In the eleven years that have passed since that day, what have we achieved? Three hundred and forty three firefighters died at the World Trade Center, along with the countless many who die slower, but no less honorable deaths, having placed their own lives secondary to the possibility of saving others. And there are others as well, no less tragic; those innocent victims who were murdered by zealots, evil, evil people who truly believed that striking non-combatants was "fair game". And even further, those warriors we sent forth to defend our nation, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors who gave the ultimate sacrifice to engage forces overseas in battles we may never completely understand, although many of us, myself included, supported running down the people who caused this tragedy.
We have been at war for 11 years with an enemy we can't place a real label on. Yes, these individuals were Islamist radicals, but all believers in Islam are not the enemy. These murderers hailed from Saudi Arabia, hid in Afghanistan, and were supported by people in a number of other Middle Eastern countries, but to say that the people of these nations are our enemies would be entirely wrong. And what's more, we have been attacked from within by our very own: the Beltway Sniper attacks; in Brookfield, WI; in Nickel Mines, PA; at Virginia Tech; in Omaha, NE; at Northern Illinois University; in Binghamton, NY; at Fort Hood; in Tucson, AZ; and of course, the most recent attacks in Aurora, CO and in Oak Creek, WI. That list involves domestic terrorists, people who have lived among us and we knew and thought they were just like us in one way or another.
If there is something I have learned in the eleven years since that terrible day, it is that on any day, in virtually any place, the possibility exists that this might be our last moment, but instead of living in fear, I choose to live. I have learned that extremism exists on many sides of the spectrum and it is equally insane and defies the values espoused by most human beings.
We lost so much innocence on that day. I had taken the day off from shift and was standing in front of the television, holding my then-baby daughter, wondering what kind of idiot could be such a bad pilot as to hit the highest building in the sky, as if it wouldn't be pretty obvious. When the second plane hit, I knew this would be much different. I had no idea how different, though.
I knew then that even with the extraordinary sacrifices of our brothers, the love-fest would be over with not long after it had begun. I have seen the cycle enough times to know it for what it was. But here we are, eleven years later, and it has become much worse than anything I have seen before – more than just apathy toward our efforts but in recent years: contempt, hate, jealousy, anger, frustration. Gone is the realization from the public that we daily take their emergencies and make them tolerable, that we save them from ruin, and that, of all things, we place our own well-being in direct jeopardy to save them from injury or death.
While the public may have the ability to sleep at night knowing people like Ray Downey, Mychal Judge, Gerard Barbera, Terry Hatton and Andy Fredericks laid their bodies down for people they never even met before, I refuse to forget these people. I carry their memory with me daily, every time I put that helmet on my head and see that number, and every time September comes around. I remember them and I will always thank them for their service and their calling.
If we really want to honor these people, we will seek to understand. I have no argument with hunting down everyone involved in conspiring to kill all these innocent people, I have no qualms about dealing them justice for the actions they took and in doing so, destroyed so many lives. But it is absolutely wrong of us to act the same way they did, in judging those they never knew or met, and saying they deserved to die because they happened to believe differently.
Zealotry in any form is dangerous. When people fervently believe in something to the extreme where they would willingly kill innocents to demonstrate their point, these people have to be stopped. And anyone who incites this kind of zealotry is no better than the one pulling the trigger. There are more than a few well-known individuals who can add themselves to that list, as well as many nameless, faceless people who insist in marching in lockstep with the haters. What's worse is that there are those who are really unbalanced and who are sitting on the edge, waiting for "permission", and when they do get it, they will be at the forefront, destroying again.
Honor our brothers. Work toward positive change, work to serve mankind, and strive to love one another. And never, ever, forget.