9/11 Strength in Unity

Often, I think, “I should write more. Publish more.” Then I remember that I write pretty often, I just don’t publish that much. The Notes app on my phone is full ideas I’ve fleshed out, but the truth is I’m just in a headspace unwilling to deal with the division and the vitriol people so relentlessly spew at one another. Between those who are perched on the edge of their seat looking for an opportunity to be offended and the ones who become an expert eager for a fight an hour after procuring internet access, it just feels too heavy. I creep a little on social media now, but between politics and COVID, which somehow became political, it’s just not the little escape it used to be.

As we sit here on the doorstep of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, though, I’m reminded that there are some events that weigh heavily on me and the unburdening my soul begins to outweigh the burden of dealing with those who are always in search of a point of contention.

In the Fall of 1984 at ECU, I met a couple of guys from New Jersey in my microeconomics class. English was our instructor’s second language and we quickly developed a friendship as we worked together to decipher the lectures. Eventually, they invited me to a pre-game party, and that’s how I met Jimmy Straine. Jimmy was cute, with a sprinkling of freckles and a quick smile that let you know you were welcome, and well-loved. His nickname was Mookie, a moniker I believe he received in high school. I always attributed it to Mookie Wilson because he was from Jersey, no one ever said a bad word about either of them, and they both had naturally happy, upbeat personalities, but it could have been for 100 other reasons I know nothing about. Those Jersey boys worked hard but they played hard to even things up. It always felt like Jimmy was at the center of the fun. He was open and genuine, funny as hell, and I liked him immediately. He routinely used the word “kid” when referring to his peers. “Oh, yeah, he’s a great kid,” Jimmy would say, or “Yeah, I know that kid. He’s from my hometown.” As a Southerner whose exposure to northern colloquialisms was limited, I always got a kick out of that. He was, as my dad would say, “One helluva guy.”

Jimmy and I were friends for a few years in college. I last saw him in the mid-80’s. We didn’t exchange Christmas cards or dance at each other’s weddings, but Jimmy made an impression on me. You know those people that pop in and out of your mind, years after you part ways? Even now, if I hear Dire Straits, The Cars or, better yet, R.E.M, Jimmy is the first person who comes to mind. Although I had not seen him in many years, I knew through a mutual friend that he had married a great girl, was working for Cantor Fitzgerald, and that they were expecting their second child.

Jimmy died in the North Tower on September 11, 2001. Jimmy, his wife Trish, and their 3 year old son, Finn, had welcomed a new baby boy to the family on September 5th. He had taken one full day off and then worked a few half days. September 10th was his first full day back at work.

I was shocked, horrified, grief-stricken, frightened and overwhelmed. I was all of those things and I was blind with rage. I didn’t know the personal details of every victim, but I did know the details of one. The only thing I had ever done in NYC was change planes but meeting a funny, warm, guy from Jersey 37 years prior, put a face on the victims for me. How dare these 19 men come into the United States of America and steal Jimmy Straine from his wife and children, his friends and family. How dare they permanently alter the course of so many lives because they weren’t happy about the Persian Gulf War, our government’s support of Israel, or our presence in the Middle East. For me, Jimmy represented every innocent human being affected by the callous and sociopathic actions of Osama bin Laden and his deluded followers.

2,977 innocent people died in the attacks of September 11. 2001. Many of them died while doing extraordinary things trying to save others, instead of taking the necessary steps to save their own lives. I think about the people who made a conscious decision to go INTO those burning, compromised buildings and UP those stairs to lead people to safety, instead of hauling ass in the other direction. I think about the people on those planes, who even in their own terror, provided comfort to someone else or called home to let their people know they were loved. I think about the people on United Flight 93 who engaged the hijackers knowing they would save lives, but those lives wouldn’t be their own. I think about the first responders and volunteers who spent days digging through the smoldering rubble, breathing god knows what, and desperate to find those who might be buried alive. Many, people who never consciously intended to be on the frontlines but ended up there anyway.

We saw the very worst of humanity in motion. But in the chaos of the devastation, smoke and rubble, we saw the very best of what lies within us when we find ourselves in the most terrifying and inconceivable circumstances, rise. We came together as a nation in a way that I had not seen in my lifetime. The murderous and heartless attacks of Osama bin Laden and 19 hitmen, unintentionally caused us to focus on all the ways in which we, as Americans, are infinitely alike. We saw our similarities instead of how we differed. We were reminded that we all matter to someone, we all go to work each day with the expectation that we are going to arrive home safely, and we all take life for granted more often than not. We realized that many of us are capable of unprecedented acts of bravery that defy anything we could ever have imagined. We felt the pain of losing people we had never met and would never meet. In some cases, we felt the pain of losing people we had met. There will never come a time that those images, the rescues, and the lives lost don’t bring me to tears.

Our focus became survival and protection of our citizens, regardless of our differences. We mourned the loss of those 2,977 people as a nation. We celebrated the heroism of our citizens. We demanded, as a society, that survivors and families of those we lost be provided for. We re-evaluated our procedures and improved security as a nation.

We were, in the immediate aftermath, on the same team. That unity was, in the midst of all that death and destruction, incredibly beautiful. It reminded me why I love this country, for all it’s flaws and failings, unwaveringly. The burning, white hot anger I felt began to transform into pride and resilience.

Here we are though, a little more than two decades from one of our greatest showings of unity as a nation and we again have internal battle lines drawn from one side of the country to the other, and a growing intolerance for anyone whose beliefs don’t align with our own. We seem to have forgotten that we are all fallible and fight battles others know nothing of, while they do the same. We have forgotten the heroism, the strengths, and the weaknesses that lie within us. We most certainly have lost sight of the fact that we are all either showing love or crying out for it, and we are all one day closer to dying.

Our belief systems are complicated. They are the result of genetics, life experience, education, religious teachings, income level, and our unique nervous system. We are never all going to agree. We can, however, choose to look beyond our differences and value our similarities as human beings. We can elevate ourselves above needing to be right, focus on ways to have a positive impact on our community, and pursue knowledge. We can stop saving compassion, heroism, and unity for catastrophic events and make those character traits goals in our daily lives.

In the worst moment in U.S. history, we all found a connection; whether, like me, it was because of someone you hadn’t seen in decades, or because your neighbor is a first responder, or your cousin was a flight attendant.

It was the worst game of six degrees in history.

If there is anything positive that lives on from the events of 9/11, it’s the knowledge that we are a nation capable of unshakeable unity and strength. Let’s not wait for another cataclysmic event to practice loving our neighbors. Let’s make every effort to live our lives in a way that shows honor for this incredible life we have the privilege of living and benefits society as a whole. Keep an open mind, look for compromise, and when none can be found, search instead for a way to listen to an opposing opinion without prejudice and ask questions without judgment.

And next time you have the good fortune to be in NYC, visit The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

See how we rise. We always rise.