It seems odd to say, hear or even think “tenth anniversary of 9/11.” That’s partially attributable to the human mind’s struggle with the passage of time and the blur of memories that fold, year after year, like pages in a book.
Yet, here it is … a stark, concrete and immutable marker compelling all hearts old enough to recall the abysmal horrors of that day. Ten years. Consider, for comparison, December 7, 1951 (ten years after Pearl Harbor) and how much, in that span of days, had changed. A world pushed desperately at the gates of freedom and hope as dark armies of oppression and brutality battered against them. Millions died. Nations were lost, divided, re-drawn and born.
For the Greatest Generation, thoughts of where they were and what they were doing when the news of Pearl Harbor came are forever-seared into memory. For those that watched the events of 9/11 unfold, a similar etching on the soul remains. A plane hit the World Trade Center? Surely it was an accident. A small commuter plane. Televisions flipped on across homes and offices. Black smoke pouring out of two sides of the North Tower. The roar of fire engines, police cars and ambulances. But surely, this was an accident. A horrible, dreadful accident.
A few minutes later, a flash from the other corner of our televisions. An image, freeze-framed in the moment, even as it continued its terrible path. No. Not a commuter plane. Not a helicopter. Not even a missile or rocket. The flash, its silhouette arcing low and purposefully, sliced into the side of the South Tower. We all knew, in that shared moment of disbelieving horror … no, not an accident. Not twice, in the same day, at the same place. As a titanic fireball erupted from within the South Tower, every eye watching knew. Every mind raced clumsily for some sort of logic, of reason, of rational explanation. And at the same moment, every heart broke. For that which eyes and minds fought against, our collective heart simply … broke.
The world slowed, stopped. More reports. Explosions in Washington, D.C. The Pentagon engulfed in flames. A roar, crash and inferno in a Pennsylvania field. Split screens showed us each location. We also saw, in tear-streaked uncomprehending terror, the fleeting forms of falling people that, as flames and smoke conquered dimming hopes of rescue, chose to leap into fate rather than let fate burn into them.
All planes grounded. Skyscrapers across the nation evacuated. The South Tower, like a titan spent of all energy and strength to resist, fell in upon itself. The North Tower, left alone, a singular form where design, time and conscience always intended two, followed its twin into oblivion. Dust and soot-choked survivors stumbling specter-like from the scene we all wished could just be a dream, a movie, an evaporating mirage.
We thought of the firefighters. Of the police officers. Of the ambulance drivers and EMTs. They were all in those towers. And we thought of the workers inside. The men and women that, so much like ourselves, woke up that day, showered, dressed, kissed the kids, made it to the office. Coffee poured. Meetings begun. They smiled. They frowned. They laughed, shared hallway pleasantries. All the things all the people in all the offices in the nation do. All the things … we do.
The human mind, despite its miraculous capacity for strength, innovation and resilience, has its limits. Many of us found ours in those shadow-draped hours. When the mind gives way, the heart catches its overflow. And this overflow … people, families, smoke, fire, bravery, sacrifice, agony … broke our heart.
As the haze cleared, we woke up to a new world. A world forever changed. A world with new fears, new cautions, new rules. We also woke to a world charged with renewed passions. We hugged longer. Said hello more often. Checked in on our neighbors and found solace and comfort in places of worship that had to pull extra chairs to seat our numbers. We also felt and touched and sensed that time is not forever. That every book has its final page. That life, so numbered, is not ours to dictate, expect and control. Every breath became precious, every child’s kiss a new-found gem, every chance to extend a hand, a heart, a word of hope not obstacles in our path to the next day, the next meeting, the next quota or deadline or goal. The goal, stripped bare by the sheer despair of that day, became to live and love as we had too-long forgotten how.
Ten years ago. A decade. These numbers we can define and find some solace in their finiteness. Moments, memories, chances, opportunities … these are the ephemeral periods we cannot hope to quantify. We can only account for them, on that last page. Well-spent or neglected.
The next few days will be filled with remembrances, ceremonies, speeches and tears. One generation will still struggle with its scars from that day while trying to somehow explain it all to another, too young or not yet living to have experienced it.
We remember the anguish of September 11, 2001. The hurt and pain and heartache. We also remember the bravery, the courage, the noble sacrifice and selfless acts of love. We cannot make September 11, 2001 a better day. What we can and must do is make September 11, 2011 and every day of every following year better.
New buildings now rise from the jagged scars of Ground Zero. Spires of achievement, of architecture, of determination and unrepentant hope will soon fill the skyline of lower Manhattan. Buildings can be replaced, rebuilt, resurrected. Lives cannot. To the thousands of innocent souls whose lives were cruelly taken that day, we will never forget. To the families, friends, neighbors and loved ones ripped apart by loss, we will never forget. To those enemies of freedom, liberty and the spark of defiant individuality that fired the Spirit of 1776 and beyond … we will never forget.
In his Symphony No. 9, Ludwig van Beethoven forever altered the landscape of art, culture and humanity with the thunderous “Ode to Joy.” Beethoven, fully deaf at this late time in his life, never heard the music performed. The elation it evoked that night, the affirmation of humanity, of brotherhood, of family amongst all people, existed only in the composer’s mind until he shared it with the world.
It may seem, at its surface, odd to speak of joy on this anniversary. But it is this joy, this hope, this universal and shared fellowship of mankind that best guides our future. Life triumphs. Love triumphs. Freedom triumphs. Joy triumphs.
O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
Sondern lasst uns angenehmere
an stimmen, und freudenvollere.
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.