Friday, September 12, 2014


Is a date a word?

This date is.

If I could catch the attention of America for a few seconds, I would use my time to say this:

I’ve decided I’m not going to put my focus on never forgetting 9/11.  I have another idea which I think might be better.  Now, hear me out. It’s not what it sounds like.

Do I remember 9/11?  I couldn’t forget it if I tried.  It’s so much more than a mental picture that comes to mind.  In fact, my response is visceral and physical, and I'm positive I'm not alone in this; my body aches and my heart pounds every time I recall it.  Today I was looking for a news report I had seen the morning of the attacks that has stayed with me.  I didn’t find it, but in looking for it online I watched other footage taken on the ground in lower Manhattan after the towers were hit.  I was startled by the intensity of my feelings. If terror was the goal of the perpetrators, then they succeeded with me. I feel it even though I didn’t know personally a single soul who was killed that day.  I still feel it today, 13 years later.

And that’s one of the reasons I think that 9/12 might be a day I will work hard to remember.

The news footage I was looking for was of a man, racing away from the twin towers.  He was frantic and just barely stopped to talk to the reporters sticking a camera and mic in his horror-stricken face.  He said something like, “I just ran past some firefighters.  I couldn’t believe it. They had no fear in their eyes! We were running out and they—they were running in!” 

I will never forget that example.  It has stayed with me—no, it has haunted me ever since I saw it.  With the world crashing down around me, would I fearlessly run in to help?

Helpers really matter.  Fred Rogers--Mr. Rogers--said something crucial about this in an interview many years ago:

“You know, my mother used to say, long time ago, whenever there would be any real catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say, ‘Always look for the helpers.  There will always be helpers.’ You know, even just on the sidelines.  That’s why I think that if news programs could make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, of showing medical people, anybody who is coming into a place where there’s a tragedy, to be sure that they include that because if you look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.”

That’s another reason why I think that if we’re going to pick one date to always remember, that we might want to choose 9/12.

For me, remembering 9/11 doesn’t require any effort at all.  I believe I will never forget the sadness and shock and terror of that day.

One of many impromptu memorials which sprang up on NYC streets (photo from New York magazine)

What does require our intense effort, all our will, all our hope to remember is that 9/12 came, despite our certainty that it wouldn’t, couldn’t come after such a day as 9/11.  Many didn't sleep at all, yet the sun came up as it always does, and what did we awaken to?  The attack had ended, no additional buildings had been destroyed, the adrenaline of the moment had evaporated and we felt the stark reality of the damage that had been done, that it hadn’t been a nightmare, and then . . .

Everyone across the country found an American flag and flew it outside their homes for all the world to see.

We felt a kind of unity and love that most had never felt before towards people who were/are strangers to us.

We mourned together truly and totally.

We prayed and hoped for people we had never met, will never meet, who were desperately searching for missing friends and family members.

Rescue workers became exhausted yet were unwilling to leave the scene because there was more work to do.

We gained deep gratitude for the people in our society who help for a living, and even better, who help as a way of life. 

We heard of people from all over the city, the country, all over the world making their way to the site of the attack to help in any possible way because the first responders had done exactly what they were supposed to do, and more, much more help was needed.

We saw the helpers, and so we knew that there was hope.

A restaurant which overnight became a non-profit organization for feeding first-responders and, it must be said, second and third and fourth responders.  Helpers. (photo from New York magazine online)

What began then was what always happens among good people when tragedy hits—we pulled together in defiance of the evil men who believed we would collapse like the towers, clasped hands and inch by painful inch, started climbing out of the pit they had dug for us.  

A day or two after 9/11, I was the one of the featured speakers at a meeting of an American Mothers group in Provo, Utah.  I had no idea if the meeting would still be held, if meetings like this should be held.  No one really knew what to do, but the meeting ended up happening as scheduled.  I thought really long and hard about what I might say.  Everything I thought of seemed inadequate. 

I spoke for 20 minutes or so and I don’t remember any of it except that the words that seemed to fit best came from a children’s book by Dr. Seuss.

[And when you are there], there's a very good chance
you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won't want to go on.

And then he makes his point:

But on you will go
though the weather be foul
On you will go
though your enemies prowl
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.

These are silly-ish words for a message so critical.  And they are the main reason we need to try to very hard to remember 9/12.  When we sink into all the horror and chaos of the day of the attack, we are doing what Osama bin Laden--and anyone else who took part in planning and carrying out the attacks--dreamed we would do.  We allow his reign of terror to extend beyond the grave, even.  While we must always, always remember loved ones who passed and honor public servants and regular folks who exemplified the best aspects of humanity, I wonder if we could do that even better by insisting that 9/12, not 9/11, defines us. 

9/11 is the date that evil chose for us.

9/12 is what we chose for ourselves. 

It’s the day on which my generation began to see ourselves as a people and a nation that rises above, that holds together, that goes on.

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