We swore that we would never forget: the thunder and shudder of the towers coming down; funeral after funeral, our hearts shattered; searing image after searing image, our souls scarred.
Now, two years later, we have kept the faith. We have not forgotten. Truth be told, we could not if we wanted to.
The attacks on America, the destruction of our World Trade Center, all the brave and innocent lives lost, these are the central facts of our time. They do not grow easier to understand with the passing of days.
There is a line from E.B. White’s “Here is New York” that retains its shock of recognition despite having been written in 1949: “The city, now for the first time in its long history is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now; in the sounds of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest editions.”
How do we go on when our worst fears have been faced? New Yorkers have answered the question during the past two years with the way we have lived in our proud and still resilient city. We now understand that how a person lives is more important than how they die. But for those of us who survived the attacks, there is an additional, more pressing question: What to do with the rest of the time we’ve been given?
Our challenge, it seems, is to harness our anger and despair so that future historians do not see these attacks as the first chapter in the fall of a new Roman Empire, but the desperate last gasp of tyranny reacting to the unsettling but undeniable promise of freedom.
This struggle between freedom and fundamentalism is destined to be the theme of our times, and New York is the city on the front lines.
We need to accept this challenge with all appropriate intensity and not allow our renewed sense of purpose to fade with time. We should not need our freedom to come under attack for us to appreciate it. We should not wait for our diversity to be attacked for us to defend it. But perhaps most of all, we will not allow ourselves to take the simple blessings of life for granted.
Debates that distract from the largest issues, petty controversies that divide our city again into a collection of competing special interests, need to be consciously dismissed as relics of the era that ended on September 10, 2001.
We have seen with our own eyes – through suffering, smoke, fire, and skeletal spires – that we are not a city divided, as some local politicians used to allege, but one city, indivisible.
To believe anything less is to disrespect our honored dead. We have lived through history imposed upon us. Now is the time to craft our own history, guided by the desire to better and not embitter the world.
When the second plane sloped sickly towards the heart of the second tower, we knew on some gut level beneath the rising horror, that New York City was a stand-in for America. What we need to continue to see clearly is that our enemies hate us not because of what is wrong with America, but because of what is right with America: individual freedom, democracy, diversity, and the rule of law. We should feel strengthened by the courage of these convictions, without apology.
Freedom is always worth defending. The false comforts of any fundamentalist doctrine are always worth defying. It is right that as we look to the future, we will rebuild the Trade Center even taller than it was before. Fear offers false counsel. We can also take enduring comfort from the fact that the lessons we needed to spiritually sustain us in the years ahead were provided in the first few minutes of the attack by the firefighters and police officers who – this cannot be said too many times – rushed into the burning buildings with as much selfless determination to save stranger’s lives as the terrorists had to destroy humans’ lives. In no religion is the murderer superior to the murdered. Even in the unfolding fog of war, waged in the womb of our city, moral clarity was intact as the line was drawn between the innocent and the attacker, civilized world and terrorism.
We will move forward – time moves in only one direction. But as we continue to try and assimilate the facts of previously unimaginable loss into our lives, we know that the core of mourning will never entirely subside unless it is replaced by a deeper resolve. The last firefighter funeral occurred only last week, and shards of bone are still being discovered in the perimeter of where the Twin Towers once stood. It would take another five years to dedicate just a single day to the memory of each of the innocent people lost that terrible morning two years ago. Their memory will remain sacred, and our devotion undimmed, as we resolve to embrace the opportunity of this life by building a better world in their name.