20 Years Ago Today

/ 6 minutes

Twenty years ago today, like countless other folks around the world, I remember where I was when 19 terrorists attacked the U.S., slamming planes into the Twin Towers in NYC, the Pentagon in DC, and a field in western PA.

I remember being in the basement of, ironically, "Towers", a complex of four dormitory buildings on the Evansdale campus of WVU, having to get a photo ID redone for work. I remember seeing a TV showing a news program with an image of smoke coming out of the side of one of the Towers, and asking someone what was going on. "A plane hit the Twin Towers." In that moment, I thought to myself, "Oh, some small single engine plane somehow lost control and hit the building." (The reality and magnitude would not become clear for some time.)

I got back in my car and began the 5 minute drive from there to my office. In the car I had the radio on the local station (something I now realize I haven't done in probably well over a decade now), and they were talking about this plane hitting one of the Towers. I thought it odd how they kept talking about it. I mean, sure, a small plane hits a building, it's news to be sure. But they seemed far more serious about it. I mean, the Empire State Building had been hit by a bomber back in the 40's and it was just fine. So what was the big deal about a small plane hitting the Towers? Again, I had assumed it was a small plane like a Cessna 172. And the radio announcers had not said anything about what kind of plane it was, so I had no reason to believe otherwise.

I got to the office and asked if folks had heard about this plane hitting the Towers. Some had. Many had not. Mind you, this was 2001. While basic websites existed for news, etc., it was nothing like today where many of us consume all of our news online. In those early moments, it was just another day. But this was when I first heard that the plane that hit the first Tower might have been a passenger plane. But it seemed more speculation than certainty.

Then someone came in saying, "Another plane has hit the Towers." In that moment I knew it wasn't an accident. The statistical odds of two planes hitting the Towers was astronomical. "This is an attack." The who and why were not even in the picture, but the what, when, and how were. From that moment on, things became more tense. When the third plane hit the Pentagon, it started becoming extremely tense around the office. The buzz was palpable as folks were trying to figure out what was going on, and what did it all mean.


Granted, for most of us, this was purely visceral from an external perspective. We were living over 400 miles from NYC, 200 miles from Washington, DC, in the relative safety of a rural state. And in the grand scheme of things, we had no problems. The real victims were all those in the planes used, the buildings hit, and everyone directly or indirectly impacted by that attack: the first responders--the firefighters, police, ambulance, etc.; the families of those who died, and so on. But we could relate to the situation in that most of us had, at one point or another, been to NYC and/or DC (most of us many times). And in my case, I grew up in northern NJ, so we'd been to NYC often. I'd gone their for conferences, training, and in fact even applied for a job in a building that was in the shadow of the Twin Towers.

That last one hit me a few days later. Even though the job interview showed I wasn't the right fit for the position, the folks there were absolutely fantastic about it all. And I was worried for them. With all the destruction that went on around the Towers after they came down, I wanted to find out if they were ok. So I dug up the emails from when I'd applied years earlier, and I sent off an email just to say we were all thinking of everyone there, and I asked if they specifically were alright. The owner of the company emailed me back saying that they were thankfully all fine, and that if I was ever in town, we should go out and break bread sometime.

These moments stick with me, even 20 years on. In those early days, the whole world seemed to come together. It wasn't an "American problem". This was a world problem. And the world stepped and showed a solidarity I have rarely seen in my lifetime. Sadly, that moment did not last very long. It started as global goodwill and, amazingly, what I considered genuine restraint on the part of our government. I honestly at the time thought, "Oh great. They're going to bomb someone within 24/48 hours because that is what politicians do to appease the public." But they didn't. They spent weeks making sure they knew who was truly responsible and had it right. And then they acted. They first tried the diplomatic approach, telling the Taliban to turn over Osama Bin Laden. But the Taliban refused. At that point the military was sent in.

Fast forward 20 years, and the world as it is now is barely recognizable. Nor is this country itself. We have always had differences of opinion. We have always had the "left" and the "right", the "blue" and the "red", the "liberal" and the "conservative", the... oh take your pick on whatever labels you like. We are human, humans are flawed, and humans will always have things they disagree on. And the world has seen ebbs and flows of positivity and negativity throughout history. Unfortunately, right now we appear to be in quite the trough of negativity, and at a time when the earth itself, beyond even our physical control, is also going through some serious issues, from floods here and droughts there to hurricanes and heat waves to winter storms in rare places.

From humanity's perspective, there appears to be less of a focus on love and compassion and what we all have in common, instead focusing on hate and anger and what we have in difference. I do not have answers for the complex questions of this world. Heck, I often don't know what to have for lunch. But I do know that we need to bring some balance back into the equation or we as a species are going to suffer tremendously for it.

We do not need to agree with each other, on politics, on religion, on just about anything. But if we come from a place of respecting one another, we can, in fact, still work for a common good that benefits us all. It would just be nice if we could come to that realization without first having to experience a tragedy.

So on this day of remembrance, I choose not to remember the heinous attack perpetrated by cowardly men who would kill innocent people. Instead, I choose to honor all those who lost their lives, and to show support for all of their families and friends. I choose to honor those who gave of themselves during and after that to help their fellow man. I choose to remember the good I saw in humanity after that event. The world as a whole showed what humanity was capable of if everyone simply came together and focused on what we all shared in this world. All those different nations, religions, ethnic groups, political parties, etc. all melted away, instead showing what we all had in common: love.

And this takes me back to a quote I genuinely believe:

“We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
Mother Teresa

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