“Anyone know what that smoke is in lower Manhatten?”
These words, uttered by an unknown pilot at 8:50 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, came only minutes after air traffic control had lost contact with American Airlines Flight 11, a passenger jet carrying 92 souls from Boston, MA to Los Angeles, CA. After scrambling for minutes upon minutes before the initial hit and dealing with phone calls which revealed that a hijacking had taken place on the plane, the control centers in touch with one another realized in the most uncomfortable way that the plane they had lost contact with over New York was indeed the very plane that had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“Is this real world or exercise?” a dispatcher asked on the line with air traffic control, unsure of what to make of his call about getting the FBI on the line for government intervention in an apparent hijacking of an American Airlines flight.
“Real life,” he said in a calm manner, but with a tone that hinted absolute gravity.
It only took a few minutes after Flight 11 hit the North Tower before news stations picked up on it, and what could have been an hour or two of coverage for a small fire in the WTC resulted in weeks and months of coverage of the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States, a day in which every American eye watched their small black tv boxes, holding hands with family members and weeping as thousands of people burned alive in the inescapable ruin of the Twin Towers.
Amid the chaos around the country as people watched the events unfold in real time, the internal struggle was jut as chaotic. President Bush’s desire to return to Washington to ensure calm was shot down the Secret Service; New York’s finest risked their lives (and indeed, many did lose their lives) running into the towers trying to save as many lives as possible; the air traffic control, attempting to communicate with the terrorists, one of which could be heard saying, “We have some planes,” making it clear that this was a coordinated attack that had only just begun, was scrambling to get authorities on the line to notify them that this hijacking could in fact be a major terrorist threat.
Sixteen years later, after the heroic passengers of Flight 93 stormed the cockpit and brought down their plane in the field in Pennsylvania, and after the Twin Towers finally collapsed after burning for hours and hours, 9/11 is still the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of our country, and it is truly the event that has shaped our modern world, as well as many American’s perception of the world.
Still today, even after President Bush declared that the U.S. is not at war with Islam and after eight years of President Obama telling us that groups like Al Queda and ISIS do not represent Islam, many Americans (specifically Christian Americans) still have much hostility toward the religion. Today, even after the end of the Iraq War, troops still remain stationed in Afghanistan, and the Middle East has changed rapidly due to the U.S.’s involvement in and invasion of foreign countries after the attacks. Airports now have far better security protocols and procedures to reduce the risk of hijackings occurring on U.S. flights.
So, after sixteen years, what has America learned from 9/11, and what SHOULD Americans have learned?
Well, in 2017, it’s clear that Americans are still afraid. We may not be as afraid as we were ten years ago, and certainly not as afraid as we were sixteen years ago, but we’re still afraid. The tension between conservative Americans and Islam is still characteristically high, and it would be irresponsible to say that the candidacy and election of Donald Trump hasn’t escalate that tension. Many Americans still live in fear that someone who isn’t born in this country (or, let’s face it, isn’t white) is going to be hiding a bomb in their backpack.
And it’s okay to be afraid.
It certainly is not racist to be afraid of dying after seeing the images of the burning towers. But what if that fear is misguided?
What if, instead of basing the actions of 19 individuals and a few terrorists cells (one of which is almost completely eradicated) on an entire religion, we stepped back and look at the big picture; instead of focusing on the terrorists of 9/11, we focused on the heroes.
Nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks. Some of them were helpless victims in the planes and some of them were helpless victims in the buildings. But hundreds of people, young and old, banded together to help the situation. The heroic passengers on Flight 93 stormed the cockpit, killing themselves and the terrorists, yes, but ultimately saving lives of anyone who could have been injured or killed wherever that plane was headed. The firefighters, police-officers, and other first-responders who worked tirelessly around the clock at ground zero, breathing in smoke and some suffocating to death, all to save lives of the victims trying to get out of the burning towers.
Humans are complex creatures, and since the attacks on September 11, we’ve learned a lot about religion, terrorism, and the motives that drive certain people to commit such unspeakable acts. But while we should always remain vigilant in times of horror, we should also remain aware that with humanity, the good almost always outweighs the bad. Where there were nineteen terrorists, there were thousands of people uniting to help rescind and renounce what they had done. Where there was a massive terrorist organization taking responsibility for the event, there were millions of people ready to take them on. And where there was a leader of that terrorist organization, there was a commander-in-chief of a SEAL Team ready to take him out.
And now, we simply remember. We stay vigilant, but we remember. Osama bin Laden is dead. Al Queda is, for the most part, inactive (or nonexistent). And even though ISIS reared its ugly head for a long while, it seems that terrorism doesn’t have the benefit it once did. And that’s because America has long been the strongest country on earth, and our spirit of unity in moments like 9/11 will always outweigh our divisiveness in moments like we’re experiencing now.