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  • Dan Connors

Reflections on 9/11 from the museum

Those of us who lived through 9/11 will never forget it. The news of four separate airplanes being hijacked and flown purposely into our nation's most prominent buildings was a shock that few of us could have ever imagined. It changed the world in disturbing ways in the space of a few hours. But what should we take away from this traumatic experience? Muslims are evil? The world is unsafe? Our leaders betrayed us? Or is there something positive that can be gleaned from it all?

I recently visited the 9/11 memorial at the old site of the World Trade Center in New York and had a chance to revisit the events of that day. (Ten years ago I also visited the memorial at the Pentagon, which was equally haunting.) The last time I had been down there was in the 90's, when I went up to the top of one of the towers for a spectacular view. The 9/11 memorial has three sections. The first section is outdoors and includes two giant squares representing the original footprints of the twin towers. On all four sides of these squares a waterfall runs down to the bottom to disappear eventually into a black hole at the bottom. Along the sides are the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of the attack that perished on that day. On special occasions flags are placed at the site, and on the victim's birthdays a rose is placed next to their name.

The second section lies inside of the memorial, which has been constructed downward to the bedrock of where the twin towers fell. Inside of this museum are remnants from the attack, including large steel beams that were fractured and bent, one of the fire trucks from the scene, staircases, signs, and benches that survived the attack, and a single steel beam with the names of first responder companies who worked in the dangerous ground zero for months after the attack. Perhaps the most striking thing down there for me was the giant blue mosaic, Stories of Hope, with 2,893 individual watercolor tiles (one for each victim), each one in a unique shade of blue.

The third section of the museum is the exhibitions- two rooms at the bottom of the museum devoted to photos and artifacts from that day. While the first two sections are quiet and solemn, the exhibitions are loud, violent, and sad, with all of the video, photos, and details that force you to remember a day we'd all rather forget. The Historical Exhibition is the most extensive, and it takes you from the earliest moments of the attack through to the aftermath. The Memorial Exhibition is a solemn room filled with color photos of the victims, to bring to life the thousands of names up above on the memorial fountains.

Possibly the most inspiring thing in the entire 9/11 site is the survivor tree. Underneath all of the rubble, workers found a pear tree, broken and burned,but not quite dead. The tree was dug up and transported to a nursery where it was brought back to health. It now stands proudly at the site, flowering every spring and mocking all of the death and destruction that had rained down upon it.

So what did I take away from all of this? Having lived through the mess that happened after 9/11 and the many mistakes that were made, it filled me with sadness to think of the staggering losses and missed opportunities that came from that day and beyond. Not only did we lose nearly three thousand innocent lives to the scourge of terrorism, but the world lost something that day as well. We lost our sense of brotherhood, as from that day on Muslims (of whom there are nearly 2 Billion souls on earth) were seen as fanatics and enemies to many here in America. 9/11 gave power to the fear merchants, who enlisted us in two costly wars that wasted 500,000 lives and billions of dollars that could have gone to building something rather than destroying something. We wasted many years in two wars that ended up not accomplishing much in that part of the world, wars that probably would never have happened had there been no September 11th attack.

I'm at a loss to understand the motives behind the terrorists behind 9/11. They don't represent most Muslims, and they weren't even from Iraq or Afghanistan, as most of them came from Saudi Arabia. I wish we were closer to understanding how so much hate could have propelled 19 young men across the globe on a mission to cause so much misery, which they surely should have known would cause even more misery in a backlash. The world is way too complex for me to fathom what their lives must have been like, but I hope we've learned something from this tragedy by now.

Mr. Rogers said "look for the helpers", and that is what gives me solace when thinking about disasters such as this. There were so many helpers. Over 400 first responders died that day rushing into two burning skyscrapers while others were running away. All they knew was that there was suffering and they rushed in to help, risking their own lives in the process. Thousands of ordinary Americans, and even a few celebrities, rushed to Ground Zero in the weeks after the attack to help sift through the debris and find and locate remains of loved ones. Many of these people later became sick from the hazardous fumes at the site, but they felt obligated to go anyway. And of course eventually the site was cleared and a brand new World Trade Center rose in its place to complement the memorials in defiance of the terrorists desire to scare us into submission.

If we've learned anything since 9/11, one thing is that we've gotten better at security. Dozens of terrorist plots since then were stopped in their tracks and the perpetrators arrested before a single life was lost. Airport security is much tighter than it was before, and flying has never been safer. And perhaps losing our sense of invulnerability has made Americans just a bit more humble, which was a hard lesson coming from the 20th century when basically the US dominated. We realize that economics, climate, and trade are much more complicated than we once thought, and that's something that we can build upon for the challenges of the 21st century.

My favorite 9/11 story comes not from New York or Washington DC, but from Newfoundland, Canada, and the helpful citizens who took in thousands of stranded flyers in the days after the attack. The spirit of brotherhood and cooperation that followed these attacks are what I'd like to think about, especially in an age where we are more polarized and mistrustful of each other than ever. Once upon a time we saw death, realized we were vulnerable, and looked to our neighbors for comfort and reassurance. Below I present a video from the musical "Come From Away," that told this great Newfoundland story through song while putting a spiritual tone on the events of 9/11. I encourage people to see the production if it comes to your city (also available on Apple+ currently).

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