Look around our city this September 11 and realize that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Now, three years after the worst day in our history, we are perhaps ready to reflect on what would have seemed almost sacrilegious just a year ago: how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, not only changed our city forever but, by making us stronger and more united, changed us for the better.
Nothing can replace the loved ones we lost and nothing should make us forget the cold evil behind Mohammad Atta’s eyes. But we are stronger as a result of our suffering – more united in the face of indiscriminate hate, and more appreciative because we have all been seared by heartbreak. We were selfish and slumbering; now, although still far from perfect, we are wide-awake.
Before September 11, our city seemed obsessed with self-division. We were susceptible to acts of racial arson; quick to retreat to our own tribe of hyphenated-Americans and throw up barriers of mutual incomprehension. Distrust easily devolved to dislike; dislike eventually edged toward hate; and hate has a way of ultimately turning to violence. High crime rates only compounded this problem. Politicians with the best of intentions unintentionally stoked these fires in the name of multiculturalism by balkanizing our city into separate tiles of a “gorgeous mosaic.” Occasionally, these divisions were exploited as a campaign tactic – pick up a copy of the New York Post from September 10,2001, and you’ll read a front page story about a debate between mayoral hopefuls in which the former Bronx borough president, Fernando Ferrer – now assumed to be the Democratic front-runner for the 2005 race – trots out his theme of New York as “two cities.” The then-City Council president, Peter Vallone, correctly counterattacked by saying, “When you’re talking about a divided city, suddenly it becomes us against them.”
The next morning, it became “us against them” for real. Faced with an unprecedented attack out of the blue, we instinctively realized that what we share as Americans and New Yorkers is far greater than those details that make us different. The social barriers that had once seemed so insurmountable – black and white, liberal and conservative, straight and gay, native and foreign-born – suddenly evaporated under fire. We rose to the occasion by meeting hate with a love that knew no boundaries beyond our common humanity.
Much hand-wringing and navel-gazing had been devoted to whether contemporary Americans had the character to live up to the standards set by “The Greatest Generation.” No one wonders anymore. The example our firefighters and police officers set by running up the stairs and into the inferno will live on as long as our nation. Their instincts revealed that bedrock American character was not only intact, but also ready to be at its best in a moment’s notice.
Before September 11,words like courage and sacrifice had lost much of their meaning for a generation fed a steady diet of scandals tailored to short attention spans. Now these are more than words, they are actions we admire and aspire to in our own lives. Before September 11, it was fashionable in some circles to accuse cops of being the equivalent of criminals. Now, when a point needs to be made in public debates, the moral authority of people who put their lives on the line for us every day is invoked by voices across the political spectrum. We are more appreciative of firefighters, police officers, and even members of our own family because we know they can all be taken away in an instant.
Before September 11, Americans had not been attacked on our native soil by a foreign power since Pearl Harbor; before that it was the War of 1812. Our innocence was so complete it was almost sweet – practically everyone I’ve spoken to assumed the first plane hitting the World Trade Center had to be some kind of mistake, a tragic accident despite the blue-sky day that pilots call “radical clear.” We no longer have the luxury of being so naive. We are sadder but wiser. We are tougher and better prepared, and as a result we are safer.
New Yorkers especially have lived under the threat of another attack for the past three years; this waiting game has not broken our will but made us stronger. We are resolved to go on. If we should find ourselves on a hijacked airplane, we would honor the heroes on Flight 93 by fighting even harder. In facing down our fears and choosing to live in freedom, the persistence of life is itself defiant and in this there is untold strength. Life’s other challenges seem small by comparison. We are more clear-eyed, and if we have a touch less time for sentiment, we are ultimately more compassionate.
Against the national trend, New York continues to be safer every year. Racial divisions that once regularly threatened to ignite have cooled to the point that the near riots of the past seem like distant memories. Demagogues of the far left and right still exist, but their divide-and-conquer tactics are discredited. We recognize more than ever that we are all brothers and sisters in the face of a greater threat that does not discriminate. We are Americans first, lovers of a freedom that others despise, and as a result we are each other’s defenders in a dangerous world. We stand together.
On the third anniversary of September 11, we know something we did not know in the dizzying days and weeks after the attacks: We know we have the strength to go on. We walk now with an increased sense of devotion to freedom, humbled and inspired by the courage we witnessed with our own eyes. From actions remembered by many to those cherished by only a few, we now take greater comfort in each other’s company. There is a new rhythm to life in New York, still vibrant but more reverent than in years past. For me, it follows the lines of a litany written by Bruce Springsteen in a song titled “Into the Fire,” penned to honor the lost rescuers after the attacks:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love.
They already have. We need only to keep the flame alive in our hearts and live up to their example when faced with challenges in the future. We now know beyond all doubt that we have the capacity to be one city and one nation, indivisible.