
In a perverse way, 9/11 actualized terrorism, made it seem possible in a new and modern way. And this year we witnessed an unprecedented terrorist maelstrom in Washington D.C. that threatened the certification of our presidential election results.
How far will we let it go? It is up to us to decide.
‘Blatant stupidity and hubris’
On a sunny, pleasant September 11, 2001, while sitting in my office at the Entergy Nuclear Corporation in White Plains, one of my colleagues stormed in twice in fifteen minutes with the startling announcement that the World Trade Center was hit by aircraft.
The first instance didn’t seem too unusual as I knew the Empire State Building suffered a similar accidental collision in the past.
However, the second hit indicated a totally different probability.
That incident had enormous effects on the country and irrevocably changed the nation and the world.
On the one hand, despite the vast diversity of our people, that one horrible event solidified our nation as perhaps never before since the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
On the other, it precipitated senseless wars not seen since Vietnam, and now, just this July, we are witnessing the legacy and similarity with that Southeast Asian debacle, not people scurrying from a rooftop to a hovering helicopter but people hanging from the landing gear of a taxiing airplane.
Having served in the Vietnam War, this modern redo of blatant stupidity and hubris breaks my heart. All of the solidarity and goodwill following the 9/11 disaster has since evaporated and replaced with hatred and dissention across the country and gross government incompetence in Washington.
William E. Lemanski
‘After 9/11 everything changed’
Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I was on my way in to our headquarters office in Rockland. I was passing the 87/287 interchange on the NYS Thruway when I heard about the first plane hitting the north tower.
At first, the size of the plane was unclear, and it wasn’t until the second plane hit the south tower that I had a sense of what was really happening.
I immediately called our communications center and instructed them to lock down the building and send out a general alert to our senior staff and to get ready for a general recall of all field personnel.
The next hours, days and weeks were some of the most stressful of my career. Within an hour we had 10 ambulances lined up and ready to deploy.
But when the towers fell we instinctively knew this was going to be more of a recovery rather than a rescue.
After 9/11 everything changed. EMS changed its mindset and to a degree its culture. There is a whole generation of paramedics and EMTs that know about 9/11 as a historical event and not something they lived through in their careers.
I hope they never have to experience anything like that. Living through 9/11 as a paramedic was one of the saddest and stressful periods of my professional life.
Timothy P. Egan, Chief
Rockland Paramedic Services
Mayor, Village of Woodbury
‘Before and after’
Twenty years is a blink in time but the world is a different place since September 11, 2001. We measure time “before and after,” and nothing testifies to that more than the difference between pre-9/11 and post-9/11.
For me, it was a day of both great joy and unfathomable sadness.
My first grandchild was born about 6 a.m. that morning and I was thrilled.
Three hours later, along with the rest of the world, I saw tragedy unfold of unbelievable proportions. Everything had changed forever. I don’t think the world we live in will ever be the same.
That is not all bad; while tragedy and horror can happen in a single moment, the dawn of the 21st century and the darkness of 9/11 are reminders that there are brave and kind people who come to the forefront in moments of our lives, whether it be due to terrorism, floods, pandemics, poverty, or all the other events that can leave a black hole in our minds and hearts.