In 2001, I was given the opportunity to help lead a team of support workers to Ground Zero. We began at an Aid Station atop a girder that fell from the South Tower. My experience there contained many blessings. They came with a cost. I would do it again.
As you can imagine, the approach of every anniversary of 9/11 creates waves of memories for me and lots of time spent in reflection. On the tenth Anniversary I wrote about my experience at Ground Zero for the first time. That post was called In the Ashes of My Brothers. The link to that remembrance is: https://joanneeddy.com/2011/09/11/in-the-ashes-a-9-11-remembrance-of-my-service-at-ground-zero/
On the 15th Anniversary, I visited the Freedom Tower, Memorial Gardens, and 9/11 Museum with my daughter, Gretchen, (who is another blessing) and wrote about the feelings that being there invoked and the healing it created. That post was called Memories of a 9/11 Responder: Ground Zero Remembered. This is a link to it: https://joanneeddy.com/2016/09/11/memories-of-a-911-responder-ground-zero-remembered/
Two of my most profound blessings at 9/11 were my husband, Doug, a pastor and a founding member of Onondaga County’s Crisis Response Team, who went with our group, and the second was being chosen to go with the Salvation Army staff who shared this experience with us.
And now twenty years has passed. The cliche is so true, which of course is how truisms become cliche: It seems like it was yesterday and yet also a light year ago.
The lead up to this Anniversary has been both very similar and extremely different. The poignant memories still come in sights and sounds recalled, in an almost real resurrection of feeling myself moving through the stifling dust, climbing through broken windows, breathing in the cloying smell. I can see the immense mountain of debris that was called “the pile” and watch the bucket brigade and rescue dogs climbing it. Even with my eyes open, I can envision the girder where we organized supplies, food, and water. I can feel again the pride I felt at seeing a tattered flag hanging from one of the nearby damaged buildings. And the intense connection that was forged for me and all who served together in that “fiery pit of hell” remains. I told the firefighters and police officers they were my heroes. They told me I was their adopted sister and called us their angels. For years seeing a first responder instantly took me back and brought tears. Even now, they still choke me up and stir my heart.
Today things have become so different. Then, everything, everyone felt so united. We as a country were all New Yorkers. We were Ground Zero, the Pentagon, Shankville. We were America. And the World was with us. Pettiness melted away in the searing fires of destruction that burned away the dross of lesser human traits. What was left, what I lived at Ground Zero, was honor and sacrifice, compassion and patriotism, commitment and heroism, unity and kinship. On 9/11 we were the United States and as we came together we epitomized the best of who we are as Americans.
President Bush addressed America and put it this way: “Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
The terrorists who attacked us 20 years ago hoped to destroy us as a nation and a people. Instead, they drove us together. 15 years later, in 2016, the Pew Research Center found that “The importance of 9/11 transcended age, gender, geographic and even political differences…while partisans agreed on little else that election cycle, more than seven-in-ten Republicans and Democrats named the attacks as one of their top 10 historic events.”
Pew also found that, to this day in 2021, 93% of all of those old enough to recall the day, (aged 30 and above), remember exactly where they were and what they were doing on 9/11.
Twenty years ago, I was inundated by calls from friends and community members who wanted to serve. Twenty years ago children sent lunch bags of food and homemade cards with crayoned words of encouragement to the first responders. Twenty years ago, as we gave out words of comfort with water and food, no one cared about nationalities, politics, or differences of opinion. Twenty years ago, we were all neighbors, we were Americans, we were family and all that mattered was that we cared for one another.
That is why this day, this year, I am struggling. The sense of unity we felt is gone. It seems like a chasm has opened. The towering achievement of our commitment to our nation and to each other feels as if it has sustained another attack and divided us as perhaps we have never been before in this nation. The building blocks that make up our national life are falling, aflame with alienation, distrust, antagonism, disrespect, even hatred. What the terrorists could not accomplish on 9/11, we are inflicting upon ourselves, on each other, and on our country.
This has reminded me of the old Cherokee proverb where a grandfather teaches his grandson about human nature and life. He tells him that he has two wolves fighting inside. One is evil, filled with anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, lies, resentment, inferiority, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Certainly, the terrorists who hated America enough to drive planes carrying innocent people into buildings filled with thousands of others were consumed by the evil wolf. That is their legacy. Yet, twenty years ago the good wolf was nurtured by the First Responders in New York and at the Pentagon and by the brave passengers on United Flight 175 who stood up and gave their lives to protect their country. Today, however, I am left wondering over the two sides of human nature, which wolf is ravishing our land, and which we are now feeding.
Each day we lose more of those who raced into the fire to aid our nation and who helped us heal from the 9/11 attacks. Some we lose to age, some to diseases that came from their exposure to the toxins the raging fires released, some to the new scourge of CoVid.
Mark Twain said that true patriots are brave, yet scarce, because patriotism comes at a cost.
I write this to recognize and honor these patriots who paid that cost. I write this because I want to remember their sacrifice. I want to feel again the dedication to duty and to those we served. I want to experience the sense of wholeness in the middle of total devastation. I want to walk with heroes out of the ashes into unity of purpose, into the total commitment to others that true patriotism requires, into the love of country of over self.
Twenty years after 9/11 we face hard choices. I truly believe we must remember 9/11 and all who responded to it. We NEED to be reminded that a people united will never be defeated…no matter what we face. We NEED to rededicate ourselves to our country, to come together in unity, to put aside rancor. We NEED to be the best of America on this anniversary and every day so that we can continue to “secure the blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our posterity.”
To my country, with prayers for all who suffered that day and every day since, and for a return to the unity that 9/11 embodied.