For those who lived in the New York metropolitan area when the World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists, Sept. 11 is a day that will “live in infamy,” to quote President Franklin D. Roosevelt — a time of somber reflection, remembering the thousands of dead and recalling the anxiety and fear we felt that horrifying day.
On 9/11, we learned, or were reminded, that an azure sky could suddenly turn black, as smoke billowed across the Manhattan skyline from the burning twin towers — a literal and metaphorical representation of the times that followed.
We learned, or were reminded, that good people could die inexplicably — that they might vanish in a smoldering mass of concrete and steel, covered in fine, white dust that we later learned was highly toxic to breathe.
Some 2,977 people were killed at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and in a Shanksville, Pa., field, as airliners crashed out of the sky. Another 40,000 people — many of them first responders — now suffer from 9/11-related illnesses because of the air they breathed that day and in the days and weeks afterward, with hundreds dying of rare cancers caused by exposure to the witches’ brew of poisonous fumes and particles at ground zero.
Nearly two decades have passed, but for anyone who was in New York at the time, the memory of it all is still raw. This year, though, 9/11 will be more solemn than at any time in the past 19 years, with the knowledge that every three days, more Americans die of Covid-19 than were killed in the attacks.
Much as 9/11 seemingly came out of nowhere, the coronavirus pandemic took us by surprise as well, in what can only be described as a sneak attack — in New York, we thought at first that the virus had spread from Asia to our West Coast, but we now know that it was brought to the metropolitan area from Asia via Europe earlier than believed. According to studies, it spread in our communities in February and perhaps as early as January, without our knowledge, and then exploded across the region in March and April. Thousands of cases arose without warning, overwhelming our hospitals and, as was the case on 9/11, causing widespread alarm and panic, leaving many people shell-shocked and distraught.
As it did after the attacks, our economy crashed, with businesses closing and the stock market plummeting. Many now wonder what the future will bring.
We must remember this: 9/11 taught us not only that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous place, but also that after a disaster, we can summon our better angels and find the strength to rebuild. We can foster a sense of community by working together to overcome our collective struggle. Sept. 11 was full of tragedy, but its aftermath was also full of hope, found in the heroic volunteerism that followed the attacks. People reached out to comfort one another through humble acts of kindness. Friends looked out for friends, neighbors for neighbors, strangers for strangers. It was indeed the worst of times, but in many ways it was the best of times, as people’s seemingly unbounded capacity to care for one another, to love one another, shone through.
The dark days that we are living through now are no different. We once again see the monumental heroism of our first responders. We see our shared grief turned into volunteer action. We see neighbors looking out for neighbors.
We must pause to mourn the dead — the good people taken too soon by an insidious viral invader — but we also must see hope in our humanity, our innate desire to spread good that is too often suppressed by our workaday concerns, but that is unleashed during times of crisis such as this.
Each life taken in the attacks and by the pandemic was precious — a light in the world that was extinguished seemingly without reason. That is why this Sept. 11, we must resolve to continue our fight against the coronavirus, to save every life we can. That means getting ahead of the virus by wearing masks, keeping six feet of social distance, washing our hands often and adhering to state reopening guidelines until science at last prevails and a vaccine is discovered.