Seventeen years ago, it felt as if we were largely united as a nation. We came together as neighborhoods and communities, as cities and states to proclaim that we, as a nation, were indivisible. That we would not be ruled by fear. We didn’t care if we were black or white, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, or whether we ate at Chick-fil-A or wore Nikes. We were all just Americans — and that was enough.
Stories and photographs abound about the heroics of that day, from the firefighters who rushed into the burning buildings, to shopkeepers passing out water, food and shoes to people covered in dust from the collapse of the twin towers, to Todd Beamer, one of the passengers on hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 that crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
In 2001, long before Facebook was a thing, I was in an internet scrapbooking group. As the day’s events unfolded, the community started to rally around Beamer’s wife, who was in this group. It wasn’t until later that we learned that he had been the one to say “Let’s roll.” The passengers and crew on that flight were heroes.
Another of the day’s many unsung heroes was Rick Rescorla. Rick was working on the 44th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center when a loud explosion made him look out his window, where he saw the North Tower in flames. An Army veteran, he was working as a security director at Morgan Stanley and was responsible for the safety of 2,700 employees. When a security message was sent to employees in the South Tower to stay put, he ignored it and began evacuating all employees. Once almost all 2,700 were out, Rick headed back into the building to find more people to help. He was last seen on the 10th floor, heading upward.
Ten years after that fateful day, Heather “Lucky" Penney finally shared her story of that morning. A lieutenant in the Air Force and an F-16 pilot, Heather had her orders: Bring down United Airlines Flight 93. There were no missiles, no live ammunition. Her only weapon was her plane, and Penney and her commanding officer took off from Andrews Air Force Base to ram their planes straight into a Boeing 757. She dismissed the idea of trying to eject just before impact with a shudder. The idea of missing her target was a fate worse than death.
Six weeks later, my husband and I were on a plane to one of the “-stan” countries, as we traveled to Kazakhstan to adopt two little boys. It was a bit surreal to be so close, relatively speaking, to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, but support for the United States was on display everywhere we went. It was not nearly as scary as some imagined. We met another adoptive family who had flown into Kazakhstan a couple of weeks before us — his boss had told him “Goodbye. It’s been nice knowing you,” assuming their family would never make it out alive. The reality was, we never felt safer. It felt as if all of Kazakhstan had our backs.
I’ve stood at the edge of the giant hole where the two towers once stood and felt I was on holy ground. I’ve toured the Pentagon and heard the miraculous chain of coincidences that kept damage and loss of life to a minimum — much lower than should have been expected. Seventeen years later, that moment in time is one that changed our nation.
In those days of unity, when we thought we were rising above fear, we were also allowing fear to fracture us. Too many of us lump 1.6 billion people — almost a quarter of the world’s population — into one category and label them “evil.” I saw it all over news stories on Tuesday — calls, even, to “Build the Wall” as if a wall on our southern border would have stopped the tragic events of 9/11. According to a Pew Research Report in 2016, assaults on Muslims in the United States have increased by almost 50 percent. Another survey found that of U.S. Muslims interviewed, 75 percent say there is significant discrimination against Muslims.
In many ways, it seems as if we are devolving into the worst forms of tribalism in the past 17 years. Black men need to worry about being shot in their backyards or in their own apartments. Politics is increasingly extreme, rape is on the rise (at least in Utah) and the fear of “others” not like us leads to some terrible public policies and some terrible public and private actions by citizens.
This week, when we encourage each other to #NeverForget, I hope what we mean is never forget what it feels like to feel united. Never forget what it feels like to love our brothers and sisters regardless of race, gender or political affiliation. Never forget that as a country, we can rise above anything that happens to us and never forget that we are all greater when we work together to lift each other.
Holly Richardson, a regular Salt Lake Tribune contributor, remembers well the day the world changed.