9/11 Never Really Goes Away…Nor Should It.


The hashtag #NeverForget, a seemingly cliche sentiment that is trotted out every September 11th without fail, is also just a truthful description of my feelings about that fateful day.

I will never forget. Even if I wanted to, I can’t forget.

Having spent the past few days in New York City for the first time and staying in a hotel that was about a block from the 9/11 Memorial, my memories of and emotions about the events of that devastating Tuesday were more palpable than they usually have been in the subsequent 16 years.

For my work with Catholic Extension, I was traveling to the Big Apple with a group of about 35 religious sisters. Even in a city that’s seen it all, many people stopped to take photos of our caravan as we roamed the streets of New York.

I arrived a day before the sisters and explored the neighborhood surrounding my hotel, which included all of the new World Trade Center structures and the memorial. As I walked the streets, I wondered how many of the businesses I passed were there in 2001. How many of the people walking and working around me had experienced those acts of terrorism firsthand or knew someone who had died? How did they even begin the physical cleanup process, much less the emotional one?

I have read so many accounts of the chaos in the streets after the planes hit — as the buildings swayed precariously and bodies fell from the sky. I have seen hundreds of photos and video of everything covered in dust — including people who walked around in an astounded, confused daze after their workday or New York vacation had taken a turn for the horrific.

I had nightmares about the attacks and the haunting images of people jumping from the burning buildings for months after September 11th — and I had no direct connection to anyone who lived through or died from the experience. I can’t imagine what it was like for the people who did…or what it continues to be like.

The effects of 9/11 continue to rear their ugly head to this day. Even while I was in New York, there was a headline about a ferry captain who saved hundreds who just died of cancer related to the toxins released by the collapse of the buildings — like so many others who lived through the experience only to tragically die from it years later.

The memorial itself is beautiful and moving. Two separate square fountains take up the footprint of the twin towers, with water flowing endlessly downward into a square hole in the middle of the base of the structures. The outer edges of the squares are enscribed with the names of everyone who perished: office workers, firefighters, police officers, tourists — I even saw a reference to the unborn child of one of the victims who was pregnant. Loved ones commemorate the birthday of their beloved deceased by placing white flowers on their name. There were several flowers on display yesterday.

The sisters — all from Latin American countries — prayed a rosary next to one of the memorial fountains. A young sister from Puerto Rico — who couldn’t have been very old when 9/11 occurred — seemed particularly moved by the experience and led a beautiful prayer asking for God’s grace on the victims and their families and for mercy for the people who commited the atrocity.

Of all the exciting attractions that I wanted to experience in New York, this was one place to which I always felt called to make a pilgrimage. The experience reminded me anew of why I will never forget — and why we can’t.

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Processing A Hoax

A few months ago, my wife was taking our daughter for a walk in her stroller and accidentally left the garage door open. When she returned, the door in the garage that led into our house was also open. She couldn’t find her house keys, car keys and wallet — which usually hung on a hook just inside that strangely ajar interior garage door. It was freaky.

She made sure no one was in the house, retraced her steps, and tore the house apart looking for the keys and wallet. Since there had been quite a few recent incidents of people stealing unlocked cars and intruding into unlocked homes in the middle of the night — even in our very safe neighborhood — we decided to file a police report. The cops recommended that, if we couldn’t find the keys, we change the locks the next day. As an added precaution, we ended up sleeping at my parents’ house that night. My wife got the locks changed the next morning, but soon after doing so, she found the keys under a random flap on my daughter’s stroller. All turned out to be OK, but not without some tense moments of losing all sense of security that we had moments earlier completely taken for granted.

This story played out on a grander scale today at Northwestern University, my beloved alma mater. The stakes were obviously much higher: Evanston police received a call from someone claiming to have killed his girlfriend in a Northwestern graduate residence building. Northwestern’s emergency communications protocol swung into action, sending texts and making calls to all students, faculty and staff to alert them of the situation and urging them to take cover in a safe place.

It was more than an hour before the official “All Clear” message was released, and the incident was revealed to be a hoax. The call had come from somewhere near Rockford and the woman referenced was unharmed and in no danger, according to police. While this is probably the best possible outcome for a harrowing situation like this, the incident still caused a university-wide panic.

While for many people following the news, this was simply a moment of relief from “what might have been,” to me it was so much more than that.

