It almost doesn’t seem possible. Could it be that two decades have passed since hundreds of millions of Americans awoke to news that a plane had crashed into the side of the World Trade Center in New York? Could it be that for a whole new generation of children, Sept. 11 is simply a topic of conversation to be discussed and debated in class, rather than a transformative moment burned forever into memory?
We are in fact 20 years removed from that fateful day. The area decimated by the terrorist attacks in New York, that for so long after Sept. 11 was left a smoldering pile of debris, has been rebuilt. Gigantic skyscrapers rise once again over the city, along with beautiful memorials and a museum, all dedicated to the people who lost their lives.
The Pentagon has long since been re-fortified, and a Pennsylvania field has become a symbol of hope, sanctified by the blood of brave men and women who refused to go down without a fight.
On Sept. 12, 2001, it felt as if life would never return to normal. It appeared that America had entered into a new future of uncertainty, where the type of carnage we witnessed on that beautiful September morning would become all too common. We braced for the next 9/11, and the ones to follow afterwards.
Thankfully, we were wrong. Though terror attempts were made, and unfortunately some succeeded, leading to more senseless death and destruction, nothing of the magnitude experienced on Sept. 11 has happened since. The moment stands, still, as the single greatest terrorist attack on American soil, and thousands of American soldiers and intelligence agents have put their lives on the line over the last two decades to keep it that way.
So, how do we approach 9/11 this year? How do we honor such an important milestone?
Of course, there will be numerous remembrances held all across the nation. Documentaries have and will continue to fill the airwaves, providing new perspectives on what occurred while also reintroducing us to the survivors of that day, now 20 years older.
We will debate all that’s come after — wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—and the controversies that continue to swirl around each. We will discuss whether America’s response to that terrible event was right or wrong … or somewhere in between.
But perhaps the best way to acknowledge this solemn occasion is to ponder the seemingly competing yet equally-true lessons that day and the years after have taught us.
Life, in all its glory, is fleeting. Approximately 3,000 people went to bed on Sept. 10, 2001, having not the slightest idea it had been their last full day on Earth. Less than 24 hours later, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers had been lost in what felt like a blink of an eye.
Life is too precious to waste. There are too few hours in a day to pretend that any are expendable, especially when none of us have any idea how many we have left. None of us know when our last day may come.
But we also learned this: No matter how dark the night gets, the dawn emerges each morning. It was rather easy to feel hopeless on Sept. 12 as we took stock of the carnage from the previous day and prepared for a grim new world. It was easy to feel uneasy in the weeks and months that followed.
Time, however, marched on. Wounds healed. Nerves were calmed. Slowly, we went back to our lives, because that’s what we do. The darkness of those days gave way to the light. We emerged, perhaps wiser, perhaps more cautious than before, but we emerged.
It would seem a good time to remember both of those lessons, as we confront, in real time, yet another history-altering event. Life, if we allow it, will find a way through. It did after Sept. 11. It will after this pandemic.