Today we remember

Photo: Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images

Photo: Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images

Last night, my wife and I took a walk around our Brooklyn neighborhood at dusk and saw a familiar sight: two beams of light, projected into the clouds, commemorating the place in the Manhattan skyline where the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood. 

My mother once told me that every American generation has a defining tragedy, an event that they will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about it. An event that forces them to grow up, to realize that the world is not the safe and welcoming place it once seemed to be. For my grandmother, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For my mother, it was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And for me and my generation, it's September 11, 2001.

I was sixteen years old, sitting in Mr. Meyer's Social Studies classroom for the first period of the day, when he wheeled in a TV. This was an unusual move, and we asked if we were going to watch a movie or something. Mr. Meyers said no, there's something happening on the news that he wanted us to be aware of. He switched it on, and image of the smoking towers filled the screen. At first I thought it was just a massive fire. Then we heard that a plane had flown into the towers and I thought it was a horrible accident. Then the awful truth was gradually revealed: not one, but two planes had flown into both towers, deliberately. The words "largest terrorist attack on American soil" started being used. Mr. Meyers said nothing, but I'll never forget watching him sit there, eyes down and his head in his hands. I did not fully understand what was happening, but I knew that the world was going to be very different place from then on. 

Even though I lived nowhere near New York City, the events of September 11 had a lasting impact on me. I remember writing in my journal about whether we would go to war, and how would I feel about going if I was called (I was woefully uninformed on the state of the draft). I didn't know anyone personally affected by the tragedy, but just thinking about the sheer number of people who died made my head swim. 

Then I moved to New York City, and September 11 became even more tangible to me. Suddenly, I could imagine what it must have been like to be on the subway and hear over the intercom what happened. Or to be downtown in the shadow of the towers on my way to work, and seeing it happen. I have friends and co-workers who lost loved ones on that day. One friend explained to me what it was like to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others, because that was the only way to get home. Smoke was still rising over the skyline, and everyone was terrified that another attack would happen at any moment.  

I have lived in this city for seven years and watched the skyline change as One World Trade rose to take the place of the Twin Towers. Not long ago the 9/11 Memorial Museum opened its doors in the neighborhood I've worked in ever since I moved here. I haven't been yet. I might go one day, but I know it has to be a day that I am ready for it. I have visited the massive reflecting pools that now sit where the towers once did, and the place has an air of the sacred about it. Seeing the names of the people who died in the attacks carved into the sides of the memorial, I feel an overwhelming sense of loss, and I try to picture them as brothers and sisters and spouses and parents and friends. 

It is not easy to remember tragedy, but it is important. Today we remember that horrible day and the way it changed us as a nation and as individuals. We remember those who lost their lives and speak their names aloud so that they are not forgotten. We can't hope to make sense of what happened that day, but we will remember it so that we can hope to build a better world for the next generation - a world in which they won't have to grow up before they're ready.