I was watching the final episode of “9/11: One Day in America” on Hulu (if you haven’t seen it, take time to) when something somewhat unexpected happened. I felt a tear run down my cheek.
It was unexpected because, after 20 years, I felt like I was cried out over the events of that day. But it occurred to me that I was crying not because of what happened nor for the lives lost, those tears have been shed.
No, the tears flowed now because those of us who bore witness to the events of that day, and its aftermath, broke the promise we made to the ones who died.
Obviously, we didn’t forget what happened. The images of the events of 9/11 are seared into the consciousness of those who witnessed it.
We didn’t forget the 2,977 people who died that day.
And no, we haven’t forgotten the stories of sacrifice and triumph that emerged. How could we forget Orio Palmer’s heroic dash up the stairs of the South Tower, or “The Man in the Red Bandana,” “The Miracle of Stairway B,” or the rescue of Port Authority officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin.
And we certainly haven’t forgotten about the heroism and sacrifice of the passengers and crew aboard United 93.
Their stories are rightfully woven into the fabric of our history.
What we forgot was how those stories brought out the best in us. How we unified as a nation in the days and weeks following 9/11 to stand against a common enemy.
I mean, my God, members of Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol building that night and broke out into a spontaneous rendition of “God Bless America.”
Can any of us imagine anything (outside of a 9/11 tribute/memorial) that could lead to Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi standing side-by-side and breaking into song? Doubtful.
We’ve become so partisanly divided, about everything, that there are many who consider anyone on the opposite end of the political spectrum to be an evil-doer who wants nothing more than to destroy the country.
And it’s not just political division. It’s an increase in the idea of self over community.
First responders were hailed in those first few years following the attacks. Those brave men and women of the NYPD, FDNY and Port Authority were revered as heroes. We canonized the EMTs, volunteers and civilians who gave little thought to their own safety as they rushed into burning buildings or spent days, weeks and months digging through the rubble in a desperate search for survivors.
Now, volunteerism for those groups has dropped so low that we’re facing a crisis with our EMS services.
The fear of suffering another “9/11-style attack” led us to become so paranoid of each other that we can’t find it in ourselves to come together long enough to squash a pandemic.
And the sad reality is that what we’re seeing in America today, is exactly what Osama Bin Laden envisioned when he launched the attack on Sept. 11.
It wasn’t about bringing the United States to its knees through military might. It was about creating enough fear to drive a wedge deep enough that the United States would crumble from within.
The more we distrust. The more we rely on hate and fear to drive our decisions. The longer we scream at each other over “stolen elections,” mask mandates, sexual and gender identities, women’s rights, gun rights, etc. instead of working together to find solutions, the deeper that wedge of division will be driven.
And every day we allow that division, every day that we drive that wedge deeper, is another day that we break our promise.
Our promise to Orio Palmer, our promise to Betty Ong, our promise to Moira Smith, and Welles Crowther, and Rick Rescorla.
We break our promise to Tom Burnett, Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick and Todd Beamer.
As there has been every year since Sept. 11, 2001, there will be tributes and memorials all over the country today. I sincerely hope that instead of staying only in that moment, that we can remember, not just the fallen, but ourselves as well.
Who we were in the days, weeks and months immediately following the attacks. How we stood as one and swore that no one could break our spirit, no one could bring us to our knees.
How we made a promise to all those who were lost that day that we would . . . Never forget.