#NeverForget: Recalling The Lessons Learned As A 9-Year-Old On 9/11

Living in New Jersey, it seemed impossible not to know someone living or working in Manhattan on the morning of September 11.

Emergency responders, some of whom family members and friends knew, had been rushed into the city. People panicked, unable to reach loved ones in New York. Communications were jammed.

It was afternoon before we could receive assurance that those we loved were safe. It’s also the kind of relief that’s followed almost immediately by a stab of guilt. The death toll was yet unknown, but projected into the thousands.

Tom Brokaw on our television screens had just told us war had been declared on America. We knew he was right.

One cousin of mine, pregnant at the time, ran from the World Trade Center complex as debris rained down on the Financial District. Another cousin and her fiancé woke that morning to find their neighborhood the target of an act of war.

Whose target? It wasn’t yet clear.

Within the next couple of days, it became apparent that what had occurred in Lower Manhattan had been intended as an outright assault on the people of the United States and the entire civilized world.

Yet, as with all wars, life continued.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, my cousin and her fiancé were married at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, some six miles uptown from Ground Zero. A few guests did not attend the wedding out of security concerns, but most of my cousin's friends and family arrived in New York on schedule.

It was, in some ways, strange finding such normalcy with the tragedy so close to us, both in terms of boxes on a calendar and blocks on the street. The images of Lower Manhattan weren’t just fresh in people’s minds; the actual site was also still in ruins.

As our wedding party limousine approached Manhattan on the last Saturday of the month, the gleaming city skyline I had already seen too many times to count was missing its identical steel behemoths.

The towers I loved to see lit in red and green each December had been wiped from the canvas of the autumn sky, leaving nothing but emptiness as far as the heavens.

For many others in my family, the moment had an even more personal symbolism.

Many Greek immigrants, including my mother, had arrived at JFK in the latter quarter of the 20th century. For them, the Twin Towers were the first sight they saw in this country. They were what the Statue of Liberty had been for my paternal grandfather, as he sailed to Ellis Island aboard the Franconia in 1914.

The Towers were their first glimpse of an America that symbolized an optimistic future, and signified the hope of a generation gone with the wind.

At the reception at the Roosevelt Hotel, I was seated next to the priest, Father Stephanopoulos. At some point during dinner, one of us engaged the other in conversation. My mother, seated on my other side, was no doubt wondering what on earth a 9-year-old was doing, talking to this famed priest for so long.

Genial and humorous, with a sincerity that seems rarer today than it was in September 2001, Stephanopoulos was reassuring as I broached the topic people were most uncomfortable discussing. (Nine-year-olds don’t really care about anyone’s hang-ups, even in the shadow of a national tragedy.)

Reflecting on what I can recall of Stephanopoulos’ words today, his musings on good and evil in the world are still resonant.

I recognize the world is usually more nuanced than those extremes, but in September 2001, things seemed as distinguishably black and white as the charcoal smoke that spilled itself against the blue September sky.

There are moments in this world where unspeakable evil still manifests itself, and to believe that requires no more religion than a basic belief in humanity and the most essential liberal ideas of our society.

The lives of innocents shouldn’t be slaughtered to vindicate ideology. People are born equal and free.

I’ve returned to New York countless more times since September 2001 -- for visits, conferences and, ultimately, to work.

In that same city, I’ve met some of the towering national figures of the tragedy, including Tom Brokaw and Condoleezza Rice. No longer 9, I have come to realize men and women of great importance are still just men and women; men and women who were just as gripped by shock, dismay and anger as the rest of the nation.

One other visit stands out on this anniversary. As a young college student in the New York metropolitan area, I rode the train into Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2011 for the 10th anniversary of the attacks.

As the widows, widowers, parents and children of those who died a decade before made their remarks that morning, I saw a Muslim widow of a 9/11 victim take the podium to recall her husband’s love of the country, of our democracy and of the religious freedom America affords all her children.

If what occurred that September morning taught a child there is evil in this world, that unnamed woman would remind me we must never forget who we are in the name of combating it.

Perhaps, for all the terrible memories of that day, those of us who remember it feel less compelled to relegate those events to history than we are to ever forget. It is something our children will never quite understand, but something we will never quite get over.

All I know now, as I disembark the PATH in the morning and head to work in the 1,776-foot shadow of the new One World Trade Center, is that whatever changes in this world, Americans will always remember our pride at the way our people reacted to the worst terrorist attack in our history.

For, even on the most distant shores, on the morning of September 12, 2001, the headline in Paris’ Le Monde expressed the genuine sentiments of billions: “Nous sommes tous Américains.

Today, “We are all Americans.”