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September 11, 2017

The Lessons of 9/11

On the sixteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, we are reminded of the ripple-effects of that fateful day. As a nation we continue to honor the victims of 9/11 and the ultimate sacrifice of so many service men and women in the wars since.   

Today is a day to reflect on the pain we have sustained as a nation, and to honor the victims who came from all walks of life.

NYPD Officer Moira Smith, a 13-year NYPD veteran and mother who gave her life while calmly and swiftly evacuating survivors.

Tariq Amanullah, a Pakistani-American and financial executive who worked on the 88th floor of the South Tower and who had successfully led a Great Muslim Day of Adventure at his community’s Six Flags just days before.

Mark Bingham, a 31-year-old CEO of a San Francisco PR firm and openly gay man, one of the United Flight 93 passengers who is believed to have attempted to retake the cockpit from the terrorists. 

Twenty-three-year-old Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a Muslim NYPD cadet, who ran towards the towers to help, laying down his life in the process. 

The 2,983 victims of the terror attacks of September 11th included Americans like Moira, Tariq, Mark, and Mohammad, from every corner of the country and every walk of life. While these victims’ families will always carry their loss, their stories will live on as a reminder of what it means to be American.

Evil knocked us down that morning. But the stories of hope and heroism that emerged from the carnage are a testament to our national resilience, a signature of the American spirit. We immediately began to rebuild, strengthened by goodness and rooted in solidarity.

Former Marine Dave Karnes left his civilian job in Connecticut on 9/11, put his uniform back on, and headed towards New York to work alongside first responders. He later went to his reserve center and reenlisted, and would serve two tours in Iraq. Many others like him stepped up to serve, whether in the military, the State Department, or in nonprofits.

But as we mourned in the days following 9/11—in the grocery store, on the school bus, at football games—we also walked with unease, the comfort of our daily routines assaulted. And for some, it brought out bitterness and hate.  

The first revenge attack after 9/11 came a mere four days later. At the Arizona gas station he owned and operated, Balbir Sigh Sodhi was shot by an angry assailant. Balbir Sigh Sodhi was a hardworking Indian Immigrant and a Sikh, whose religious tradition and peaceful manner was rooted in his embrace of all people, regardless of background.

Years later, some of that hatred and misguided fear still festers. And in recent months, it’s been emboldened. In February a Kansas man threw ethnic slurs at two Indian engineers in a local bar, and then shot them. Last month in Charlottesville, xenophobic bigotry was on full display as white nationalists marched with Nazi and Confederate paraphernalia.

We cannot allow it. We must remember what the hours after 9/11 taught us about who we are. We are One America. We are a nation of helpers and doers. We do not cower in the face of threats; we stand strong to our values. We keep serving and striving toward the more perfect realization of our ideals.

When she was called a terrorist while walking down the street with her family, Army veteran and VFAI leader Arti Walker-Peddakotla could have lashed out, or questioned her service to this country. Instead, it fueled her desire to continue serving. “It emboldened me to find new ways to give back to the country I’ve had the privilege to serve. Because if something like this can happen to me, a U.S. citizen born and brought up in this nation, imagine how difficult and challenging it might be for refugees or immigrants, if they encounter the same hateful rhetoric as they are trying to navigate their life here?”

While we wrestle with the hate and bitterness that still exists, let’s remember Americans like Dave and Arti, who reclaimed a tragic moment and let it empower them in their continued dedication to our country. In today’s divisive climate, let’s harness that same resilience to allow our collective pain to fortify our shared ideals and reinvigorate our commitment to service.