Sunday, September 11, 2011

Never Forget

There are many things that make the United States unique in this world.  There is no country on Earth as culturally, racially, religiously, or otherwise diverse as the U.S. of A.  And despite that diversity, there are times in this nation's history that bring all of those different races, age groups, religions, and ideologies together under one cause.  At those few times that dot our historical landscape, we are no longer Kentuckians, or whites, or blacks, or Jews, or Protestants, or Catholics, Hispanics, Southerners, Northerners, Indians, or anything else...We are all Americans.

The American Revolution...World War II...The Cold War...Putting a man on the moon...The 1980 Olympic Games...Regardless of their historical significance, they all have one thing in common:  they united the people of this great nation together for one goal.  Whether it was gaining independence, destroying suppression and tyranny, being the world's greatest military power, planting an American flag on the moon, or winning a hockey game...It was US vs. Them...Whether for better or worse.

My dad could tell you where he was and what he was doing when Neil Armstrong uttered those famous words from the surface of the moon.  He could tell you where he was and what he was doing when a group of young, American college students defeated the mighty Soviets at their game.  My grandparents could likely tell you where they were when they heard the news that Nazi Germany had fallen, and Japan had surrendered.  For those that experienced them, those few instances are engrained in their memories forever.

Today is September 11, 2011.  It's hard to believe it has been ten years since that fateful day when radical terrorists highjacked four commercial planes, flew them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (due to the heroic acts of a few brave passengers) a Pennsylvania field.  More than 3,000 lives were lost that day, and the entire country watched in horror as the events unfolded before our eyes on national television.

Like my father with the moonwalk and the 1980 Olympic hockey semifinals, and like millions of Americans across this country, I remember where I was and what I was doing that day.

I remember driving to school.  The sky was a crystal blue, without even a hint of a cloud anywhere to be seen.  There was that first bit of a fall chill in the morning air, but the perfect weather for driving with the windows down.  Which I did.

I hung out in the commons area at school when I arrived, just like I did every morning that I wasn't running late.  The first bell rang, and we all filed down the halls to our respective classrooms.  My first period class was Mr. Leeper's junior English class, one of my favorite classes ever.

We took our seats, awaiting morning announcements to come over the intercom.  I sat in the far left row, second seat from the front.  Mr. Leeper took attendance, and then we heard the familiar "ding" from the intercom, expecting the announcements.  Only this time, all we heard was, "Teachers, please check your email."  Then nothing more.  I didn't think twice about it.

Mr. Leeper walked over to his computer, checking his email like he had been instructed.  I remember watching him intently, and to this day I'm not really sure why.  Things like that happened all the time, but for some reason, I was interested in his facial expression.  His reaction to whatever it was he was reading.  You could see the concern and surprise on his face, but he didn't say a word.  He turned around, reached up, and turned on the television.

I will never forget the first images I saw.  It was a live video of the first tower, it's upper quarter engulfed in flames, with thick, black smoke billowing out the top of it like a stack from an Industrial Age factory.  The commentators were saying how it appeared to be a tragic accident.  A few gasps could be heard around the classroom, but besides that, it was total silence.

About that time, they cut to a news anchor who was standing across the bay in New Jersey with the World Trade Center in the background.  I don't remember what he was saying, but while he was in mid-sentence, the second plane could be seen in the background flying into the tower, a huge fireball as the gas tanks exploded, and his shock as he turned around at the sound of the explosion.  At that moment, we didn't need the news reporters to tell us what we were seeing was no accident.

I can't speak for everyone, but for me, at that moment, I knew things would never be the same.  There are very few moments in one's life where they understand the significance as an event is happening, but that is one of the few times that I knew what I was watching and experiencing was something none of us would ever forget.

For the rest of the day, we did nothing but watch news coverage in every class.  In the hallways and at lunch, it was the only topic of conversation.  When I went home that afternoon, I watched more coverage.  It was the most important event I have ever witnessed.

The tragic nature of the events that day cannot be understated.  I could write forever and not be able to do it the justice it deserves, especially for those who were directly involved or who lost family members.  So I won't even try.  But, like the other significant historical events I mentioned, September 11, 2001 united this country in a way I had not previously seen in my lifetime, and likely won't see again.

People from all walks of life, all religions, all cultures, were drawn under one banner.  One cause.  After air traffic returned, after baseball and football continued to play games, and after the first American troops landed in Afghanistan, this country was no longer a breadbasket.  We were united as one, and fighting the same battle.  Whether we were wearing a uniform and carrying a gun, hanging an American flag in the yard, or just exhibiting a sense of pride and brotherhood, we were all on the same team.

That's what I remember about September 11.  I absolutely wish the events that took place that day had never happened.  I wish the thousands of families that lost loved ones still had those people sitting around the dinner table with them.  I wish the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had never taken place, and I wish the American lives that were lost fighting those wars were never taken.  With that being said, seeing the pride the American people embodied, seeing the attitude and ideology that made this country so great was inspiring.  Despite all of the violence, racism, and hatred that has tarnished the history of the United States, we proved we could come together and put our differences aside, if for just a short time.

Unfortunately, those events didn't unite us for long.  And, in some ways, they helped divide us.  They helped illustrate the darkness that can exist in all humans, and that part is extremely disheartening.  I want to share something that occurred last year in one of my classes while I was teaching at Metcalfe County to help illustrate my point.

We were covering World War II in my U.S. History class, and as part of the unit, we were discussing the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during the war.  At one point during the discussion, a girl piped up and said, "We ought to do the same thing to all the Muslims."  I stopped speaking, completely frozen.  I didn't even know how to respond.

I asked her, "Why exactly should we imprison all the Muslims?"
"Because they attacked the World Trade Center.  We ought to put all of 'em here in jail, and nuke the rest," she said with all of the sincerity as possible.

I couldn't believe my ears.  The exact thing that had caused all of it...Hate...Was now rearing its ugly head after the fact.  I tried to explain to her that the act of a few radical psychopaths was no reason to collectively label every Muslim on the planet.  I tried to use the Westboro Baptist Church as an example.

"Is it fair to say every Baptist in the world is as heartless and misguided as those that protest military funerals?"
"No, but it's different.  I hate Muslims, they're awful," she said.
"Have you ever actually met one?" I asked, knowing she hadn't.
"No, but I've seen them.  I saw three or four at a Waffle House with my dad once, and they were making fun of Americans," she said.  I almost laughed.
"Ok, so, three people?  That's enough to say you hate a group of millions?"

It was like talking to a brick wall.  I could've offered any counter-argument imaginable and she wouldn't have budged.  Hearing that was saddening.  Just like anyone else, I hate what the terrorists did and continue to do on a daily basis.  But I also realize that millions of Muslims around the world, and virtually all of them in this country, denounce what terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda stand for.  Make sure you remember that, as well.

I challenge you to reflect on the events that took place that day in 2001.  I challenge you to remember those that serve our country, those that put their own lives at risk everyday to protect us at home, and to protect this nation.  Say a prayer for them and their families.  Shake the hand of a soldier.  If you know one, call them up and thank them.  Say a prayer for the leaders of this country, that they'll make sound decisions and bring our troops home.  Remember where you were, what you thought, how you felt.  But don't let those feelings fuel hatred.  As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently put it, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Never forget.

Tell me your story in the comments below.  Thanks for reading.

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