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On a beautiful fall morning barely two weeks after my 21st birthday, a commercial airliner was flown into one of my favorite buildings in the world. Seventeen minutes later, a second plane was flown into another of my favorite buildings and the country knew we were under attack.
In the early morning hours of my 40th birthday, the shooting started in what may become America’s second civil war.
I don’t want that day to be, “the day the shooting started.” I’d much rather that be the day we changed direction. I’d rather that be the day we began to turn away from where we are going and started turning back to who we are, who we can be when we are at our best.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
When the entire tristate area stood agape, watching, and as everyone in southern Manhattan followed instructions to “Go North!” they went south. When everybody rushed down all those stairs and out of the towering inferno, they went in, and they went up.
Three-hundred forty-four firefighters, eight EMTs, and 60 police never came back down.
That was the day they became “First Responders” and for a moment we realized what it is they do every day. They did not ask themselves, “Who is inside?” They did not ask, “What color are they?” They did not ask, “How much money do they make?” nor “How do they vote?” They said, “People are in danger, and we have a job to do.” That was the day we understood they had volunteered to be the heroes, no matter who calls, no matter what happens, every day. And we as a nation thanked them for who they are.
Nineteen years is not so long. Have we already forgotten? Did we neglect to tell our children what that day really was?
I remember watching three thousand of my neighbors, my friends, my family; I remember watching them die – vanish into nothing! – before my naked eyes.
I remember hearing that terrible sound, that rumbled up the whole island; a sound that’s haunted my dreams for almost nineteen years. I remember knowing immediately what it was, and never quite believing it could be so.
And I remember the smell, the stench, of destruction and death. An acrid reminder lingering in the air, among the posters of the missing, the ghosts of the dead.
I remember their faces.
Nineteen years is not so long.
Have we already forgotten?
Did we neglect to teach our children what “First Responders” really means? Did we forget to tell them that means the firefighters, and the EMTs, and the police? Did we forget to tell them that it’s the firefighters, and the EMTs, and the police who run toward the danger? It is the firefighters, and the EMTs, and the police who answer the call. It is the firefighters, and the EMTs, and the police who put their lives on the line every day, never knowing what today may bring.
I’m sure they remember.
I’m sure they remember when they put on the uniform each morning. I’m sure they remember when they kiss their children and their families goodbye. I’m sure they remember every time they leave home, and that little voice is there – no matter how much they keep it down – a little voice that asks, “Is today the day I don’t come back?”
But every day, they still go. Even today.
And I’m sure they remember when the anger and rage of an ungrateful and agonizing nation tells them that they are the enemy.
We need to remember that day, not so we can know who to hate. We need to remember that day so we can remember who to thank. We need to remember that day not to track our enemies, but to know our friends. We need to remember that day because the next time something, or someone, goes terribly wrong – and one day it will happen – we need to remember who it is that will answer the call.
It’s the firefighters, and the EMTs, and the police.
I want them to know that I remember, too.
I want them to know: they are not my enemy. They are my family.
All Americans are my family. There is no them, there is only us.
Nineteen years is not so long.
What will we be doing on September 11, 2020?