Twenty years ago on a regular Tuesday morning in September, people were at work. Kids were in school. Tourists were sightseeing. Moms were grocery shopping. People were boarding flights.
Individual worlds were moving along, step by daily step.
Breaking news flashed and the tragedy of a plane crash into New York’s World Trade Center was a riveting story. Sad and scary, but for most, life continued on its normal course.
Then came the jarring disruption of a second plane crash while cameras were trained on the already burning North Tower. On-air journalists grappled with the images flooding in. A nation watched in dismay, processing.
This was no longer a sad accident.
It was now a powerful, collective moment breaking into our individual lives.
The safe, secure, comfortable United States was being attacked.
For those of us old enough, we have a story to recount—where we were when we heard. How we could not believe what we were hearing. How this did not make sense.
You do not attack a country by flying airplanes into buildings.
But they did.
And the ensuing horror became collective in ways our lives rarely are.
The terrible timeline unfolded and became our own.
The news started to sink in and like the passengers on Flight 93, our first instinct was to reach out. We reached out for comfort, calling a loved one. We reached out for reassurance, trying to be sure we are not alone. We reached out for support, to be sure we are known while facing the unthinkable.
Those passengers went from strangers to intimately linked heroes and we as Americans found ourselves linked at the deepest levels.
For many of us a regular flight can send jolts of adrenaline from bumpy crosswinds, but the fear processed by passengers that day was turned into life-saving action.
We never know when the moment will arrive.
We do our jobs. We live our lives. We make our way, now more than ever, as individuals in worlds crafted for us and by us.
We don’t let these kinds of tragedies inside of our virtual worlds. This kind of pivotal moment can only crash in. It will make us or break us. It makes us shrink in horror as we recoil from what we all know is inevitable. Our lives will end.
Yet this is the kind of moment that can bring clarity: we are in this together.
We watch now as an exit from Afghanistan and the war ignited by this attack means more lives lost. Heroes once again rushed in and there are tragic images of people falling from planes, fighting to get on planes. These visuals jolt us out of our normal realm.
We look now to breach divides caused by a virus spread the world over and into our classrooms and homes and hospitals.
We bicker over ideological differences while striving for a stronger community.
Our choice is like the one passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 faced when they attempted regain control of the plane from the terrorists. Of the four hijacked planes that day, United 93 was the only one that did not reach its intended target, believed to be the United States Capitol building.
We can sit quietly on the back of the plane in fear and await our fate or we can reach out of our virtual worlds to make real connections that will save lives, that will put others ahead of ourselves.
This is a time to remember, but also to teach and grow. We owe it to a generation who did not experience the gravity of the moment for themselves.
So we tell the stories of the heroes of 9/11 and find strength.
We remember the sacrifices made and find inspiration.
Those passengers in the back of the plane took a vote and decided it was better to take action.
We hope we all will follow suit.