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Lessons learned on the 15th anniversary of 9/11

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Thinking about our past, present, and future.

One year ago today, I took this photograph from across the river, near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Bram Kincheloe

15 years ago today...

Man...

I'm feeling a strong combination of emotions this morning. Having moved to New York City in late August of 2002, I never really knew a pre-9/11 New York. But everyone I met—every strong New Yorker who I knew and loved, everyone who shaped my life in the years to come—had a story about that day. For in truth, every single person's life had been irreparably altered. And so my own life—as I grew to find myself in the streets of a post 9/11 New York City—was forever altered as I absorbed the energy of the city as it healed, as it grew, as it morphed into what it is today.

The world can be a dark and terrifying place. Let's remember how we bonded together after the attacks. How we held each other. How we became one. Especially now, as we battle against an onrushing tide of negativity, xenophobia, and divisive hatred, we need to remember how we reacted after 9/11.

But we also need to remember how countless scores of Muslim Americans were unfairly targeted and abused in the months following the attacks.

Islamophobia was not even a concept in American culture until 9/11. Can you imagine a certain presidential candidate screaming about deporting masses of innocent Muslims unless 9/11 had seared our collective souls? If 9/11 had never happened, could you imagine standing by, idly, and watching this??!

As a white American male, it’s tempting to remember 9/11 as our generation’s defining moment where we put our differences aside and joined arms in solidarity against an impending darkness. It’s easy for me to want to remember this:

Palestinian Vigil for American Terror Victims Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

This:

This:

And this amazing story about Steve Buscemi's heroic efforts alongside his former FDNY brothers.

As opposed to this:

We need to remember how powerful and purposeful we can be as a nation when we stand together. Stand together no matter what. If 9/11 taught us anything, it’s that we, as Americans, have an immense capability for empathy and understanding. In the streets of New York, as the World Trade Center simmered and smoked not ten blocks away, people held arms, sang hymns, and came together in a show of support for their city and for their neighbors. The whole world, in that moment, became New Yorkers. The whole world came together in unity.

As we move forward in time, and as we move into the next phase of our country’s history, we need to remember what it felt like in those first few harrowing days. We need to remember what it felt like to stand up, as one, and link arms. But, we also need to take a hard look at how the events of September 11, 2001, directly lead us down a dark, slippery road of suspicion, xenophobia, and paranoia.

I’m still living in New York City. I’m still trying to make sense of how 9/11 shaped my life, and more importantly the lives of all my neighbors in this mighty metropolis. Today, I’m a little overcome by the weight of our history. And so, in the spirit of progression, in the spirit of healing, I'm sending love and power to not only all the people who lost their lives that day, and not only to all of my friends and family and compatriots in the streets of New York, but to all of the people around the world who, because they practiced a certain faith, had their lives upended after the attacks.

Today, I say, “Let us never forget.” But, we need to never forget in more ways than one. We will never forget the events of 9/11. That day has been seared into each of our hearts. The memories will never lessen. How could they? But we also need to never forget that we have to use the events of our past to better ourselves. We cannot continue to blunder into a blind future. We cannot continue to let ignorance and anger rule our minds.

We are all either together, or divided. We can’t have it both ways.

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