I didn’t know a single one of the nearly 3000 victims personally. The closest I came to understanding the terror of September 11, 2001 was in trying to help students and staff at my school whose loved ones worked in Washington, D.C. that day. The assistant principal came to my door between classes to tell me about the attacks, and shortly afterwards, the towers came crashing down. I allowed student after student into my office to make frantic calls to parents, and when they couldn’t reach a mom or a dad, I reassured them, with more certainty that I felt, that their loved ones were safe.
Like many in America, I sat in front of the television for days, crying for the losses others suffered. My daughter, who was in tenth grade at the time, begged me to turn off the television. But even when I did, I saw those tiny figures of people jumping from windows, replaying over and over in my mind as they had on the screen.
This past weekend, for the first time since the rebuilding of One World Trade Center, I visited the site of the memorial. I expected quiet reverence, the kind I’d read about in accounts shortly after the opening of the site. Instead, the grounds around the fountains bustled with chattering tourists.
I strained my neck backwards to look up at the tower. One broken window marred the smooth surface of glass where another tragedy had been averted the day before. Two window washers dangled, praying they wouldn’t fall from the 69th floor after the platform on which they stood malfunctioned, one side stopping while the other continued to rise. Thankfully, they survived the ordeal—and the media circus that followed.
Turning from the tower, I walked to the memorial pools. I couldn’t reconcile the notion of the gleaming blue windows of the building with the black darkness of the reflecting pools. Unable to see into the bottom of the waterfalls, I imagined them swallowing life after life into the abyss. I ran the tips of my fingers gently over a name and wondered who she was, who had lost her. I whispered a prayer, hoping she was in a peaceful place. I wondered whether she had anyone to leave her a white rose, like those tucked into two other names near hers.
Ours is a world of incongruities. I had traveled to New York for the premiere of a documentary that my stepdaughter had worked on—about corrupt policemen in Brooklyn. I had come to the memorial to pay tribute to ordinary people—unwilling heroes rescued from the anonymity of their lives but unable to be rescued from death at the hands of terrorists.
Most assuredly, some of those who died on September 11 were people of dubious morality. Perhaps someone in those buildings had cheated on her husband. Someone in those buildings had likely made money by specious means: Perhaps he was even the next wolf of Wall Street.
But someone might have been a devout Christian, a leader in his church. Someone might have been an atheist who used her money to fight for social justice on behalf of the poor. Someone else might have been service staff, who worked hard during the day and took classes at night to earn his degree.
I looked at the endless rectangle of names and wondered. Who are they, that we should remember them? And I knew in that moment that they are us—we who are imperfect, we who do our best to find our place in the world.
As tears filled my eyes, my daughter came up behind me and put her arm around me. I wondered whether she was thinking of those days when she pleaded with me to turn off the television. She works for the government in Washington, and every time a terror alert is issued, I whisper a prayer that she will be safe—that she will never be in a position that places her name on the wall of a future memorial.
The agency she works for is often the target of criticism, as are many government offices. “Mom,” she said to me, “sometimes I wonder about what I do. But when I see this, it makes me know that my job is important—that we need to be prepared if this kind of thing happens again.”
We ended our day at the waterfront, watching the glimmer of light across the waters to the Statue of Liberty. We could scarcely see her in the glow of the sunset, but we were eager to remember the promise of freedom that has cost so many of our fellow citizens so much.
Yes, we live in a world of incongruity. It’s an ugly world. It’s a beautiful world. It’s the best world we’ve got.