On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was beginning my teaching day at Eden Central in Western New York like any other. It was the beginning of another school year and both the teachers and students were still settling into their respective routines. I was in the middle of my 2nd period English class when, just before 9 am, a very strange and unsettling announcement came over the P.A. – an airliner had crashed into one of New York City’s twin towers.
I remember a stunned silence and the look of disbelief on many of my students’ faces, but I remember that no one suspected a deliberate attack behind this terrible event. “How could a pilot make such an unbelievable error?” some student asked.
It wasn’t until the announcement of a second plane crash, this time into the south Twin Tower, that nearly everyone knew that this was no accident: it was a coordinated attack.
From that point on, the school day just stopped and most stayed riveted to any TV screen they could find to watch in horror as the day’s unforgettable events unfolded. We knew then that this single day would unleash a chain of events that would change our lives forever.
19 years have passed since that terrible day, and with each passing day, as happens with many past national and global tragedies, fewer and fewer people possess first-hand knowledge of the event. Very few people today can recall listening to live radio broadcasts describing the USS Arizona burning in the waters off Pearl Harbor radio or witnessing the first printed images of emaciated prisoners liberated from the camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And some dark periods of human history, like the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War, are only talked about in hushed tones as we’d sometimes like to forget our own transgressions.
But just as those who suffered at the hands of evil or those who stood up with courage must never be forgotten, neither should one of the most central lessons that 9/11 can teach us. Human beings are capable of immense goodness, generosity, acts of courage, and kindness. But when one group objectifies another, when it looks on another group as less than human, as expendable and, less worthy than some cause or ideology to which it clings, then humans become capable of committing atrocities that virtually no other species commits on its own kind.
Therefore, we must continue to encourage each coming generation to seek out connections to all other peoples, no matter how seemingly different or far away. And we must seek out places in our own lives where we can shed the artificial parts of ourselves that often serve to separate us from our fellow men and women and find our most essential selves.
As an avid hiker, I can most easily find this state of mind in the wilderness. When I’m on some backcountry trail surrounded by glacier-carved lakes, snow-capped mountains, deep green forests or wind-blown deserts, the natural world around me does not care if I’m white or black, Christian or Muslim, straight or gay, or even male or female. I am just a human being like any other seeking solitude, understanding, challenges. When I stand before the humbling presence of deep wilderness, I sense that sublime reminder that this life is precious, fleeting, beautiful, and beats with one universal pulse.