By Pauline Kerr
The unthinkable happened 19 years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001.
In this part of the world, people were just getting to work on a busy, late-summer Tuesday. Before long, media outlets were buzzing about something happening in New York City – a horrendous accident of some sort, a plane crash, a bomb. Initial accounts were as confusing as they were disturbing.
There was a certain hesitation about using the words “terrorist attack.” But the unthinkable was occurring while the world watched in horror. In all, four fuel-laden passenger planes crashed. Three hit their targets, two destroying the World Trade Centre Twin Towers and the third damaging part of the Pentagon. The fourth plane was heading in the direction of Washington, D. C., when it crashed into a field in Pennsylvania, apparently due to the brave action of passengers.
Those of us who were at school or work on that fateful Tuesday surely remember the shock. Television and radio announcers known for their cool demeanor were openly overcome with emotion. People who usually had theories and explanations for everything were speechless, waiting for what would come next.
What made it all the more shocking was that with the exception of intelligence officers who warned something big was about to happen on United States soil, no one seemed to have any idea what was going on.
The story gradually emerged that al-Qaida terrorists had taken over planes with the intention of crashing them into specific targets. At the time, no one knew how many more teams of suicide bombers might be in the air. To prevent that from happening, American air space was shut down for three days and planes were turned back or redirected, many to airports in Canada and Mexico.
In all, close to 3,000 people died, with untold thousands injured. Many more, primarily first responders, have subsequently become ill and died from their injuries and exposure to toxins.
Images remain etched in our minds of bodies tumbling from the burning towers, of smoke billowing into the sky around pieces of airplane protruding from the sides of buildings like the set of a horror movie, of exhausted, grim-faced rescue workers making their way through a mountain of ash and twisted metal.
Mostly, we remember the heroes of 9/11 – the emergency workers who headed into the devastation while everyone else was fleeing, the passengers on that fourth plane, the firefighter who planted the American flag on a pile of smoldering debris, the people who volunteered their services for search and rescue work, the many who donated blood, even the people who picked up stranded airline passengers and brought them home for a hot meal and a shower.
We have learned a lot since 9/11. First of all, the North American economy is a lot more resilient than al-Qaida thought. When suspected mastermind Osama bin Laden finally claimed responsibility for the attack, his stated aim was not only to take American lives but to bankrupt the United States. His motives were American support for Israel and the American military presence in the Middle East. Bringing down the World Trade Centre’s Twin Towers did damage the economy, but did not even come close to destroying it.
Second, and more important, the certain feeling of invulnerability that characterized North American society at the dawn of the new millennium evaporated in an instant. There is no magic bubble protecting us from everything negative happening in the world. There is no “us” and “them.” What happens on the other side of the world will inevitably have an impact here and vice versa.
The biggest lesson is about heroes. They count today more than at any other time in history. The most powerful, important people in the world on the day of the 9/11 attacks were not the terrorists, the politicians or the Wall Street financiers. They were people who were willing to risk their own safety to help others. Their images are what comes to mind when we think of 9/11.
Let this be a memorial to all the heroes of 9/11.