This morning I visited the 9/11 Tribute Center and the site of the former Twin Towers, along with 16 other Global Shapers that had descended upon Manhattan from around the world for the first ever Shapers’ meeting.
It was only the second time that I had been to “Ground Zero” since the towers fell, and the first that I was there with the intention of remembering. (Last time, I was merely passing through on my way back to Jersey.) We were lucky enough to be on a tour led by the amazing, inspiring, and very funny Brenda Berkman, whose many hats included New York City fire captain, 9/11 first responder, White House Fellow, artist, historian, and lawyer.
Brenda Berkman leads our tour.
The center is run by the family members of 9/11 victims, and was one of the most moving museums that I have ever visited. As soon as Brenda began speaking in the first room (above), my throat knotted and tears threatened to spill.
I felt guilty for spending this 9/11 as if it were any other day of the year, for not taking even a few moments to reflect on the lives lost, and for sometimes wondering if we Americans ask for too big of a share of the world’s attention when there are so many other human tragedies that we never even hear of, let alone commemorate.
The Freedom Tower, almost complete.
But empathy is not a zero-sum game, and 9/11 was hugely significant for the world. In fact, as we learned from Brenda, a full 1/3 of the world watched the events of 9/11 unfolding live.
September 11th was certainly a pivot point in my life. I was 12 when the towers fell, and everything from my adolescence can be understood in terms of pre-9/11 and post-9/11. Such was the case, I imagine, for most of my generation.
But for me, September 11th was also the beginning of an ongoing relationship with Afghanistan. I had never even heard the word spoken before that day, but afterwards, that word – and all of its associated meanings and contexts – became the backdrop against which I grew up. At first, there would be months when I didn’t hear of it at all before a news story would bring it back into my conscience, but for the past two years, it has become a very real and tangible part of my daily life.
Whether through the 5 weeks I spent as a research assistant in country, the two-year relationship with a deployed soldier/Afghan war vet that began via an email in Kandahar Airfield, the amazing Afghan and Afghan-watching friends that have become some of my closest, or the turns that my career took since that first trip, I’m not sure what my life or my career ambitions would look like right now without it.
And as I fly to Afghanistan again in exactly two weeks, the origins of all of this – four hijacked planes on 9/11 – is worth remembering.
And to serve as a more personal reminder, I came across this photo at the museum.
In September 2011, I was in seventh grade in a new middle school. In the days after the attack, and with recovery efforts well underway, our teachers organized a project for us to “give back” . We created an American flag out of our handprints, writing thank you messages to the fire fighters and other first responders.
I remember feeling the gravity of the flag, and taking a lot of time to craft my message. But after we sent the flag to Manhattan, we (understandably) never heard anything more about what happened to it – whether it arrived, whether it was received, and by whom… I looked for some mention of it on the news for a few days, as they sometimes featured this kind of thing.
And then…eleven years later, when I had long-since forgotten about it, I find a photo of the flag (above) displayed in at the Tribute Center.
And it was an amazing feeling to find that something I had contributed to, however insignificantly, was now a part of history.