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Remarks At UTC for 9/11 Service

Where were you when…

That question has tied previous generations of Americans together, attached to a singular event that forced us to awaken to the realities of living in a world that at times is confusing and often disruptive.  We shudder as the cocoon that protects us from war, despair, extremists, is shattered. We yearn for a more innocent time.

When did you lose your innocence, forced to look into the face of those who are different than you are, who hold different beliefs, who are of different color, and who may value death more than life.

As Americans, we want to feel safe at home separated by expanses of water to the east and the west and unfortified borders to the north and south. Nazis and communists may have been problems, but not at our door.

For my parents, their answers to the question is Dec. 7, 1941, a day that lives in infamy when the United States faced the realities of the second World War.

  • 2,403 people killed at Pearl Harbor
  • First plane struck at 8 a.m. and the next at 8:55 a.m.

For my generation, the baby Boomers, the question relates to November 22, 1963. Where were we when President Kennedy was shot and killed?  A young man with a young wife and two small children who challenged us to think great thoughts, to stretch the boundaries of our imagination and reach for the unreachable.  Dreams, hopes dashed with the rush of a bullet from a high-powered rifle from a store window in Dallas, Texas.

  • one dead: two others thereafter

For many of you in this room today, the answer is September 11, 2001.  Your world changed.  Friends who sat across from you in class left a vacant seat one day as they were called to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq.  A 30-year peace was over and memories of Vietnam-- without a draft-- connected your generation to my generation.

  • 8:45 a.m. the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
  • 9:05 a.m. a second plane struck the south tower
  • 9:35 a.m. a third plane struck the e-ring of the Pentagon
  • A forth plane, destined for Washington, crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside.
  • Six hours later debris stopped falling from the twin towers in New York City. Three months later- the fires below ended.
  • 2,996 people from 40 nations died-men and women of every continent, color, creed, and culture buried in rubble, that only hours earlier stood as a landmark of economic power.

Last weekend a Chattanoogan asked how the newspaper planned to recount the 5th anniversary. Before answering, he shared with me the image he and his wife saw as they flew across Manhattan, over the Statue of Liberty and gazed at the Twin Towers off to the right.  They caught a glimpse of the buildings- four days before they would stand no more.  This was a story that he wanted to tell- his connection to 9/11.

TIME magazine last week published two essays on 9/11.
In his, Andrew Sullivan described our “flashbulb memory”- as time passes, we fumble on the details; we re-imagine the past to make it more meaningful, bearable. But our illusion has been ripped apart. America can no longer opt out of the world.

9/11 and the weeks thereafter, were defining moments for a presidency that many felt had not won the office and was struggling to find his way.  President Bush’s approval stood at the 90 percent and the nation- Republican and Democrat- blue state and red state-stood and spoke as one.

One year later, in 2002, the PEW internet and American Life project reported that more than two thirds of Americans felt the government should do everything it could to keep information out of terrorists’ hands-- even if that meant the public will be deprived of information it needs or wants.  Similar percentages approved of officials’ steps to remove information from government Web sites that could be useful to terrorists.

The passage of time changes many things.

Today, President Bush’s approval stands around 40 percent, give or take a few points. This after five years of living with colors that now represent terrorist threats and no longer merely primary hues, of constitutional challenges, of Americans at war, of duct tape, of more bureaucracy and of the desire on the part of many to return to a more tranquil, safer time. 

The political debate in our country will continue for years to come as to whether we were prepared, whether our intelligence was accurate, our response was appropriate and whether we are ready for whatever may loom in the future.

As we join here today, as the names of those who died on September 11, 2001, were read person by person this morning and a bell rung at the time the first airplane struck the north tower, let’s remember those men and women. Innocent victims, from different walks of life. Some there to help others buried in the material remains of a human tragedy.

Many trapped in a firey tomb. Some facing death and leaping before burning. Some bringing aid only to become victims in the end.  School children whose dreams were extinguished at an age much too early.  Those are the people we remember-- most whom we do not know--the heroes of September 11.

As (Professor) George Connor wrote in 1945: “The heroes aren’t particularly remarkable people in themselves, they are often, it seems to me, quite ordinary people who have been challenged by the circumstances to do the impossible and have done it.”

September 15, 2006

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