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The Lessons of 9/11: Our First Responders Are True Heroes, Then & Now

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What are the lessons of 9/11? Our nation’s first responders do not deserve to be falsely turned into villains; they are heroes. We need to unify our country, its people, and its security. Patriotism is a beautiful thing; love of country is too. We should celebrate our country’s ideals and defend them. And we have to take the fight to terrorists elsewhere so it doesn’t revisit our shores.

In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, I spent the night in a New York firehouse right around the corner from Ground Zero, watching as the heroic and traumatized first responders trudged back and forth to dig on the massive pile, finding nothing but dust and dirt and rocks, sometimes clawing at it with their bare hands, and returning with their faces streaked with grief and determination before going back out to dig yet again. What else could they do after all, they told me; they were spared. These men were salt of the earth; the best America’s got.

Yet even as they dug without sleeping for days, they paused to care for strangers, even as strangers came to the firehouse near Ground Zero to care for them, bringing too much food, boots, and flowers for anyone to ever use. Everyone was briefly unified in America then, everyone was patriotic (people were walking around draped in American flags and hardened New York cabbies were giving people rides for free), and everyone in the country seemed to agree that our nation’s first responders (cops and firefighters like these) were heroes. They were the people who ran toward danger when everyone else ran away from it, the saying went.

Never forget. Remember this photo of the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero. It will have great significance by the end of this article.

Daniel brethel
Daniel brethel, photo by annie bucher, then 13

I was sent to New York on Sept. 11, 2001, as a journalist, by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The editor said, “Get in a car and go,” and I did. About 100 miles out, we started to see electronic signs saying New York was “closed.” It was almost impossible to get into the city, but we found a train that went there. We were accompanied on the almost empty roadways by the rescue workers from all over the country coming to volunteer. I arrived with a photographer in Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, and I spent the next two weeks there. It changed me forever; this is when I developed a respect for the role of law enforcement that has never left me.

A couple of years ago, while teaching a journalism class at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I realized that Sept. 11, 2001, was no longer a living memory to my students. It happened gradually. First, they remembered it, but only through the emotions of adults – a frantic teacher, an upset parent. Some were affected by it, all the same; some students had parents who went to war, for example.

Now, my students have no living memory of 9/11 at all in most cases. They were infants, if alive at all. To them, 9/11 is dispassionate history, like the Kennedy assassination is to me.

My father has an emotional response to the assassination to this day because he lived through it. I didn’t, so, to me, I don’t feel the tragedy, although it interests me. It’s worth pondering what that means and what it changes. I think it matters because, if you don’t feel a tragedy, you may be more likely to forget its lessons, and I’m speaking of the country overall now.

Back then, we would never have tolerated such a haphazard and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan for example. We would never have been okay with leaving Americans behind or ceding a country to the terrorist group that harbored Bin Laden. That’s because we lived it. We FELT the tragedy. We mourned the deaths.

It’s incumbent on those of us who were there and who lived it, even if from afar, to be the curators of that history and the voices of it. They say journalism is the rough draft of history; never is this more true.

The Lessons of 9/11

Jessica mcbride

What are the lessons of 9/11? Our nation’s first responders do not deserve to be falsely turned into villains. They are public servants who deserve our respect, and who put their lives on the line for all of us, the dividing line between order and disorder, life and death.

We need to unify our country, its people, and its security. Patriotism is a beautiful thing; love of country is too. We should celebrate our country’s ideals and defend them. America is a great, albeit sometimes imperfect country, and it is our home. And we have to take the fight to terrorists elsewhere so it doesn’t revisit our shores (but do it strategically and smartly).

Take care of and honor our veterans and never forget any of our dead, including those who fought the wars that came. And, yes, remember why we went to Afghanistan as part of that. The architect of 9/11 was being harbored there. We were right to go there. It was not right how we left.

How soon some forget.

Never forget.

Lessons of 9/11
Back to cover the 1st year anniversary of 9/11 at ground zero

I remember shards of memories…. the Korean grocer, his fruit blanketed with the dust of the dead a few blocks from Ground Zero, letting firefighters take whatever they wanted off his shelves…

The firefighter who was so traumatized he drove through red lights without realizing he was doing it…

How salt of the earth they were, how much grief they endured…

The dust that chapped our lips and dried our throats and smelled like burnt wire (it’s the only other time I wore a mask before COVID, but it wasn’t a very good one)… it was a crematorium really…

The parades of construction workers, police and firefighters from all around the country, coming to dig, with little American flags tucked into their helmets, trudging through the damaged streets…

The citizens walking around with American flags draped over their shoulders or hanging them from apartment windows…

The way a couple pieces of metal at Ground Zero naturally formed the shape of a cross, which became a symbol for the rescue workers…