Eighteen years ago, the New York City metropolitan area awoke to one of those rare days with no humidity, the perfect hint of fall in the air, and not a cloud in the clear blue sky. Life came to a standstill with the tragic events that unfolded at the Twin Towers.
The silence in the skies following the halt of air traffic was haunting. Streets and stores were abandoned as residents took silent refuge in their homes, glued to their TVs, seeking comfort in being with their families with the nagging fear and wonder about what exactly was happening and whether there was more to come. That afternoon, the only cloud in the sky resembled a mushroom and when it finally cleared in the weeks after 9/11, the hole in the NYC skyline left a void in the hearts of everyone who’d ever gazed upon their glory.
At the time, I was the editor of a weekly newspaper about 15 miles outside the city. Countless residents from our communities would commute to the World Trade Center, by car, by bus, and some by the very train that ran below the buildings. Two days after the towers fell, my colleague and I made our way into the city to cover the story. Numb with shock, we were struggling to grasp the magnitude of what was unfolding.
We were immersed in the devastation that was the closest thing to a warzone I pray I will ever see. Nearly two decades later, I can still hear the sounds, and in my mind’s eye, I can never un-see what I saw that day. I can smell the stench of the most unimaginable things burning that wafted through the air, the facemasks we were given doing little to filter the haze. The sun was blocked by showers of ash from the sky. Crushed taxi cabs, police and fire vehicles, and rows of civilian cars were left abandoned, covered in dust and debris that had been sent flying as the towers came down.
Though caught up in the chaotic scene unfolding around us, it was the people that stood out. The slew of emergency service personnel trying to maintain control over a crowd mixed with gawkers and journalists. The man who gave a gentle assist to a priest from the neighborhood’s Greek Orthodox church when he was crossing the street. Friends on the street sharing pictures they had taken as the towers were burning, disbelief in their voices and shock on their faces. The contrast of an artist calmly painting the scene of chaos unfolding around him. Folks getting a bird’s-eye view of the horrors from their fire escapes, their hands up to their mask-protected faces. Even Donald Trump (when he was just Donald Trump, the businessman), walking toward the World Trade Center with another fellow, expressing thanks to my colleague and me as we crossed paths.
What stood out most in the days and weeks following 9/11 was how kind people had become, and the great sense of pride in being an American. People were coping with this great tragedy in their own personal ways, big and small. People overall were just nicer, slowing down to talk to one another; unified by simply being there for each other.
Following 9/11, we became a nation united, bound together by knowing we live in the greatest country on Earth. Over the years, that sense of unity has been lost and the divide only made deeper. To see the state of our country at this present day and time is heartbreaking. We have devolved into a nation divided on all lines.
We have become a country of “isms,” “ists,” and “phobes.” Socialism, fascism, racists, sexists, supremacists, misogynists, xenophobes, homophobes. We will never be united if we keep pointing fingers, labeling, name-calling. These words all have connotations that are not to be taken lightly and throwing them around so loosely desensitizes us to their true meanings. Throwing labels like these on people just because you don’t agree with what they say is irresponsible. Whether it be now-President Trump making thoughtless statements on social media, political figures on both sides of the aisle constantly sticking their foot in their mouth, or even — dare I say — imprudent journalism; once words are said, they can’t be taken back. No matter how many apologies are made, the damage is done. The divide gets deeper.
Sadly, tragedy brings out the best in people and we truly saw the best of America in the 9/11 aftermath. It was a reminder that we’re all in this together.
Despite all the sadness and loss, there were so many stories of hope and faith, people coming together. People were civil toward one another. We all need to come together once again as one nation, under God, because even if you don’t believe in God, only faith — in whatever it is you believe — will bring us back to the place of unity where we were in the days following one of the darkest times in our nation’s history. It’s time to remember that we truly are all in this life together. We all are Americans.