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What Have We Learned?

We are a few weeks away from the anniversary of what has become the darkest day in the history of our nation. September 11, 2011 will mark the tenth anniversary of the day that terrorists used our own commercial aircraft against us in a storm of carnage that took down the World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon and changed the way we operate in this country forever. Before 9/11 Americans functioned under a veil of freedom that we took for granted; exercising our civil rights and parading our liberties without thought or question.  

We never considered the possibility of an attack on American soil, we never fathomed the loss of so many civilian lives. Terrorism was something that happened in other countries, not here in the United States. But it did. And the threat remains with us ever since. It has changed the way we travel, how we gather in public places and how we communicate. Our behavior has been altered, but what have we really learned?  In the last ten years we have become a nation that is more bitterly divided, more corrupt, less grateful and less hopeful.  

I watched the second tower fall on television with my high school art class on that fateful day. I stood helpless and useless as I watched the horror on their faces as the tower collapsed. We knew that we were witnessing an event that would change our way of life as we knew it. As we learned about the additional attack on the Pentagon and the crash of flight 93 in Pennsylvania our sorrow deepened and our anxiety rose. In the days and weeks that followed we became a nation of one stunned by tragedy and united by loss. Collective efforts were initiated to aid in the clean up of ground zero and other humanitarian efforts. The ordinary became extraordinary. As a nation we rose above our own misery and fear and pulled together to heal.  

I organized students from my art classes to design and create a poster for the New York city police and firefighters commemorating the integrity and unity of the nation to overcome destruction. We printed and hand painted close to three hundred posters and personalized each one with a New York City precinct number or firehouse station number. Through donations we raised the cost of mailing them to the individual precincts and firehouses. The response to the students’ efforts was overwhelming- I still have the files of letters and plaques and hats and shirts and videos sent by the police and fire fighters. Almost universally their comments of gratitude regarding the efforts of strangers were noted and expressed. It was our objective to send a token of appreciation and thanks to those who were directly involved in the rescue efforts but it was a cathartic exercise for all of us to take part in a project that actually had meaning and purpose after such a senseless disaster.

It was this sense of meaning and purpose that became universally important in the weeks and months that followed 9/11. People were grateful, families became closer, friends gathered. Nothing was taken for granted. Life mattered.  We were focused on the important and essential elements of living- relationships with those who matter most.  It is a lesson so hard won and so easily forgotten. Today, ten years later, it is as if we learned nothing from 9/11. We concern ourselves with insignificant matters of consequence, our economy is a disaster resulting from corporate greed, we feud about who is legal and who is not, our educational system is in shambles and our baffoonish politicians behave like squabbling kindergarteners. Ten years ago a plane load of passengers gave their lives by bringing down a hijacked aircraft that was headed for Washington DC. Is the nation that we live in today the legacy they gave their lives for? What lesson have we learned from the terrible tragedy of 9/11? What lessons will we teach those who will only read about it in books? Over two thousand innocent men, women and children lost their lives that day.

We owe them a nation that is strong, not weak with division, a nation that is grateful, not riddled with greed and corruption and a nation that has hope and promise- for it was the belief in a better future for this country that prompted those aboard flight 93 to sacrifice their own lives so that others may be saved, so that the nation may endure and thrive. On this tenth anniversary, we need to remember that purpose and honor it as a lesson never to be forgotten.

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