The 15th anniversary of 9/11 was this Sunday, and it’s not that big of a deal. If you caught yourself agreeing with that statement, you’re not alone. I was in the exact same position about a year ago.
My high school received an art exhibit for the 14th anniversary of 9/11, and I begrudgingly accepted the story. After a month of shadowing preparators, interviewing art experts involved with every step of the process and committing to my story, I completed something I felt I could be proud of and I published it, ready to move onto the next challenge.
The response I received blew my mind. Instead of being dismissed for detachment, people seemed receptive to the idea of 9/11 taking a new role in contemporary society. I was granted the rare opportunity to talk with survivors and families of victims. Their stories of incredible strength in the face of suffering were inspiring, to say the least.
Writing about 9/11 led to meeting some truly amazing people like Paul McCormack, the youngest NYPD captain in history, who lost his eyesight from the smoke and carcinogens at Ground Zero and went on to found an organization that kept the memory of 9/11 alive for years afterwards.
After being visited in Dallas by the family of a fallen fireman, I was invited to travel to New York City to spend a week reporting on how the Big Apple rebuilt after its devastating loss. I met dozens of modern heroes who define their lives in terms of “before 9/11″ and “after 9/11.” The NYPD at One Police Plaza detailed to me how they update the public during times of crisis and I met legendary firefighters and families who helped keep the nation calm during one of its greatest tragedies.
Regardless of emotional, proximal or familial connections, we all understand to some degree the catastrophic loss of life that occurred on 9/11. While we might not notice it, this supposedly ancient catastrophe permeates into countless areas of our lives even decades after the towers’ collapse.
9/11 is one of the most intricate, nuanced and impactful events in American history. The House of Representatives’ passed a bill just this weekend to allow families of victims to sue Saudi Arabia over their involvement in 9/11, opening a new realm of geopolitical conflict.
71 law enforcement officers, 343 firefighters and 2,560 civilians died on Sept. 11, and, as of August 2015, 3,700 individuals suffer with cancers and maladies related to 9/11.
Beyond the death toll, the terrorist attacks wreaked havoc on the geopolitical landscape, provided a horrific example of the dangers pollution and asbestos can cause even with EPA approval and instrumented one of the greatest battles over health coverage in this nation’s history.
As someone who is socially progressive, I tend to shy away from over the top patriotism because it oftentimes praises America while ignoring the many systemic issues within the 50 states. I’m also a millennial, raised not to take things at face value or accept the “too perfect to be true” stories we’re told.
However, we’ve become so desensitized to 9/11 it’s no longer a question of if, but how much. Before learning more about this national tragedy, I and many others have been guilty of making “Bush did 9/11″ jokes. Even days before the 15th anniversary, a store here in San Antonio made national news for a TV commercial that mocked the thousands of murdered victims in an attempt to sell more mattresses.
9/11 is one of the rare moments in American history that can serve as a unifying moment for the country. The heightened Islamophobia and questionable foreign policy decisions came as a result of this great nation returning to some of its nastier habits. But for a blissful series of days, the entire nation put aside differences to mourn the cruel and widespread loss of innocent civilian life.
This experience, something I’ve only read about and unfortunately cannot remember, is what makes 9/11 so unbelievable and distant to us. Our current political climate is so fractured and built upon loathing and character attacks that the concept of a country apolitical in its support of justice is simply unfathomable.
Within the current news cycle alone we have two starkly contrary attitudes towards the tragedy: Secretary Clinton will visit Ground Zero on the 15th anniversary to pay her respects while her opponent fabricates farfetched stories about individuals in Jersey City cheering after the attack, utilized legal loopholes to steal thousands of dollars away from small businesses in need and ignored the pleas of survivors to support a bill providing lifesaving healthcare to first responders.
This bill, the James Zadroga bill, is another sickening example of how poorly 9/11 survivors are protected by the government. The bill was initially rejected, and when a new version cleared the House, it was blocked by an intensive Republican filibuster. After all of that, the bill expired in 2015 and upon renewal is still not permanent. It expires again in 2020.
Think of the irony. The government told rescue workers the toxic air was safe to breathe, then almost refused them basic healthcare as they developed maladies directly related to the asbestos and carcinogens they breathed. Unless you want to jump into a burning building, plunge into a freezing lake to retrieve a suicide victim, defuse a bomb or do any of the harrowing tasks these groups complete regularly, then 9/11 should hold just as personal importance as it did 15 years ago.
It has now been 15 years since the Twin Towers collapsed, and it’s our turn to fight. Fight the legal mistreatment of law enforcement and veterans and the baseless discrimination against those of Middle Eastern descent. After all, “Never forget” doesn’t have an expiration date.