Our world has changed in many ways in the 20 years since 9/11.
The terrorist attacks by hijacked planes that destroyed the Twin Towers and took nearly 3,000 lives shook us to the core. All of us who were alive to experience it, in New York and the rest of the country, will never forget how we felt and where we were and what we were doing when it happened.
We’ve moved on, of course, and are living our lives as well as we can alongside a younger generation that knows about 9/11 only by the stories they’ve seen or heard.
Yet for those who lived through it, echoes remain even as the trauma fades.
Families and others who lost loved ones suffered the most in the agonizing aftermath of the attacks. They will always have a void in their hearts and lives, with memories their only solace.
As New Yorkers, it’s our duty, in a way, to remember and honor the 343 heroic firefighters we lost as well as other courageous first responders that died or were seriously hurt. In our archdiocese family we remember with sadness and pride Father Mychal Judge, O.F.M., the dedicated Fire Department chaplain who was the first certified fatality at the scene.
While the coming weekend will rightly be full of memorial services and other observances marking the 20th anniversary, it’s important that we recognize as well the ups and downs, related and unrelated to 9/11, of the intervening years.
It was just weeks after 9/11 that the United States invaded Afghanistan with the goal of rooting out Al Qaeda, the terrorist group led by Osama bin-Laden that planned the 9/11 attack from that country. Now, after a long war, too many casualties and billions of dollars spent, our military and civilian presence has been withdrawn, closing a troubled chapter of the 9/11 story.
A chapter that has not closed is the heightened vigilance that Americans have come to expect in the years since 9/11, a vigilance that has dramatically altered the way we live and that our young people, those born after 2001, consider a normal part of life.
Those young people have never experienced air travel, for instance, without the elaborate security precautions put in place after the attacks, and they couldn’t even imagine a world where one simply arrived at an airport with a ticket in hand and proceeded directly to a gate.
They take for granted, too, that they cannot enter urban office buildings, hospitals and other large spaces without showing a photo ID and maybe even getting a pass that allows them to enter and exit.
Unrelated to 9/11, Americans have been fighting a coronavirus pandemic in what is essentially another deadly attack on our freedom and safety. Our lives may well change at the end of that road too.
But no matter how sad and traumatic our memories of 9/11, we also should not forget the way the country came together as Americans after it happened. There were no politics, no finger-pointing, no blame games—just a strong sense that we were, as a nation, one America.
New York recovered as a city and a region after 9/11 in ways that no one, not even we New Yorkers, expected. The streets were safe, visitors flocked here, and lower Manhattan, the 9/11 target, was rebuilt and transformed.
As the anniversary weekend unfolds, we urge New Yorkers to set aside time, even if only a few moments in prayer, to the memory of that most tragic event.
Pray for the dead, for their surviving loved ones and for one another—that we may move ahead toward peace in our hearts and our world.