From Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan to Nassau County and beyond, mourners gathered over the weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center that claimed the lives of 2,606 people.
In the reading of names at the many services, we were reminded once again of the heartbreaking personal tragedies behind the numbers and how these deaths affected fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, grandparents and friends.
We see now how these personal tragedies rippled out over time to continue to impact the lives of all of us.
Many of us are still haunted by the sight of the many cars unclaimed in the LIRR parking lot in Manhasset following the attack, marking those who died across the river in Manhattan. Or the sight of the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers seen from a bridge in Saddle Rock.
We were also reminded that the death toll has not ended for first responders, who stood on the pile of debris that was once the World Trade Center in search of survivors.
Some like Mineola Mayor Scott Strauss, a former NYPD police officer who succeeded in rescuing a survivor from the debris, live among us.
Hundreds of first responders have died from their time on the pile. Others will die in the future.
For them, as novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It was former President George W. Bush who gave perhaps the most compelling guidance on how we can best honor those who perished on Sept. 11 and those who bear scars that may fade but will never fully heal.
In his remarks in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where 33 passengers and seven crew members sacrificed their lives to bring down a plane headed for Washington, D.C., Bush called for unity among Americans in pursuit of America’s ideals.
In doing so, he drew a straight line between the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and those on our Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
“There’s little cultural overlap between violent extremists abroad and violent extremists at home,” Bush said. “But in their disdain for pluralism, in their disregard of human life, in their determination to defile national symbols, they are children of the same foul spirit, and it is our continuing duty to confront them.”
We were not supporters of Bush during his presidency.
His decision to distract our focus on Afghanistan where the 9/11 attack was planned and invade Iraq on the false pretense that it had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow connected to the attack had disastrous consequences that undermined people’s trust in government.
But Bush was never more right than in Shanksville when he reminded us of a vision of America once shared by both Republicans and Democrats.
“At a time when religious bigotry might have flowed freely, I saw Americans reject prejudice and embrace people of Muslim faith. That is the nation I know,” Bush said. “At a time when nativism could have stirred hatred and violence against people perceived as outsiders, I saw Americans reaffirm their welcome to immigrants and refugees. That is the nation I know. At a time when some viewed the rising generation as individualistic and decadent, I saw young people embrace an ethic of service and rise to selfless action. That is the nation I know.
“This is not mere nostalgia, it is the truest version of ourselves. It is what we have been, and what we can be again,” he continued.
The former president, who was joined by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in his call for unity, was clearly speaking to many of those who now call themselves Republicans but no longer share their former standard-bearers’ values.
And his remarks carried a call to action.
The defense of Muslims did not last long in this country – despite Bush’s best efforts.
Sadly, Long Island’s Rep. Peter King, who retired last year, played a leading role in demonizing Muslims.
He chaired hearings in 2011 amid rising anti-Muslim sentiment on what he described as the radicalization of American Muslims and encouraged law enforcement spying in mosques.
In 2004, a period when Bush’s White House was formally committed to rejecting a war on Islam, King called Muslims “an enemy living amongst us.”
Prior to his congressional hearings, King argued there were too many mosques in America. He also repeated a supposition that over 80 percent of the nation’s mosques were controlled by radical imams.
Needless to say, neither King nor any of his supporters are saying there are too many churches in America or that white Christians should be spied on following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the rising threat of white terrorism.
It is a short distance from anti-Muslim sentiment to anti-Black, anti-Jew, anti-Hispanic and anti-Asian sentiment – one with which Donald Trump rode to the presidency.
Those opposing the diversity of this country are some of the same folks who talk about places outside New York being the real America.
Both Bush and President Ronald Reagan before him knew better.
They knew that America was built on the talents and drive of immigrants seeking a better life and if any place has a real claim on the “real America” title it is New York.
New York City’s success is why it was targeted by al-Qaida.
The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is a time to mourn the loss of those who died and lend support to the many who continue to suffer from that loss.
It is a time to honor the courage of the first responders who rushed into the towers as others were rushing out – especially the 343 firefighters who gave their lives.
Too little credit is given firefighters for the thousands of people they rescued from the towers. It is hard to comprehend their bravery in the face of the millions of Americans who refuse to get a vaccine amid a pandemic that has already claimed the lives of more than 650,000 Americans.
We can honor the memory of those who died on 9/11 by, as Bush said, doing “our continuing duty to confront” those who disdain pluralism and human life.