Fifteen years after 9/11: From unity to fracture


It wasn’t often that my husband peppered me with phone calls at the office. He knew that I was usually in session with counseling clients, so my phone was mostly off. When I saw mid- morning that he’d called several times, it made me edgy.

I called right away and he said, “Have you seen what’s happened?” He told me about the planes, the building collapse, the hospitals gearing up for the wounded to arrive.  “We are watching it all on TV. Turn it on.”

I had no TV, and clients in the waiting room. I had to file away what he told me in order to proceed as usual, but I felt a shift. He was seeing and believing. I was hearing and not believing; more like not being able to imagine.

I saw two paramedics later that morning, and asked them if they’d heard. Yes they had, was the matter-of-fact answer. Was it their long experience with trauma that protected them from fear and upset, or was it that they hadn’t seen it for themselves either?


I had watched hours and hours of footage, seen the attack from every possible angle, including the video of people leaping from the building, which went under wraps a few days later. The rescue crews and their dogs climbed the rubble, stopping to listen for calls or the beeping of alarms of fallen firefighters.

It was starting to become clear that the hospitals were geared up for nothing – people were not coming out of there alive. All the blood donated, all the hope for survival would have to wait for someone else in a more usual circumstance. Seeing the signs, the placards, the pleading faces of parents and spouses and friends searching for their loved ones became more traumatizing than watching the buildings go down one more time. It was one of those situations that the farther away you were, the clearer your vision.


We arrived in New York City by car, not plane as planned, for a long-awaited weekend with friends. We found the city transformed, with locals stepping aside in the bodegas to let visitors ahead in line, hotel employees and cabbies saying, “Thank you for coming.” Down the street from our hotel was a firehouse. Across the street was an elementary school adorned with a banner “FDNY Engine 23 We love you!” Over the weekend, flowers collected in front of the firehouse, and passersby offered greetings. People made eye contact.

We went to Ground Zero of course and found it covered in sticky dust that rendered everything gray. We witnessed the recovery efforts, the respectful silence when a truck left the site filled with debris, some of which may have included human remains. We came around a corner into view of a photo of a dead priest being carried by firefighters; and saw the smoke still wafting over the site; and passed a wall covered with photos of the missing with hopeful messages, now a few weeks old. After a while, we didn’t have words.


Can it really be only 15 years ago? It seems a very great divide, a glimpse of a naïve, unsuspecting time. I asked my daughter, who was a  college sophomore at the time, what she remembers of the day. She was in the dorm when her dad called to see if she’d heard; then went next door and watched for hours on her neighbor’s TV. She remembers that there was a girl in the dorm who was trying to reach her uncle who worked in the building but couldn’t get through.

My daughter says that she felt shocked and sad for those affected, but disconnected. She was able to acknowledge the event, but not yet recognize its significance, except to note the emotion in her dad’s voice.

My son, who is three years older, reflected that it seems a shorter time to him. He was in the middle of a class when the professor reported that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. He stopped to watch early reports with a crowd on a TV in the bookstore window, then rushed home to watch. He remembers trying to sort our the false reports that began to flow - assigning responsibility to other groups that imagined a larger world-wide conspiracy; and was disturbed by reports of overreaction and misperception, including an attack on a Sikh man in Boston . He received word that his doctor's appointment was cancelled as the doctor's brother worked in the building and couldn't be reached.

He remembers it being a perfect blue-skied day; that the independent newspaper he worked on put out a special issue; and that no one he knew felt personally unsafe unless they had a personal connection with someone killed, as one friend did. While finding it horrible, he also found it interesting, the beginning of his generation's moment of history.  He, too, remembered his dad being far more affected than he felt.

Is it important, or even possible, to communicate to those even younger the impact that 9/11 had on our life as a country? There was improvement at first – we were one country again: segments that had split over the Vietnam War could now find common cause, so that we could all wave flags again; our identity was recast and strengthened. The heroes were ordinary people, doing their jobs – the occupants of the building there for just another work day, then the firefighters and rescue workers. We were proud. But the seeds of fear and threat were planted.

When did we begin to splinter again into segments, suspicious and hostile to each other? When did we forget that we can disagree but still find some room in the middle? At least once a year on September 11, we are reminded that on our worst day, we were able to be our best. Mostly.


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