It’s the jumpers plummeting to their deaths that I’ll always think of first.
A half hour earlier, everyone in those buildings was simply minding their own business, perhaps frustrated by a conflict at home that morning, or excited for a date that night, or maybe pleasantly distracted by the picture-perfect Tuesday in New York City.
Whatever was on their minds was quickly replaced by the commercial airliner crashing into their office building.
I imagine most of them figured out pretty quickly what had happened. I imagine many of them remained hopeful that firefighters would extinguish the flames, and that everyone would later exit in an orderly fashion.
But it couldn’t have been long before smoke infiltrated the upper floors making breathing difficult or impossible.
Desperate people were using jackets and shirts to flag for help that would never come.
The writing was on the wall. Sooner or later, they realized it. They were all going to die.
Human beings. People just like you and me watching as co-workers decided: I’m not burning to death.
“I can’t take it anymore. I’ve gotta jump,” they might have said, before disappearing out the window.
After living entire lives, dealing with the ups and downs of youth and adulthood, a typical workday turned into a choice: Burn alive or jump 1,000 feet to death?
The fall from the top of the World Trade Center is a full 10 seconds, at least.
Take a moment to count to 10. To consider the length of the fall.
What does a person think about for a full 10 seconds while committing unplanned suicide?
I didn’t shed tears for all of the people who died in the plane crashes and subsequent explosions. Not right away, at least.
But when I saw those people hurling themselves out of the upper-floor windows of the World Trade Center 12 years ago today, the tears started to fall.
It wasn’t good, those first hours and days following the attacks.
Everyone was scared. Uncertain.
People were afraid to fly. The federal government instituted its color-coded terror threat alert chart. It always seemed to get elevated to Orange whenever I was going through security checkpoints at the airport.
Terrorism is frightening. Because the victims never deserve what they get. Because justice can never be served.
But people tried.
Americans with small brains started to blame everyone with brown skin for their pain and anger.
Between 2002-2008, about 13,000 civil rights complaints were reported in the United States to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Imagine how many weren’t reported.
I remember feeling sorry for every Muslim-American I’d see.
But I also remember being part of the problem. I was never thrilled to see a few young men of Middle Eastern descent getting on my flights. I was, because of their skin color and/or nationality, suspicious of them. It was unwarranted paranoia. Hell, it was racism.
I remember being at Chicago O’Hare Airport once waiting for a connecting flight.
I glanced over to see a guy about my age in a suit and tie working on his laptop. He was of Middle Eastern descent. His computer’s wallpaper was the movie poster for the film Syriana—a political film about the various entities fighting for control of the Persian Gulf’s oil fields.
The movie is not overtly anti-American, but it certainly points some—perhaps deserved—fingers in our direction.
It’s not sympathetic to terrorism, but seems to suggest it is an obvious career choice for many young men growing up impoverished in that part of the world.
Here’s all I know: In that moment, I just knew that random, well-dressed Middle Eastern guy waiting for my flight was trouble.
I was afraid.
And I almost didn’t get on the plane.
But I did. I was nervous. I remember sitting in the back on a mostly empty flight so nothing was behind me. And, of course, the flight was without incident.
The guy probably lived in Chicago or Seattle or Philadelphia his entire life.
I try REALLY hard to be rational. To be reasonable. To be fair. To be kind.
But that’s what the terror attacks a dozen years ago did to me and many others. They mind-fucked us into judging people who deserved better. And into being afraid of everything that we didn’t understand.
I’d rather be dead than hateful. I mean that.
Lessons in Courage
I don’t know how to defeat fear.
I only know that it’s worth trying.
When I think back on my life and the things I was afraid of, fear only went away once I worked up the courage to try something and survive it.
Twelve years ago today, families and friends of the 9/11 victims were feeling all the same fears as the rest of us. Only those were the least of their concerns.
Wives lost husbands.
Children lost mothers.
Parents lost children.
Brothers lost sisters.
Cousins. Uncles. Best friends. Grandparents. Neighbors.
Because 19 assholes believed their religious and political causes warranted mass murder.
I can’t begin to imagine the fear widows and widowers felt. The void left from divorce is brutal. What about when your partner never comes home? For reasons our brains can’t process? Due to the whims of mad men we’ve never met or heard of?
How do you pick up the pieces from such tragedy?
It’s beyond my understanding.
But people found a way. Brave mothers and fathers who were left to raise children alone. Kids who grew up with 9/11 victim tags forever taped to their backs. Firefighters who continued to run into burning buildings.
If they can make it, can’t the rest of us?
If they can persevere, can’t we all?
If they can show that level of courage and fortitude under unimaginable duress, shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t you?
The Divorce Fallout
My wife of nine years—a girl I’ve known since we were 18—and the person I trusted most in the world ended our marriage on Easter Sunday this year, and I quickly learned she was sleeping with another man.
The psychological effects of that have yet to be fully realized.
I haven’t even flirted with the idea of investing my emotions in someone else.
But sooner or later, it’s bound to happen.
Will I get jealous and paranoid?
Will I be afraid to commit?
Will I project my fears and insecurities and anger toward my ex-wife onto this new, undeserving person?
I don’t know.
I’m not in control of my fears.
These are things I won’t know until they happen.
I only know what kind of person I WANT to be.
The kind of person who doesn’t let the past poison the present.
The kind of person who evaluates everyone on his or her own merit—on the sum of my experiences with them.
I’m afraid I might not get it right. That I’ll push people away.
I just want to do whatever the best thing is, in life and love. Those answers aren’t always obvious.
And I hope you’ll join me in my efforts to not let leftover fear and scarring from previous experiences adversely and unfairly affect our future relationships.
Let Freedom Ring
It has been 12 years since the Twin Towers fell. Since the Pentagon was attacked. Since Flight 93 went down in Shanksville, PA.
Since all those brave firefighters lost their lives.
Since all those tear-filled phone calls were made saying goodbye to loved ones in those final moments.
Since those desperate men and women stuck in the upper floors of the World Trade Center decided falling to their deaths in lower Manhattan presented the least-painful, least-frightening option.
A lot of the anger has dissipated now. Perhaps not with the families directly touched by the day’s events. Perhaps not with the brave soldiers who have seen some serious shit as a result of the ensuing military conflicts. Perhaps not with people scattered throughout the Middle East who have had to endure the fallout from exploding bombs and toppled regimes.
But for typical Americans like me? We don’t think about it that much.
We’ll never forget. We promised we wouldn’t. And it’s a promise we’ll keep.
But it doesn’t dominate our thoughts anymore. We don’t freak out before air travel anymore. We don’t assume everyone with brown skin hates America.
We’ve healed in a lot of ways. And now we can live again. Pursuing our personal passions and interests. Taking vacations. Enjoying nights out. Attending weddings and concerts and sporting events and church and parties and baby showers.
That’s freedom, right? True freedom?
Not being sad?
Not being angry?
Not being afraid?
Isn’t that what all of us really want?
I think so.
This matters to everyone coping with their own brand of sadness and tragedy and life obstacles.
We can trust that time will heal. That our negative emotions will eventually be replaced by a new sense of normalcy and acceptance and hope.
Because we’ve seen it in our own lives and in the lives of brave people in places like New York, Washington, and everywhere that tragedy has struck.
And this matters for our country—and for our world.
The recognition that hate and violence and death make life shittier.
And that love and peace and hope make life beautiful.
Let freedom ring.