After the flags come down

By Kevin Shannahan

On this, the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11th attacks, media is saturated with various tributes and commemorations all imploring us to “never forget.” As I look back over the past 15 years, each of which have seen the nation at war, I see the Sept. 11th attacks recede into historical memory. This is natural as time passes, and not an entirely bad thing. Time does not always heal all wounds, but it does provide perspective.

What I do find objectionable is the passive tone of many of the commemorations. The attacks were indeed a tragedy. Over 3,000 people lost their lives that day as they went about their everyday business, unaware of the impending attack. The lives cut short, the families torn asunder by the loss of a spouse, the orphans created, that was a tragedy. All too often however, the commemorations fail to make the distinction that the deaths were the result of an unprovoked attack upon innocent civilians, rather than the result of a tornado or other agent of random chance and misfortune. Nor do they celebrate the courage of the police officers, firemen and ordinary citizens who rose to the occasion, often at the cost of their lives.

I want to celebrate Rick Rescorla, Jorge Velazquez, and Godwin Forde. They repeatedly went back into the burning World Trade Center to lead people out. They died on their last attempt as the Tower collapsed with them still inside. This was not Rescorla’s first time in the World Trade Center after an attack. In the 1993 bombing, he spent 12 hours inside the building helping firefighters find and rescue people. As a platoon leader in Vietnam, he fought in the Ia Drang Valley, earning a Silver Star. He was 62 when he died fighting a different enemy.

Hundreds of police officers and fire fighters died doing their duty, faithful unto death to the citizens they were charged to protect. First responders and ordinary citizens pulled people from the rubble. In the Pentagon, Air Force Lt. General and surgeon, P.K. Carlton found himself the only trauma surgeon in the area. He personally rescued people trapped in the rubble and organized the medical response to the attack, treating people on site and commandeering passing civilian cars to take the wounded to hospitals.

I want to celebrate the men and women of Flight 93. When it became apparent what the hijackers’ true intentions were, they did not flinch from what had to be done. They were not soldiers or police officers. They were ordinary men and women. They fought the hijackers with bare hands and improvised weapons in a desperate attempt to retake the plane. We will never know with certainty what Flight 93’s target was to be. The passengers may have saved the Capitol building or the White House. Their courage launched the first counterattack of the war. They died with their face to the enemy and turned a field in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania into sacred ground.

On this Sept. 12th, after the flags come down and the television and radio goes back to normal programming, take a look around you. The real lessons to be drawn from the 9-11 attacks are all around us. The police officers on patrol, the firefighters at the station today are no different than the men and women who ran into the World Trade Center and a burning Pentagon. When the call comes, they will answer it. Look at those harried business travelers at the airport. People just like them saved Washington D.C. from another attack.

Several young men in my old Scout Troop are starting out on their enlistments in the Marine Corps. They were toddlers in 2001 and grew up in a nation at war. They are now taking their place on the ramparts doing the hard, dangerous work that keeps our nation’s enemies at bay. Fifteen years after the attacks, I look around me from the vantage point of age and see that we still produce men and women like Todd Beamer of Flight 93 and Rick Rescorla. When the need arises, they will be there. America will endure.

2 thoughts on “After the flags come down

  1. Very well said. As an eyewitness to the attacks in NYC that tragic day, I find myself often mourning and remembering on my own. I share with my students my experience so they can understand how difficult things were and the sheer terror we felt. They need to know and understand this history.

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