Having studied and worked at Northwestern for more than 13 years, this was the equivalent of a home invasion for me. I also spent six years working in the office tasked with handling emergency communications (and was there for some tough stuff), which made receiving the news of today’s events particularly jarring.

I had just turned my phone back on after landing in Dallas on my way back to Chicago, when it immediately blew up with text message. Several other former University Relations coworkers were trading what little details were available via text and pondering what must be happening at our former office in these moments. Another former coworker and a fellow alum were sending me several tweets related to the situation.

Most importantly, my Mom texted me to say that my youngest brother — a current junior — was not on campus when the alert went out and was safe.

Scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds — filled with posts from students I had taught and staff and faculty I had worked with — painted a horrifying picture of the terror that gripped the place that was my home as a student for 5 years and as a staff member for 8 years. There’s a photo of 18 students huddled on the floor of a professor’s tiny office. There’s a photo of a classroom door with all of the chairs and desks stacked against the door. There are accounts of students running to closets and other hidden away areas of the student center upon receiving the emergency alerts.

While the shooting might have been a hoax, everything else that happened this afternoon was for real: the emergency texts, the police activity, the chaos, the uncertainty and the immediate coverage of little old Northwestern by national media outlets. It prompted visions of an alternate reality in which NU joined the statistics of all the other recent shootings in schools and public places.

Even though I wasn’t there to experience it in person, I feel that with today’s developments, the long shadow of gun violence in our country has finally touched me on a more personal level. I don’t pretend to have the political answers or perfect gun control policy changes, but something’s got to give. The value of human life is too sacred and our safety is too important for us to allow these kinds of things to happen so easily.

The reason that a hoax had to be taken so seriously today is because current events remind us that this is so often not a hoax. It is our sad new reality — a reality in which I can get on a plane for an hour and land to the news of violence and terror engulfing the people I love in a place that I love.

I’m praying a little bit harder tonight for all of the victims of the many violent incidents that resulted in far more than fear and false alarms. May their pain and loss be a constant reminder to us of the dignity of human life and the need to care for one another.

 


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Looking for the Helpers

His name was Aaron Feis. He was the school’s assistant football coach and a security guard.

His name was Scott Beigel. He was a history teacher and the cross country coach.

In a moment of terror and fear, they were heroes.

Of the many somber and angry posts that fly around the Internet after tragedies like yesterday’s Florida school shooting, the most comforting to me is always a quote from Mr. Rogers. In his inimitably calming way, he encourages us to “look for the helpers” as a way of finding something hopeful in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.

Unfortunately for us, the number of times we need to look for the helpers seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Something’s gotta give, and I don’t pretend to have any of the answers, so for now let’s concentrate on the helpers again.

This tragedy’s helpers are Aaron and Scott — and I’m sure they represent other school staff members and police officers who acted as heroically as they did, but whose stories have not yet been retweeted as widely.

Aaron Feis and Scott Beigel

These people are heroic not just for their actions, but also for their poise under pressure and their choice to combat the ultimate act of hatred — murder, with the ultimate act of love — self-sacrifice.

The alarming number of school and church and concert shootings leaves me imagining myself in these situations. It’s hard to ride a public train to work without pondering what would happen if someone started shooting at it or on it. It’s hard to work across the street from one of the most famous skyscrapers in Chicago without thinking about what would happen if there were a terrorist attack. It’s hard to comprehend sending my beautiful daughter to school in a few years knowing that a shooting could happen anywhere that a troubled kid has hateful ambitions and access to weapons.
It’s terrible to admit, but the world is becoming a scarier place every day, and we should all wrestle with the question: What would you do?
Would you run for the exits? Would you try to hide? Would you play dead? Would you be a human shield for your family members and friends? Would you shield the strangers around you? Would fear paralyze you? Would adrenaline take over? Would you live or die?

I’m not sure I can say how I would react in such a situation. But Scott and Aaron answered these questions in an instant, under the most extreme conditions. They chose to give their lives to save the kids around them who were entrusted to their care. Tonight, some parents are hugging their children who would otherwise have been murdered. Tonight Aaron and Scott’s families are grieving, but I hope their grief is also mixed with healthy doses of admiration and pride. On Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, these men showed us the purest form of selfless love — laying down their own lives so that others might survive.

Even when it’s not a life or death situation, we need more helpers like Scott and Aaron, who put the needs of others above their own.

We all need to be more helpful.


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