Reflections on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 during unprecedented times

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An unattributed photograph of the September 11th terrorist attack.

An unattributed photograph of the September 11th terrorist attack.

By Randi Weingarten

 

Reflections on 9/11

Sept. 11, 2001, was primary day, and I was in Brooklyn getting out the vote when the sound of an explosion stopped me and my colleagues in our tracks. We were dumbstruck, and by the time the second plane hit the second tower, we knew that the world had suddenly changed forever.

It has been 20 years since that horrific day. As a nation, we witnessed the loss of thousands of people at the World Trade Center in New York, at the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and in the passenger-diverted flight that crashed near Shanksville, Pa. As a union, dozens of our members died in the terrorist attacks, including 34 New York State Public Employees Federation members, whose offices were at the World Trade Center; six members of the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, who were at the World Trade Center; and three members of the Washington Teachers’ Union, who were on the flight that struck the Pentagon.

 

aft members who died on 9/11
AFT members who died on 9/11

 

Our members lost husbands, wives, children, friends and colleagues. In total, 2,996 people died that day; more than 6,000 more were injured, including many first responders. Public employees sent to help developed cancer after breathing the toxic fumes at ground zero. And members of the military who were sent to Afghanistan, Iraq and other faraway places were killed or injured in battles intended to wipe out terrorism.

The loss and damage seem endless. I don’t know a single person who lives or works in New York City, at or near the Pentagon or in Shanksville who was not affected by that day’s events or the aftermath.

Something I remember: For the few weeks following that day in September, New Yorkers had a softness for each other and a spirit about the future that I wish could have been bottled. It is so needed now, in this age of polarization and division.

Twenty years have passed, and yet most of us remember where we were that morning. Even at Brooklyn Borough Hall we could hear the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. We did not yet know what was happening, but my colleagues from the United Federation of Teachers and I walked over to the promenade and watched as smoke filled the cloudless sky. We had barely processed the sight of the tower on fire before we watched the second plane crash into the south tower. In the crowd that had gathered there was a collective gasp, a few screams and then a deafening and horrified silence.

At that time, I was president of the UFT and the head of New York City’s municipal labor committee, an umbrella group of all the unions that represent the city’s public employees, from parks to police, educators to firefighters and EMTs. The UFT represents virtually all the educators in New York City, a city whose school system has more than 1,500 schools — including those in lower Manhattan, where teachers, students and staff could see the horror unfolding from their classroom windows. Downtown educators sprang into action, leading their students of all ages to safety: Some physically carried their young or disabled students; one high school teacher, seeing an approaching cloud of smoke, glass and debris as he watched the south tower collapse, instructed his students to run as fast as they could to Battery Park. None of them had been trained in what to do during a terrorist attack. Yet the city’s educators — whether they were in lower Manhattan or farther away — were brave and heroic, demonstrating incredible professionalism, poise, ingenuity and empathy in the face of danger, uncertainty, chaos and fear.

Educators are now teaching that moment in history and its implications to a generation of students who were not even born when it happened. The events of that day and those that followed are difficult to teach. As a social studies teacher, I know too well that history can be uncomfortable. But I also know that students who learn the truth become a generation of well-informed members of society.

So, 20 years later, we look back on that day as one of both terrible loss and amazing acts of bravery. Anyone who has flown on an airplane since 2001 knows that 9/11 changed air travel policies in the decades since. That day changed the arcs of the lives of countless families, and entire nations, for generations. And it triggered prejudice that is ongoing today: We’ve seen a steep rise in violence against our Muslim American, Arab American and South Asian American neighbors. Even today, the violence against those groups is five times higher than it was before 9/11.

In my letter to UFT members in September 2001 after the attacks, I asked them as educators and leaders to guard against expressions of prejudice in all its forms and to teach others to shun intolerance. As neighbors, we must understand the results of unbridled hatred. In this moment of many challenges, including the climate and COVID-19 crises, let us take this opportunity to remind our students, our friends and our neighbors that there is more that unites us than divides us. We all yearn for peace, for security, for justice and for the American dream. We must remember the principle of treating everyone as we would want to be treated — with respect and dignity.

As painful as it is, we must never forget that day and everything it precipitated. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 caused the United States to begin a so-called war on terror. And after 20 years, countless military and civilian deaths, new policies, laws that limit civil liberties and nearly $7 trillion, I think we are right to question if all those ends justify the means. While I know the intentions were noble, we still live in a world where terrorism exists.

We must remember those who are no longer with us. We honor the bravery in the selfless acts of that day and the compassion I saw in my city in the weeks thereafter. And we honor the bravery of those who served in Afghanistan for these 20 years since, and of our armed forces and frontline workers whose job is always to help when there is danger.

We must never forget the ways we came together, unified at a time when there was so much fear and uncertainty. As we continue to fight a pandemic, and as we move forward just months after an attack on the Capitol by domestic terrorists, this is a moment to remember we can come together regardless of differing ideology, demography or geography. And if we do, we will strengthen our democracy, strengthen our communities and strengthen ourselves.

Today we remember those we have loved and lost, and honor those whose acts of bravery and kindness restore our souls. And tomorrow we fight for a more perfect union.