My father’s commentary on 9/11

As we all know, last week we commemorated the 13th Anniversary of the September 11th attacks. While I’m sure the more senior individuals of our community remember the day most vividly, the explosions and mayhem that flooded my family’s TV remain some of my most prominent childhood memories. Oddly enough, at the time, I thought the day’s impact would be minimal. I had no comprehension of words like “jihad” or “terrorist.” My entire extended family lived in northern California, far from smoldering downtown Manhattan, suburban Virginia or rural Pennsylvania. The entire tragedy felt as foreign to me as Afghanistan itself.

But as those first days following the attacks passed, I became increasingly aware that the world would never be the same. The attacks were not isolated to the Northeastern United States. They had killed citizens from 90 different nations. In my small suburban town, nearly everyone had a friend or relative who had been in Manhattan or had almost gotten on one of the planes. But my greatest connection to the events of that day was finding out my dad’s college roommate had been in the South Tower when the planes hit.

In this, my weekly column, I’ve decided to include the text of the speech my dad gave at a memorial event on the 10th Anniversary of September 11, 2001. While including my dad’s speech in my section may sound like literary nepotism, I stress that I’m not using this speech for self-aggrandizing means. I merely wish to tell a story that continues to inspire me in what it means to be an American.

We come together today to remember a terrible day; but even more to consider the days that have followed and that will follow.

It has been ten years since September 11, 2011.

The world that we imagined on September 10, 2001 all changed—changed utterly—in 24 hours. That morning of 9/11, thousands of men and women, Americans, Australians, and people of dozens of nationalities, Christians, Jews, Muslims, awoke thinking it was a normal day. In New York City they headed to work in the World Trade Towers. In Boston, Newark, and D.C., they rushed off to the airport to catch the early morning flight to San Francisco. In New York City, firefighters and police officers—men and women—kissed their spouses or partners goodbye as they left for the station. They all had their plans for the day: their meetings, who they would see at lunch, friends, appointments, errands with children. The world they imagined that morning, like the life they imagined, was one filled with many more days and years. They assumed life in all its fullness, whatever that life was. The ideals they held, the religion they practiced, the people they chose as their friends, their political views, the words they chose to say.

We don’t refer to these things usually as ‘freedom of religion,’ ‘freedom of speech,’ ‘freedom of association,’ ‘equality,’ or ‘liberty.’ We just call it living. We call it life. And likely so did the people on that day too. But that casual belief changed on September 11. These men and women—sons, daughters, fathers, mothers—were killed that day for simply living as they did, and where they did. People from over 90 nations were killed because they chose to live in a land that celebrated these values.

For those of us who survived, it was also a day we never imagined. Wherever we were, in countries around the world, we imagined a normal day as well. None of us expected the world to stop, and for us to watch in horror as people—people like us—perished before our very eyes, in flames, and ash, and rubble.

Faced suddenly with a world that we’d never imagined, the stark question for each of us to answer was this: ‘what do we do now?’ If people like us were going to be killed for living as we did, what would we do now?

One of the people asking this question was my college roommate, Jeff Thompson. Jeff and his girlfriend lived in New York, where he worked in finance and also sometimes went on the road to play with his band. On September 11, he was at work, on one of the top floors of the Second World Trade tower, when the first plane hit Tower One. Seeing the destruction next door, he started downstairs, but no one followed. He was halfway down, when the second plane hit—above him—cutting off all of his colleagues; everyone he knew from work. The stairwells filled with people as they marched down to get out of the building, while firefighters and police struggled to get up. Jeff was barely out of the tower when it all collapsed behind him. He was covered in dust, and blood, and tears. There were no phones. No cars. No way to get back home to his flat except to walk. And so he walked. He walked 18 miles, back to his apartment. When he arrived his girlfriend was home mourning his death. And when she opened the door, Jeff—covered in dust—looked like a ghost. They stood crying at one another. And then, he dropped to one knee and he asked her to marry him.

That is how he answered the question, ‘what do you do now?’ In the days and years since, they have married. They have a son. Jeff has left the glamorous lifestyle of high finance and show business, for a quiet life in a small town, where he teaches math. He has committed to the things that matter most to him: his wife, his child, his community, and to educating the next generation. He can never make sense of that day, and he will never be able to accept why he was spared when so many other good people perished. But in the days and weeks that have followed he has rededicated himself to doing the things they might have done if they had lived: living a free and good life.

Each day since that terrible day offers each of us the chance to do good things that help others. In the face of the question of September 12—what do I do now? There is no answer other than: I will be better. In the 10 years since September 11, survivors of terrorism around the world have struggled just as Jeff has to understand what happened, and why, and how to stop it from happening again. Free people have come together from New York to Nairobi, Bali to Belfast, Mumbai to Manila, Lahore to London, and many other places and nations afflicted by terrorism. We have all been more careful at our borders. We have been more aware in our intelligence. We have been more aggressive in our response to terror. But we have been more than that. We have looked inward; and we have looked outward. We have been more inclusive of religions—learning each others traditions, hosting Iftars together, celebrating Ramadan and renewing our commitment to religious tolerance. We shared our thoughts and hopes and beliefs even more freely through our political processes. We innovated and built new ways to communicate—social media—that connected us to more people around the world than ever before in human history. We made more friends. And we invested more than ever in our alliances and in our communities around the world. We gave more aid. We supported more charities. We welcomed new Countries like South Sudan. And we celebrated the spirit of democracy among the people of Tunisia and other nations in this Arab Spring.

We fought even harder against agents of hate, and fear, and intolerance wherever they lived. Tens of thousands of us have served this cause, often putting our lives at risk in difficult and dangerous places. We’ve lost some of our best and bravest men and women. And all of us have invested billions of dollars to save the world from killers like Osama Bin Laden, and those who followed his sick beliefs.

The terrorists wanted us to respond in terror—to be afraid to live as we had, and to believe as we did. In the 10 years that have followed, we have done just the opposite. We went back into our office buildings. We went back onto our airplanes. We came together in our temples, and churches, and Mosques. We lined up at our ballot boxes. We volunteered to serve our nations. And we gathered publicly without fear, whether to enjoy the simple pleasures of a football game, or a concert, or a barbeque. And we came together each year on this day to remember those who we lost, and to rededicate our lives in their memory. […] Confronted with hate, we choose not to hate. Confronted with death, we choose to live. Confronted with fear, we choose to hope. We have done, as Jeff did 10 years ago tonight. Faced with unimaginable fear and death, he kneeled to pledge his faith in love. Thank you.”