Last year, I paid more attention to 9/11 than I had in all the years prior. In my mood of reflection, amid moving documentaries and stories resurrected from ash and memory to mark the tenth anniversary, I realized some things have remained true, some things have changed, and some things have just become more clearly in focus once the dust settled and the debris was cleared.
Because of that day, we have made automatic, lingering suspects of faiths and nationalities we do not fully understand, the way our parents and grandparents cast aspersion on places and races from past attacks and far off wars.
I've learned that "community" is a better word than "patriotism." Community is a word of inclusion, of bonding, of strength. Patriotism has become a reason to doubt, to tear down, to accuse.
In the name of patriotism, we compete, and draw lines in the sands of faraway places. In the name of patriotism, we argue about how to memorialize the many fallen, and argue about Mosques but let strip clubs occupy the neighborhood of 9/11. In the name of patriotism, we send our sons and daughters off to war.
I like "community" better.
I've reaffirmed what I suspected then: that heroes come in all kinds of uniforms, and call all kinds of people "partner."
Through Joe McNally's "Faces of 9/11," I learned of a janitor who saved his own life, and the life of others, by using his squeegee to pry open elevator doors and break through drywall. Through Time's "Beyond 9/11," I learned of heroes who wear white collars, and deserve to be called "finest" or "bravest" every bit as those we do. In Facebook links to YouTube videos, I learned that there were gay heroes among those who stepped up above a Pennsylvania field, averting further national disaster with incredible personal conviction and sacrifice, leaving behind partners every bit as devastated as a "lawfully wedded" wife or husband.
I still have respect for the strength and omnipresence of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, even though I do not always respect his stance on other things more personal. He did good then. But he, like many, seems to have forgotten some of the overwhelming sense of community fostered, briefly, by that calamity.
I understand more now that people who love us sometimes want to just take us far away to safety when they do not know what else to do, and for having someone in my life at the time who wanted to do that, I will remain eternally grateful.
I know now that the people at work with whom I shared some important moments of organized group discussion remain tremendously special to me, in a way that I can not fully describe, making me a full proponent of grief counseling, support groups, and any device that lets people share personal experience without judgment or shame.
I since learned odd and surreal details about the day, like that the air around the fallen towers was briefly filled with the chirping of alarms of the fallen firefighters.
Since then, I ran the Tunnel to Towers run a few years back. It was my first 5k, a charity run following the path of a firefighter who, when blocked by traffic, ran the entire way from Brooklyn to Ground Zero in full gear. The end of the commemorative run was marked with a procession, rows and rows and rows of current police officers and firefighters wearing the portraits of those who lost their lives that day. It is one thing, entirely, to hear a number of those lost. It was another thing, altogether, to see the faces, and one marcher for each body. The faces continued long after the bagpipes could be heard. It stopped us all in our tracks.
I've realized that even though we mark this day with solemnity and remembrance, we have in large part lost much, if not all, of the community feel from those days. We bicker, rush and shove, the way we did before, and sometimes even more. Maybe that is "getting back to normal." If so, it's a little sad.
In looking back, in remembering, I also realized, in many ways, we've all moved on. But in some ways, I hope we never do.