For every generation of Americans for the past near-century, there have been seminal events for which those who were of a certain age can recall “where they were” when they “heard the news.”
Every member of the Greatest Generation could recall with vivid clarity the announcement by President Roosevelt of the Day of Infamy of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. A generation later, everyone knew where they were when the announcement of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy came across our TV screens. A generation after that, the Challenger space shuttle disaster riveted our nation.
And then, on the morning of September 11, 2001, every American watched with horror and disbelief as the Twin Towers of the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C. came under attack from a terrorist organization we barely knew existed.
In each case, long-held views about our world and our nation were shattered. Before Pearl Harbor, we had thought that the thousands of miles of oceans separating us from the warlords of Europe and Asia would keep us out of harm’s way. Ever since then, we have been involved in crises in every corner of the globe.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination made us realize that history could be altered by a single bullet, as it clearly was on that terrible day in Dallas.
The Challenger disaster made us aware that despite three decades of travel in space and despite our prowess and might in the realm of technology, in the end, everything we do as humans is subject to failure, because that is the human condition. Our faith in our scientists and experts was shaken to a degree we’d never felt before.
As we watched the images on our TV screens on 9/11 of the fireballs in the upper parts of the Twin Towers, and then watched those skyscrapers crumble, trapping thousands of our fellow Americans, we realized that America no longer was insulated from the sort of outside terrorist threats that had plagued almost every other country the world over.
We all knew that our lives would be different from that point onward.
However, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack, it became clear that countless of our fellow Americans responded with incredible strength and bravery. Police officers and firefighters, as well as many civilians (most notably the “young man with the red bandana” and the passengers who thwarted the hijacking of the jet that was headed for the White House over the skies of Pennsylvania farm fields) responded in a totally selfless effort to save as many of their fellow Americans as possible without regard to their own safety.
It is hard to believe that 15 years have passed since 9/11, and even harder to conceive that our young people today have no memory of that terrible day. Today’s high school seniors were just a year old in 2001 — 9/11 is just another fact of American history for them to memorize.
So let us resolve to remind ourselves, and to inform the young people we know, that this was a day not merely of great tragedy, but that it also was a day of great heroism which exemplified the best of what America stands for.