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Eight Years Ago This Morning I Went Home Sick

September 2009

by Michael O’Brien

Eight years ago this morning I went home from work sick. I usually don’t remember being sick, but then most of us remember what we were doing eight years ago today.

After word of the first aircraft hitting the World Trade Center reached me and my office mate, we found live coverage on the web minutes before the second aircraft struck. I remember we watched in silence as stunned as everyone else in America that morning. Seeing that plane vaporize when it hit the second tower, you instantly knew hundreds of lives had ended, right then. You could almost feel it. Like the world lost something that very second.

It’s true that thousands, some sources say 70,000 people die each day in the world, so the loss of hundreds somehow shouldn’t affect us, but seeing it, realizing these people hadn’t prepared, hadn’t said goodbye…you could feel the loss. After the tragedy at Virginia Tech, poet Nikki Giovanni wrote, “No one deserves a tragedy”: words she later spoke in a resolute tone that lifted the tear-stained faces and brought that community up from its knees filled with a resolve to restore their spirit and move forward. That didn’t really happen after the losses eight years ago. I often wonder how the world might have been different if the poet-laureate of the United States had been able to lift us up, restore our spirit and embrace the good will the world focused on us towards addressing the underlying problems that provoked these extreme attacks.

But that day, the poets were silent on the national stage, and instead we embarked on a path of retribution that cost the world thousands more lives, cost us some of our best citizens, and squandered the good name of our country.

Extremism in any form, for any purpose, is a danger we must all stand together to oppose, be it Christian extremism that results in doctors being killed while they worship, Islamic extremism that results in women being stoned to death for driving a car, Communist extremism that slaughters peaceful protesters in Bejing or Capitalist extremism that results in slave labor to produce cheap goods for big-box retailers. If we don’t stand together as the people, those few who live their lives in fear, anger and righteousness will act. They will stop at nothing to have their fight, especially if they don’t have to fight it…only our voices, our unified voices are strong enough to squelch their bellicose rants that underpin the run-up to violence.

I watched the coverage of the towers, engulfed in flames, the street scenes of people running from the WTC site, and of the uniformed services personnel running towards the site. Who are these people who race towards disaster? They are the heroes among us, our neighbors, our friends, some trained and employed to help us during tragedies, some ordinary people who just know…someone needs help…and they offer it without thinking of their personal safety.

Dozens of stories of ordinary heroes emerged from that morning’s tragedy. One that strikes me, that makes me aspire to be a better citizen, is the story of the passengers on United Flight 93. They knew what their aircraft was being used for. They knew what would happen if they did not act. They knew what would happen if they did act…and yet, they acted. We don’t know for sure what they prevented or who they saved. But it was likely they saved many of the people who disrespected the President the other night in the joint session. Ordinary people gave their lives so elected representatives could act like insolent children; they should be ashamed, but like many who hold extreme beliefs, they felt empowered to act as they did. The worst part about that was the millions of children who watched and now sit in the back of classrooms, scanning their cell phones, rolling their eyes because their elected representatives said through their actions “it’s ok” “if you believe you are right, any behavior is acceptable.” It’s hard to not imagine this point of view being passed back and forth in the cockpits of those aircraft eight years ago.

“No one deserves a tragedy.” As the first tower fell, I couldn’t believe it. These were robust buildings, conservatively engineered, the best our building culture could do---they were never supposed to fall. I saw that and my foundation, my core beliefs, were cut out from under me. I felt sick. Went home, saw the other tower fall, and was sick again.

We still need a poet to take the national stage and lift us up to beat back the drums of war. A war that we are still fighting eight years later, a war we will still be fighting eight years from now…all for the want of a poet’s voice.

Be especially good to each other today. We all carry wounds from eight years ago, some more painful than others.

Take care; speak out.