The following is a piece I wrote for Rise Literary Magazine to commemorate the Fourth of July. On this 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I feel it is most appropriate to republish it here.
Visiting the 9/11 memorial on June 11, 2016 for the first time:
It has been nearly 15 years, but it still feels fresh. Maybe it’s because I’ve recently read so much about the attacks and the events leading up to them, but even walking among the people in the streets surrounding the memorial, many faces still seem to show the pain. You walk through ongoing construction, part of which is on the Freedom Tower and part of which is on the memorial efforts, a reminder that we are still rebuilding from the catastrophe. You feel the memorial before you see it. In fact, you’ve felt it since the very day of the attacks, the hole they ripped not only in the side of each building but in the American psyche, in our sense of security, our peace of mind, and the very fabric of life as we knew it. It is the perfect memorial to commemorate the event: two huge voids in the form of reflection pools where the towers once stood. In the sunlight the water cascading down appears like the ribbons of steel that once ran high above this place in the Manhattan sky. If you look hard enough, you can almost make out the shape of the towers in the reflecting cascade. The water falls once before falling again into a second endless chasm, a reminder that the impact of September 11th will forever last.
The Freedom Tower rises 1776 feet into the sky, standing guard over its fallen brethren. Covered in large glass panels, the tower reflects the appearance of the sky above it. It’s almost as if this massive symbol of American resilience doesn’t appear on its own, standing as only a vague shadow of what came before it. In this way it is the perfect successor to the Twin Towers that once stood here, serving not to outdo their presence but to acknowledge what their standing – and their falling – have come to mean to our nation and the world.
You don’t feel like speaking and you certainly don’t feel like smiling. You feel frustrated, defensive even, seeing tourists, American and international alike, posing for photos. You feel like shaking them, asking how they can produce such self-indulgent grins in this space where being a human leaves no room for being a tourist. You are reminded of this seeing the somber faces of the police officers watching over the memorial plaza. Some of them may have been first responders, but nearly all of them must have known someone who was. Their pain is real; your respect should be too.
Walking into the memorial museum, you are subject to body scanners and your belongings are devoured and spit back out by X-ray machines. It is horribly ironic – and incredibly sad – that had this level of security been available in 2001, this very memorial would most likely not exist. It is a sign of the times, one of the most apparent legacies of the post-9/11 world. It is sad. It is also our reality.
The emotions inspired by the museum are complex, confusing, and frustrating. You feel everything and nothing simultaneously. You can only understand once you’ve been there. You experience a similar, if not a more poignant, response witnessing visitors place flowers and American flags into the victims’ names that have been carved into the dark stone surrounding each reflection pool. Making eye contact with a few of these people, you find it nearly impossible to decide on an appropriate response: do you smile in an attempt to provide comfort, or do you quickly look away to provide them with a private moment of remembrance and mourning? It is difficult to do anything more than nod in solidarity.
We will not forget. We will not fear. We will flourish in freedom.
“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” – Virgil
(Image via Shutterstock)