American Identity and 9/11
Who we were and who we became the day we were attacked.
I remember the commotion on campus as I headed toward my middle school classroom. A low, beige building resembling a barracks. I remember entering a cool, dark room with motionless students, all looking in the same direction. My teacher, her hand over her mouth in horror, staring at a television screen with everyone else, watching the aftermath of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, unfold before our eyes.
The easy thing to do today if you’re on Twitter is to post something in the genre of “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams,” sit back, and reap the fruits of engagement. In fact, I noticed people doing that around or just after midnight. But it seems even the “conspiratard” takes are getting tired. The line between inquiry and inanity has been blurred. What was once transgressive now feels played out and cheap. I suspect it’s because the people who tend to traffic in these takes do so mainly for shock value rather than a desire for anything resembling truth. And it shows. When performance artists like Vivek Ramaswamy have incorporated it into his presidential campaign, it’s over. “I think it is legitimate to say, How many police, how many federal agents were on the planes that hit the Twin Towers?” he said to a reporter. “Like, I think we want—maybe the answer is zero, probably is zero for all I know, right?”
Rather, it seems people today want to better understand what was lost. Not just the fallen. Something else, something less tangible and quantifiable: the country that seemed that day to spontaneously birth a city of heroes out of ordinary people who did not hesitate to leap into the flames to save the lives of strangers. Does that America still exist?
My friend Ryan Girdusky shared a relevant story this morning on Twitter about his uncle, a window washer named Peter:
My Uncle Peter Mancini was a window washer at the WTC on 9/11.
They would divide the work by floors, one crew would do floor 50 and below while the other would work 51 and above. A young guy was just starting and had to work the higher floors, Uncle Pete offered to switch with him if he felt uncomfortable given he was just starting out but he passed on Uncle Pete’s offer and never made it back down that day.
Uncle Pete, a Vietnam War vet, is one of those short Italian men who’s much stronger than his size would suggest.
When the first plane hit the towers, he ran inside. My mother worked on the 97th floor of tower one and he thought he would help carry her out.
As he made his way up the stairwell, he found someone who couldn’t make it out and helped carry them to safety. He made several of these trips, thinking he would find his niece but finding someone else who needed help and getting them to safety.
Finally he was told he couldn’t go back inside and walked in a haze back to Queens. My mom was fine but he didn’t know that at the time. He said it was the closest thing that reminded him of Vietnam.
There were so many heroes that day, who found strength inside of them that they probably didn’t even know they had. My Uncle Pete is one of them.
Does America still produce this type of person on a meaningful scale? If 9/11 were to happen today, would we see so many of them spring into action with reckless abandon?