Taking Time on September 11

It was an event that, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attack on Pearl Harbor, defined the way a generation would look at the world. Non-stop news coverage, cancellations of what soon seemed like trivial components of daily life – sporting events, premieres for a new season of television, and afterschool activities – and the ripple of solemnity throughout the rest of the country, not to mention the unfolding of the attacks themselves on national television, left an indelible footprint in the memories of Americans on September 11, 2001.

For days, a nation moved in slow motion, unable to react. With time, life returned to real-time speed. Fans again filled stadiums to watch their favorite sports teams play their games, news stations returned to reporting other stories which earlier had paled in importance compared to it, and Rudy Giuliani gave Saturday Night Live permission to be funny again.

Each year after, on this date, the country wakes up the way it does every other day. But at 8:46, moments of silence in communities all over mark the time the first tower was struck. The silence ends as church bells ring out and respects are paid. And for most, it’s a return to daily life, time allowing us to heal and move on from the tragedy in which 2,993 were killed. Time has allowed us to react, to step out from behind the shock of the events, and adjust to life in a post-9/11 world, one in which we take our shoes off to get on a plane, where we check our bags at crowded auditoriums, and sing God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch. Time has allowed us to move on, never forgetting, but never capitulating. For some, however, time has worsened the wounds.

For those who responded to the many emergencies unfolding at the site in an attempt to save lives – the EMTs, firefighters, police officers, and ordinary citizens who ran toward the crumbling buildings instead of away from them – the time since the attacks has brought depression and disease. Lost in the horror of the day’s events was the fact that hazardous chemicals from the buildings were released into the air by the ton when the buildings collapsed, exposing first responders and cleanup crews to harmful particles, including asbestos. The number of those affected is unclear, but it’s thought to be in the tens of thousands. Tens of thousands of people who risked their lives to save those of others, and will now develop diseases like the cancer mesothelioma. For many, time has helped alleviate the pain September 11. For others, it has only compounded it.