Remembering 911, an event that tested the nation

The World Trade Center on September 11 2001.
The World Trade Center on September 11 2001. Courtesy photo
September 11 2001 Schanksville Pa Memorial.
September 11 2001 Schanksville Pa Memorial. Courtesy photo

It seems hard to believe that fifteen years have passed since that fateful day which dawned with a beautiful sunrise and lovely weather for all to enjoy. I was in a meeting at Wilmington Trust with other financial analysts discussing the markets and investment strategies. Suddenly, the door to our meeting room swung open. One of our secretaries came in and said “I just wanted to let you know- a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.” She left the room- and we all looked around, trying to decide if it was likely to have a material effect on the markets. After agreeing that we should continue our meeting, we talked for about another 20 minutes. The door swung open again. “You might want to end your meeting. A second plane has crashed into the other tower.” We were all stunned- and immediately rose out of our seats to get back to our computers for more information. Over the next few hours, I realized that our world had changed forever.

On September 11, 2001 a group of 19 terrorists hijacked four different American airliners, commandeering them to crash into sites in New York City, Washington, D.C., and a remote field in southwestern Pennsylvania. Americans subsequently learned that the plane which crashed in Pennsylvania was intended to hit either the U.S. Capitol building or the White House, but brave passengers assaulted the hijackers, preventing them from reaching their target. The cumulative toll of the carnage was horrific: nearly 3,000 people killed and more than 6,000 injured- not including those who died in subsequent years from illnesses after being exposed to hazardous materials in the wreckage. The attacks were the most deadly in American history, exceeding the devastating assault on Pearl Harbor which prompted the U.S. to enter World War II.

What images remain with us since that day? One was incredibly moving — the Budweiser Clydesdale horses kneeling in an open field in honor of the fallen overlooking the World Trade Center site in an advertisement during the Super Bowl. I recall seeing hundreds of American flags flying proudly everywhere — from people’s cars and trucks, on front lawns and waving from buildings around the nation. I don’t see too many flags today. I sometimes wonder if people now have the same sense of patriotism they so clearly displayed after that event which challenged us all. I want to assume that the feelings of Americans remain strong, even though time may have faded some memories. The Freedom Tower that now rises from the site of the World Trade Center glistens in the sunlight of a new day, reminding us that our democracy is still strong.

What does patriotism mean? This question has arisen many times over the past two centuries within our republic. Is it a sense of duty to supporting our nation and our government? Does it involve actions like joining the military or assisting in humanitarian efforts after natural disasters? Should we recognize it when people step up to the plate and risk their own lives to save the lives of others? It is all these things and more. Patriotism can and should include a healthy skepticism of government which the Founding Fathers espoused, only granting authority to a central power when the public’s safety and best interests are at stake. We often see incredible acts of patriotism during wartime, brave soldiers sacrificing themselves under treacherous circumstances. Many of them breathe their last breath on the battlefield, helping others to live. Some come home, parts of them missing, the result of their willingness to put themselves in danger to help their brothers-in-arms. Sadly, on occasion they’ve come home to a nation less than appreciative of their many sacrifices.

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As an historian, I often ponder “big picture” questions. Can we still overcome enormous challenges as we’ve done before? Has America grown old? Are we ‘past our prime’? Have we seen the best that our nation can be, only to decline from here? There are many ways to answer those questions, but one stands out among all the others. America is at her greatest when our people are engaged in a cause that is larger than themselves and their own self-interest. It seems that when faced with enormous challenges, we rise to even greater heights when citizens recognize problems and work together to resolve them. We’ve had many over the last 240 years: the fight for independence, the War of 1812, the Civil War, several financial panics, including the Great Depression, World War II and other events that have tested our strength and resolve. Each time, some people said “We’ll never get through this.” We survived them all, even though the threats appeared to be overwhelming.

Americans accomplish truly remarkable things when- as a nation- we face problems head-on, with a common spirit and dedication to overcoming obstacles. In the year 2016, America and nations around the world face a new kind of challenge: global terrorism. The September 11th attacks made something quite clear. We’re now in a fight for the future- one that can be filled with progress and peace or death and destruction. We can choose to allow these threats to overwhelm us, driving us backwards into a more chaotic, less democratic society…or we can be pro-active, firmly engaged to meet those challenges. The spirits of the thousands who died that day remain; when we think of them, they’re with us again. They surely would hope that we’ll have the same courage they displayed facing the most horrific event in our nation’s history. Todd Beamer and his buddies on United Airlines Flight 93 knew what they had to do. So here’s a salute to him and all the heroes who died that day and afterwards- and all those in our armed forces who sacrificed to assist others in need. Despite all the problems we face today- and the ones on the road ahead- we can remain one in spirit. We do possess the capability to overcome these threats, as Todd Beamer proved when he said. “Okay. Let’s roll.”

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His nine books and eight historical lecture series cover a wide range of topics from Lafayette and the Battle of the Brandywine to the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. He also has a radio show titled “Living History” every Wednesday on WCHE AM 1520 IN West Chester. His latest project is as a “Living Biographer” portraying Alexander Hamilton in full Continental Army officer’s uniform. For more information, Gene’s website is www.Genepisasale.com. He can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.