Overcome With Emotion: 7 Thoughts I Had While Visiting The 9/11 Memorial

by Stephanie Tate

America is not the same place it used to be. As a nation, we’ve changed.

It’s visible in our paranoia toward other races. Our transformation is apparent when we discuss religion, war and retribution. 14 years after 9/11, Americans remain enraged.

In 2001, being different became synonymous with being suspicious.

Millennials were raised in an America splintered by anguish. For a long time, I never grasped the reality of the terrorist attacks. At 10 years old, I couldn’t completely comprehend death.

I watched the same footage as everyone else. I saw the burning buildings on "Breaking News" bulletins.

I listened as teachers talked about rescue efforts and how terrorism would impact the way our country functioned. I was privy to snippets of President Bush’s declaration of war against those responsible.

I still didn’t really understand.

Of course, I could quote the Webster’s definition of "terrorism," and I could spout off the most common side effects of war. But that didn’t make it real to me. In my mind, this was something that happened in a distant land. In my mind, this terrible, awful thing wasn’t a reality.

It wasn’t until death became personal to me that I understood what terrorism actually was, and how 9/11 had changed people.

I asked myself, “If this one death can devastate me, then how must all of those people feel?”

In March 2014, I visited the 9/11 memorial and museum; the infinity pools were breathtaking. I listened to the 911 phone calls. I took the time to watch every video and really observe each picture on the walls. In New York, I spent hours surrounded by memorabilia from an unforgettable tragedy.

For the first time, it felt painfully real, and the thoughts that went through my mind truly helped me understand what a massive tragedy this was.

1. “Silence is heavy.”

Even though a hundred others entered with me, it was incredibly quiet. It wasn’t a peaceful quiet either. It was one of those silences burdened by grief.

The gravity of it weighed on me. I don’t think I said much the entire time I was inside.

Everyone spoke in hushed whispers. It was as though we’d lost our voices as we were faced with a literal chasm of death. I could see people crying, but even that was done silently.

I’m not sure I’ll ever erase the sight of a woman crying silently into her son’s hair. Her son couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13.

2. “What kind of person would take so many lives to support a cause?”

War is death.

Every nation in this world has waged war before. We all fight to support a cause. We’ve taken lives to protect our beliefs and our citizens.

What defines that thin line between war and terrorism? Is it preparation? Is it due cause? Is it a fight for human rights? What makes the way we invade other countries any less of an act of terrorism to an outsider?

3. “Mankind can be cruel.”

Humans have an incredible capacity for evil. As a society, we are willing to make sacrifices to satiate our curiosity.

As individuals, we have developed beliefs, created codes of morality and paved our way toward the futures we desire.

However, in the journey to define ourselves, do we forget about the people around us? Christianity, as a religion, emphasizes core values of honesty, trust and forgiveness.

And, yet, people use it as a way to justify casting judgments, taking lives and degrading another person’s belief system. At what point did our individualism turn into a weapon?

September 11 spawned a war and a fight for religious/financial freedom that cost more lives than anticipated. Why did we have to fight a war because our religious values differ? Why do we justify killing with a nod to a higher power?

I struggled with the reality humans did this to other innocent humans, for no other reason other than to prove a point.

4. “Mankind can also be compassionate.”

Author Robert Louis Stevenson has said, “In each of us, two natures are at war: the good and the evil. All our lives, the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose. What we want most to be, we are.”

Let’s face facts: Humans have done horrible things, be it corrupt politics, slavery, racism, murder or rape. Despite that reality, humans have done great things, too.

The immediate 9/11 response was to help others, not to go to war. The tragedy was ongoing when people started helping out by sending food, volunteering their time to search for people and assist with repairs.

In a time of turmoil, America put its anger aside and focused on helping everyone it could. The museum told the story of firefighters and civilians working together to save lives. Volunteers who perished in the aftermath were honored.

The rage came later, but compassion was our first instinct. Our first response wasn’t to leap into battle, but to heal the wounded.

5. “This pain will become a bullet point in history.”

As our generation grows older, the emotional weight of 9/11 will fade. The event will become as distant and as unrelatable to the next generation as it was for me at 10 years old.

The Holocaust has become all but a literary event for current teenagers. The reality of this is terrifying. How can something so important to our history be seemingly forgotten over time?

It’s hard to understand something when it’s not staring you right in the face. Looking at a photograph of death may make your heart lurch in your chest, but when that photograph is 20 years old and you don’t recognize the scene beyond a dry description in your history textbook, it won’t impact you the same way.

I look at the history of the Revolutionary Wars and I can’t comprehend the fear those people must have felt, or how hard the losses hit. I don’t understand how the plague destroyed lives, and how bodies lined the streets.

I can imagine, but I’m so detached from it all. It is life’s way for time and distance to heal wounds.

6. “I feel so useless.”

Seeing the reality of 9/11 felt like a kick to my heart. I prayed near the infinity pools, made donations to 9/11 charities and spent three hours of my life listening to their stories, but it didn’t feel like enough.

How would $25, a quick prayer and a snippet of my time ever atone for what was lost?

I was helpless when I was 10 and I felt even more helpless while standing amidst it all.

I did something good, yes. But it feels so inconsequential when I think about the families that remain incomplete, the injuries that took away so many dreams and the buried soldiers who fought for our justice.

7. “America is resilient.”

Our country fought its way to freedom. We’ve lived through wars, civil rights movements and financial breakdowns. In 2001, America came together in the face of the unspeakable.

In 2015, when social divisions still exist between citizens and government in light of police brutality, systematic racism, financial crisis and the threat of war, I have no doubt America will come out triumphant on the other side.

We will be changed by the trials that face us. But when it matters most, we know when to stand united.

If I have learned anything from 9/11, it’s that a trial by fire and brimstone will reveal the true character of our nation.