It was a beautiful Tuesday morning on September 11, 2001, as I rode in the backseat of my mom’s car on the way to another day of second grade. Barely five minutes after leaving our house the first report came in. I still remember the intersection we were sitting at waiting for a stoplight to change when the radio explained that a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I didn’t even know what the Twin Towers were then.
Older grades were told what had happened, and some even watched live on TVs wheeled into classrooms as Lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania smoldered. But for second graders, we were left in the dark until our parents picked us up at the end of the school day. By then it was clear from our teachers' faces that something had happened.
I don’t remember the specifics of what I was told had happened that night, and my mom made sure to spare me from the worst of the images from earlier in the day that I would soon come to know — people leaping from the burning towers, the second plane hitting the south tower, soot- and ash-covered people caught up in the collapses — but within days the front pages and nightly news reports meant I had seen enough to know that evil had struck America.
I remember seeing the video of President Bush visiting the rubble that once was the World Trade Center to resolutely declare that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
A few days after the attacks, my hometown newspaper — The St. Cloud Times — printed a full-page American flag honoring those we already knew were lost and the first responders working tirelessly to rescue or recover those still trapped in the rubble. Within a week, one couldn’t go through a single neighborhood in town without seeing the paper taped up in front windows to show solidarity as Americans, united under our flag against those who sought to weaken us.
In another show of unity that seems unlikely today, President Bush delivered a perfect strike over home plate at Yankee Stadium to resounding cheers at a sporting event that was among the most patriotic displays I ever watched growing up.
Partly because of how young I was on 9/11 and partly because my parents did a good job of keeping me from seeing the worst of what had happened, my memories of the days and weeks after the attacks were ones of patriotism, unity, and American resolve.
And what began as a commitment to “never forget” based on what others around me were doing has become more personal through the years of remembrances.
I remember sitting on the floor in my living room to watch the first anniversary memorial ceremony from Ground Zero on our rabbit-eared TV. That became a tradition and I watched every annual memorial from the pit in lower Manhattan and eventually from the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
A few years after 9/11 when my mom and I took a road trip out to the east coast, we spent a few days in New York. One day, while being guided around the city by family friends who were locals, we passed Ground Zero. The pit I’d watched over the years of anniversary remembrances became real. Peering through a hole in a tarp-covered fence ringing the scarred earth where the Twin Towers used to stand, I saw still-mangled steel sticking out of the ground in places and watched as construction workers shoveled concrete as they prepared to build the foundations up again.
As the newspaper flags in people’s windows faded, so did crowds at memorial ceremonies in my hometown. Even though things had changed forever, from TSA checkpoints to airliners switching out curtains for see-through dividers between first class and coach, by the time I was in high school, it seemed like a lot of people were treating 9/11 like just another fall day.
But Mrs. Haas — the high school history teacher to whom I owe my obsession with politics and current events — loaned me documentaries about 9/11 on VHS to watch at home. And so began another tradition of watching compilations of footage from 9/11 that force one to remember the evil of that day and keep time from softening the edges of what took place.
When I got to college, I found a way to keep from forgetting while helping my campus remember too. Thanks to Young America’s Foundation (my previous employer) and its nationwide 9/11: Never Forget Project, I discovered there were people like me on campuses across the country who were barely old enough to remember 9/11 but equally committed to keeping the promise to never forget. Each year of college, my YAF chapter put 2,977 American flags in our quad and watched as our peers realized it wasn’t just a day in September. I went on to work for YAF, and for another five anniversaries helped show those who lost loved ones in — or lived through — the attacks that the rising generation had kept the promise to never forget.
As America marks 20 years since the attacks, there’s an entire generation that has no memories of 9/11 or the immediate aftermath. To them, the attacks of September 11th are something they learn about in history class as they do Pearl Harbor. For theirs and future generations, America’s commitment to never forget is all the more important. Especially for the lessons it taught us about how our country is seen by our enemies not as the tribal divisions that so many adopt, but as a force for freedom, justice, and inalienable rights that threaten those who seek to stamp out such ideas.
In the days leading up to this year's anniversary of 9/11, take time to remember. The History Channel’s “102 Minutes that Changed America” is one of the documentaries that tell the story of 9/11 in New York from the time the first tower was struck until the last tower fell in real-time.
AMC Theaters teamed up with the studio that produced the movie “United 93” to re-release the film in select theaters to re-share the story of those heroic Americans aboard Flight 93 who learned what was happening in New York and D.C. and sacrificed their lives while stopping the hijackers from reaching their final target.
For incredible stories of those who rebuilt Ground Zero, including family members of those who died in the attacks, watch the "Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero" miniseries that details the resilience of America as the new One World Trade Center and National September 11 Memorial and Museum are constructed.
And if you haven’t been to any of the memorials, take a friend or your kids and go pay your respects, on the anniversary or anytime. Going to the Flight 93 National Memorial with my dad on my move to college and going to Ground Zero to pay my respects and put an American flag in the name of fellow Minnesotan Tom Burnett — who helped stop hijackers from using Flight 93 to attack D.C. — are two memories I’ll also never forget.
A lot has changed since September 2001. The newspaper flags in my hometown’s windows are gone. The unity we saw in the days after the attacks feels almost impossible today. Our country’s military operation in Afghanistan to get those responsible for the attacks along with the people who gave them aid and shelter ended in a way no one wanted at the end of August.
As President Bush said in his address to the nation on the evening of September 11, 2001:
Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil -- the very worst of human nature -- and we responded with the best of America.
Perhaps by remembering again the horrors of two decades ago — and how Americans responded with bravery, solidarity, and patriotism — ordinary citizens can again respond by never forgetting that "with the best of America" we can heal our divisions and be reminded that when we’re united as a country, no one can defeat us.