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Golis: Grim images of 9/11 — and the lesson we forgot

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Eighteen years later, the wrenching memories come flooding back — the World Trade Center towers gleaming in the morning sun, explosions, fire, billowing smoke, men and women running for their lives, first responders risking their lives to save others, the shocking collapse and plumes of toxic dust.

In this dark and solemn place — the 9/11 Memorial Museum — people sit or stand in silence, lost in their thoughts. This must be the quietest place in New York City.

We are here to bear witness to one of the most terrible and unimaginable days in American history. It’s a task that hurts the heart. Many refuse to visit the museum because it’s just too painful.

A sign on a nearby door seems to anticipate the anguish: “Use this door,” it reads, “to leave the exhibition early.”

Here’s the New York Times critic Holland Cotter: “The first thing to say about (the museum), and maybe the last, is that it’s emotionally overwhelming, particularly, I expect, for New Yorkers who were in the city on that apocalyptic September day.”

We are here to mourn the people who died. In the footprint of the south tower, we read their names, see their photos and learn that they were fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, Little League coaches and school volunteers. They were people who enjoyed fishing with their buddies and growing vegetables in the backyard. We see the small possessions that help tell their stories.

Counting the people who died when hijacked planes crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, almost 3,000 people got up and went to work on that sunny Tuesday and never came home.

“Here we tell their story, so that generations yet unborn will never forget,” President Barack Obama said at the museum’s 2014 dedication.

We are here, too, to honor the heroism of the first responders. In a day filled with unimaginable outcomes, there is this: 412 emergency workers — including 343 New York firefighters, 23 New York police officers and 37 Port Authority police officers — were killed trying to save others.

From the toxic air they breathed during the first days after the towers collapsed, many others would later be diagnosed with cancer.

While contemplating their courage, we think about the politicians who later balked at proposals to pay for the first responders’ health care. Some died before Congress — four months ago — got around to approving a complete compensation fund.

What kind of cynicism would cause a politician to think these people don’t deserve help when they risked everything?

In the main exhibition space, 70 feet below street level, we see remnants of the World Trade Center, including fragments of steel and the massive slurry wall that kept away water from the nearby Hudson River. We see the Vesey Street stairs, the “Survivors’ Staircase” many World Trade Center workers used to escape.

We hear snippets of recordings that tell of shock and then desperation.

And we see the wreckage of a firetruck from Ladder Company 3. In his last transmission from the 35th floor, Capt. Paddy Brown reported, “Three truck, and we’re still heading up.” He and 10 others from Company 3 died when the building collapsed.

The exhibit reminds us of the extraordinary scale of the World Trade Center, a place where 50,000 people came to work each day. The 107-story towers housed 200 elevators and 1,200 bathrooms.

American special forces killed the mastermind of this horror, Osama bin Laden, but in so many ways, we have squandered the lessons of 9/11.

For a few months, we understood there was a strength in coming together for the well-being of the country. When President George W. Bush returned to New York six weeks later to throw out the first pitch in the 2001 World Series, New Yorkers cheered him and chanted: “USA! USA!”

Now President Donald Trump can’t show up at a sporting event in his hometown without being booed.

After 9/11, there would be the invasion of Iraq, the feeble response to Hurricane Katrina and a recession born of greed and ignorance. Meanwhile, Americans became consumed by their differences.

In 2001, no one could have predicted that the country would become so divided and disillusioned.

“We are all Americans now,” proclaimed the Paris newspaper Le Monde in the hours after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now America is more isolated from its allies around the world than at any time in the past 80 years.

On the evening of our visit to the 9/11 Museum, we attended a play that tells the story of what happened when 38 passenger planes were diverted to a small town in Canada after the attack on the World Trade Center. “Come From Away” tells of the kindness and hospitality visited upon 6,700 strangers by the residents of Gander, Newfoundland.

It’s a story line that might seem mawkish in this cyclical age, but somehow, it isn’t. The New York Times theater critic Ben Branley opined: “It may provide just the catharsis you need in an American moment notorious for dishonorable and divisive behavior.”

At the 9/11 Memorial, a dedication speaks to our better angels:

”Here we honor the tens of thousands

From across America and around the world

Who came to help and to heal

Whose selflessness and resolve

Perseverance and courage

Renewed the spirit of a grieving city

Gave hope to the nation

And inspired the world.”

Just now, the world could use some inspiration.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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