20 Years After – How did 9/11/2001 change us?

Our experiences of September 11, 2001 are, first and foremost, intensely personal. As Laurie Guadagno, sister of Flight 93 hero Richard Guadagno, put it: “The world changed. My family changed.” We all changed that day.

Like almost everyone who lived through it, I can remember where I was and what I was doing on that day. I was in my fourth-floor walk-up office at Nationalities Service Center downtown. With a fellow attorney, I listened to a North Jersey AM station we managed to find on the radio. The announcer was seeing the events directly from his studio, looking across the Hudson at the World Trade Center towers: first burning and then collapsing. The anguish in his voice was palpable and he described this as the worst day since December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I went home to be with my wife and kids. We checked the news online but put Sesame Street on the TV. We gave our children one last day of innocence.

We all remember how we felt on September 11th.

Maybe today, we need to remember how we felt on September 12th. We made decisions to come together. We shared grief and sadness. We also shared the feelings of pride as we recognized that our country was not simply a piece of land, it was an idea that occupied a place in our hearts and minds. Even though the sense of security we had as a nation was gone, we found a resilient core and had a sense of community that was greater than it had been in a generation. Displays of national pride and unity became commonplace – with our national hymns like the Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and God Bless America, being sung multiple times at the same events. These were not simple performances of patriotism, they were heartfelt and directly personal expressions of how we felt connected to each other.

As we moved on, a new word began to be used that we never used before – Homeland. An entire department of the government was created to address what we now felt was an existential threat. It was tied to the idea that our territory had to be protected in order to preserve our way of life.   People took the threat so seriously that they gave away personal freedoms and liberties. We became accustomed (and still are) to long security lines at places like airports and giving our personal information to complete strangers at building security and other places. There were extreme measures taken as well, where targeted enforcement against certain groups and religions became commonplace simply because they were not like ‘us.’ 

Some people, myself included, were concerned that giving away of individual rights would erode the true character of our nation as a place where freedoms of speech and religion, and hope for economic opportunity and security were our guiding ideals (never mind that we often did not reach those ideals in practice). However, as a country we trusted that there will always be a balance between individual freedom and social stability. We chose in that time to accept restrictions and limitations we otherwise would have found intolerable.

This is why I say that we should remember how we felt on September 12th – the day we chose to come together. We are and never will be a perfect union. We can only strive to be a ‘more perfect union’ than we are today. To do that, we have to recognize that even though our individual rights will always be in conflict, we have to be accountable to each other. We have all seen inconsiderate actions, whether it is a nuisance bar playing music late into the night, ATVs and motorbikes running through the streets, political banners using foul language, or refusing to vaccinate or wear a mask amidst a global pandemic. Our social responsibility to look out for our neighbors like we did 20 years ago means being actively engaged to fix the problems and not just complaining about how we are affected. It means doing things that might make us uncomfortable, even when it feels harder and more difficult – because that is when it will matter most. 

A final personal story connected to 9/11: in early 2002 I returned for the first time to New York after the attacks. I took the PATH train from Jersey into the City, to the still-operating station at the base of the WTC. It was open to the air, and memorial photos were on the walls of what had been an underground tunnel. The place was haunted by the dead. I knew then that no claim I might make to individual liberties could ever balance up against the lives that should have been allowed to go on their natural course on September 11th.