The catastrophic and heart-rending experiences of September 11, 2001 are an imprint upon the consciousness of America—indeed, the entire world—that will never fade or disappear. The anniversary of this day is always one that engenders great sadness or anger or even spirited motivation among those who every year feel as though have been transported back to a moment in time frozen in memory. The emotions tend to run highest on those anniversaries that for some arbitrary reason have been given a special kind of significance due to chronological passage of time. For instance, the tenth anniversary somehow seemed more poignant than the ninth or the eleventh. Likewise, in 2016, the fifteenth anniversary of that horrific day is somehow made to seem more intensely personal than it was in 2016 or will in 2017.
Take a moment to think about where you were not on September 11, 2001, but September 11…2007. Six years later. Take a moment right now to seriously think about that day. What can you recall about how you observed not the fifth anniversary of the attacks, but the sixth. Did you watch what has become almost a cleansing ritual every September 11: the live rebroadcast as it happened on MSNBC or CNN? Did you perhaps watch or listen to the tolling of the bell to mark the passing of each individual’s life? You may have done those things on the sixth anniversary of 9/11 in 2007. Or the eighth. Or the thirteenth. You may not recall exactly how you observed the anniversary of those sights and sounds that are forever burned into your memory.
Maybe you feel bad that you cannot even seem to fully remember what you were doing this time last year. Or maybe right about now you are starting to feel a little anxious about not being able to recall exactly what you are doing today. There is some expectation that you should be able to remember what you do today. It is, after all the fifteenth anniversary of that horrible, terrifying day. I’m going to give you some bad news and I want—I need—you to prepare yourself.
You won’t remember much about this speech. A year from now, you may not even remember that this speech took place. Three years—five years—ten or a dozen years from now…I can almost guarantee you will not recall a single a word from this speech you are hearing right. And you think you should. Because it is important. Because it is the fifteenth anniversary and that is one of the biggies. Oh, not as big as the tenth or certainly not as big as the twenty-fifth, but just as certainly it is bigger than the sixth or the eleventh anniversary. Right?
Of course not. Every single anniversary of that awful day that changed the world is equally important and it really doesn’t matter whether you will able to recall listening to this speech next or five years from now. And it really doesn’t matter whether you can remember if you watched the as-it-happened replay on the news channels or whether you chose instead to watch a rerun of, say, The Big Bang Theory. Don’t feel bad if you have lately decided to do something like watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory or binge view Breaking Bad or go for a drive or see a movie or just do whatever you can do get away from the memories of that horrible day. It’s okay. There is nothing to feel guilty about. And do you want to know why?
Because I know what you have done on each and every anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Yes, that’s right. I know exactly what you did on the first anniversary. And the third. And the seventh. And the thirteenth. And what you will do every single September 11 for as long as you live. Am I a psychic? Some sort of mentalist? You tell me.
What you were doing—each and every one of you—was calling to mind in the most vivid imagery imaginable scenes of men and woman in various manner of uniforms running. Not running away in terror from a giant hole inside the Pentagon or from flames spewing forth from the tallest structures in New York City, but running toward the unknown. No, that’s not right. Firefighters never run toward the unknown. That’s what makes them the greatest heroes the world has ever known. Every firefighter—but especially responding to the tragically psychopathic actions on September 11, 2001—knows what lies in store for them. You do not become a firefighter without knowing that when the bell rings and the sirens flare you are being called to step into the inferno. The valiant men and women in New York and Washington who responded to the calls that day knew that they were going to step into the fiery depths of hell just like they do every time they respond to the bells and sirens.
They just didn’t know that this day they were going to meet the devil.
Law enforcement officers and—at the Pentagon—soldiers joined their brothers and sisters in stepping into hell. And they too met the devil that day. That is the only difference between what they do every other day and what they did on September 11, 2001. That is what the rest of us don’t get. It’s what we can’t get. Every…single…day…is September 11, 2001 for first responders. Every day they get the call to go do the job they were trained to do could wind up being September 11, 2001 all over again. But on the real September 11, 2001 none of them new that this would be that day.
And it would not have mattered if they had known.
Whether it was the members of the Fire Dept. of New York or those members of the military who happened to be at the Pentagon that day, they did what the rest of us who aren’t members of their fraternity don’t. Check that. What most of the rest of us don’t do. But the events of September 11, 2001 proved that under the right circumstances in the right moment and with everything on the line…maybe—just maybe—we could be welcomed into that fraternity. Maybe somewhere deep inside every single one of us lies that indefinable—heroism—that is hanging out in the open for everyone to see when you are a firefighter or a police officer or a soldier.
A short time ago I said the difference between every other call the first responders ever responded to and the call they responded to on September 11, 2001 was that that on that day they met the devil. They met the devil. The passengers and crew of the United Flight 93 slapped the devil in the face. And in the slap, they showed us that under the right circumstances and in the right moment, maybe we do underestimate ours own heroism. Even more: by showing you and me that we underestimate the potential for our own heroism, they also revealed that we fail to appreciate on a daily basis the heroism of those in uniform who run toward danger rather than away from the danger.
You were thinking these things last September 11. And the year before and the year before and so on. And you will go on thinking those things next year. You may not even have realized you were thinking these things, but that’s as it should be. Because September 11 should be a sad day. A day of remembering events of such profound horror that the only really proper human response is unutterable melancholy.
September 12, however. Well, that’s another story. Another day. A day to really contemplate the lessons pulled out of the bottomless well of sadness. We are a nation of heroes. Some obvious. Some less so. But every one of us—every last one of us—will slap the devil if he dares to come after American again.