They stood for 30 years, twin symbols of America’s lofty standing and influence in the world, almost 1,400 feet of steel and glass stretching toward Heaven in a marvel of modern engineering. And then in the aftermath of two twin ten-second pulses of released energy, World Trade Center’s Twin Towers were no longer standing. There, and also at the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., and in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, 2,976 innocent people were murdered for the simple act of showing up for life that morning.
We can never forget – nor should we – the scenes of how they died that day: Those who were on the planes that had been turned into bombs and were careening toward their horrific destinies. Those on the upper floors of the Twin Towers who were awaiting help that would never come and making heartbreakingly sad last calls on the phones to loved ones. Those who were vaporized in the initial explosions that burned as high as 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit. And those that died in the acts of trying to save those trapped in that living Hell. If the sounds of the grief we felt as a nation that day were compressed into one burst of noise, we’d all fall deaf.
As we put together our weekly newspapers at Southern Rhode Island Newspapers that day, we were caught in two worlds, documenting the suddenly mundane-feeling everyday events that make up the bones and flesh of a community newspaper while events we could not wrap our heads around were unfolding a suddenly very close 170 miles away. We went out and took photos of the National Guard posts in our towns where tanks were being placed out front and talked to firemen and policemen as we heard about what their brethren were doing in New York.
And we watched the towers fall on the Internet at our desks, first one at a time, and then over and over again as we tried to corral the emotions and apply them to what we were seeing. We felt we owed it to the victims to watch the people jump from the windows, choosing a violent, sudden end of life to a tortuous cooking and to be present with those we could not see inside the melting steel as it fell into a ten-acre bathtub-like foundation seventy feet below ground.
It was a day of struggling with two emotional extremes. Unfathomable hatred knocked the towers down; incomprehensible love sent first responders up into them even as they turned the structures into the consistency of Playdoh. Hate and religious zealotry took the towers down; love, duty and service to others might not have kept them up, except in a spiritual sense.
In the aftermath of that horrible day, we changed – at least for a while. We learned that we as individuals are all interconnected, both as a nation and within the civilized world community. We were polite to each other and we were kind to each other. We talked to strangers and looked each other in the eye. We showed concern for people we did not know well, or at all, calling on them to make sure they were okay. We were willing to make ourselves vulnerable and to not take advantage of the vulnerabilities of others. We cared about something other than ourselves and our own problems, situations and daily concerns.
In the end, more than 1.5 million tons of ruins were removed from the 17-acre World Trade Center site. There were only a handful of survivors. Add in the numbers of relatives, observers and fellow workers of the nearly 3,000 who died that day and you could likely populate a large city with broken people.
What did 9/11 do to us as a nation, a people? It brought us to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to us. It showed we are vulnerable to the same daily possibility of sudden violence that much of the world, such as Israel and Belfast to name two, is made aware of all too often, year in and year out. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is immaterial. How we react to it is material, and we can be mostly proud of our short and long-term reactions to that fateful day. We never veered into a climate of national universal hatred of Muslims. We stood up militarily and found a way to eradicate the man who pulled the trigger on the Twin Towers.
In terms of long-term lessons, mostly what we rediscovered was an age-old formula for changing the face of the world. Where there is wretched poverty accompanied by desperate hopelessness there will always be the possibility that an charismatic egomaniac can twist a vision of God with the promise of hope to the hopeless into a dangerous tool. We can try to offer alternative visions so that something like 9/11 never happens again. We can establish as many safeguards as possible without limiting our personal freedoms. And we can never forget the people who gave so much by losing it all one morning ten years ago.