15 years ago today, I had just finished working out in the fitness center of the American United Life Tower – now One America – in Indianapolis. I had just showered and was getting dressed when someone said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. By the time I got out, many were glued to the TV. A second plane had hit the second tower. We all knew it had to be a planned terrorist attack. I immediately suspected, as did many others, that al Qaeda was responsible as they had attacked the embassies previously. Of course, we soon learned that in fact they were the perpetrators. We were completely stunned as watched the towers engulfed in flame and smoke and were horrified as people jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.
I shortly went upstairs to work. Everyone was glued to internet news. One Tower collapsed and we were completely dismayed. The second tower collapsed and we were sickened. We learned that the Pentagon had been hit. While there was no evidence there was a threat to our building – the 2nd tallest in Indianapolis – we could not help but worry that we might be next and what was next. Who was safe? How large was this attack? Were my wife and children safe? We were released to go home as no one was able to get work done.
The world changed that day in so many ways. I remember days of no contrails in the skies and no planes overhead. Shortly afterward came the anthrax attacks. No one felt safe. We all lived in fear. We were horrified at what had happened in New York and Washington. Yet stories of courage came from those hours. We heard of the bravery of first responders in New York. The stories of survival from the towers and in the Pentagon. Perhaps most stunning was the story of Flight 93 and courage of those passengers who likely gave their lives to save others from another attack.
We were unified as a nation in resolve as firefighters raised a flag over the ruins of the towers. We rallied around the President – who had not won the popular vote in the last election – and were heartened by his grabbing a bullhorn and letting the terrorists know that would hear from us and that they would be held responsible. Parties didn’t matter. We were all Americans and we had been attacked.
The fear from that day changed us in many ways. We demanded that the government deal with terrorists aggressively and surrendered many freedoms. I most cognizant of the scrutiny we now endure to board a plane as I write this in the air today. We enacted laws like the Patriot Act which gave our government the ability to intrude upon our privacy in a much greater way.
I guess it’s easy for me to reflect upon my own reactions and memories today being in the air on this day. I certainly had some trepidations about flying today. However, what happened 15 years ago is so much larger than our personal memories, fears and reflections. 3,000 Americans perished suddenly that day. They went to work like any ordinary day. They had no idea it would be their last day. Their families had no idea they would never see their loved ones again. None of these had anything to do with the complaints of the terrorists. They were ordinary Americans.
In addition to the ordinary citizens that were lost, many first responders died doing what they were trained to do – save lives, sometimes at the expense of their own. Many more have died since due to diseases from inhaling toxic fumes and dust from the debris as they sought to find survivors and recover the remains of those we lost.
As we reflect this day on the events of 15 years ago, think about the families who lost and may we be ever mindful of those we love. Don’t take them for granted. Don’t put off telling them how much you care.
Also as we reflect on the events of that day, I remember vividly how we came together as a nation. No one decided to use the national anthem as a political statement. People realized that as Americans we are all in this together. We stood as God Bless America was sung and many, including me, were brought to tears. We did not focus on our differences. We focused on what we had in common.
I don’t mean to minimize racial divides in our country or the inequities that are present. We are not perfect and we need to address those issues. However, need to reclaim that sense of what we have in common. We need to remember why we pursue justice and equality – because that is our heritage. We need to remember that those 3,000 died not because of what is wrong with America. They died because the perpetrators hated everything that unites us. The dead included many faiths, races, LGBT and straight.
The rancor of this election has had little to do with our shared values. We need to embrace those values – without losing the sense of urgency to address wrongs in our society or wrongfully denying they exist.
Let us remember those who left us that day. Let us remember the courage of those sacrificed all to save lives. Let us also remember for whom they sacrificed themselves – fellow Americans of all faiths, races, preferences and genders. For those in the NFL protesting today, you picked the wrong day. It’s pretty clear you don’t understand what the flag means. Ask those firemen.