Martin: A day that belongs to all

Seven years ago today?

No one in my family died. My home wasn’t destroyed. Nothing happened to me.

Others weren’t so lucky.

There was a time I was ashamed to recount my experience on September 11, 2001. I felt I had nothing to share. I was a blessed bystander at the site of astonishing suffering and destruction. All I did was watch, mostly from my bedroom window, looking out at smoke and down on racing pedestrians, from 17 stories above the city. Emotions ranged beyond sadness—especially that first day—to anger, confusion and fear.

I witnessed only some of that emotion on September 11, but much more in the days and weeks that followed. I left school that day, shepherded by my father, who was as scared as I’ve never seen him before (or since). I watched my mother light candles that night, mournful and hurt, already missing the world she had known for 45 years.

There was a time when I felt I should not speak about the event. Had I really seen or felt anything that was worth sharing? Certainly it should have been discussed then, but I was not the one who should speak of it. It belonged to those who had lost and been hurt, who were missing parents, siblings or children, and to those who had seen and helped the dead and dying. On a day when 3,000 people were murdered, I had experienced nothing. I was lucky.

Seven years have now passed. Today I’m 19. Older, perhaps wiser and well removed from what happened seven autumns ago, I now believe I have a story worth sharing.

It’s a story shared by millions, since it is the story of a city. The terrorist attack was not an abstract assault or an inventory of physical destruction. It was mass murder, and its human cost was the destruction of families, lifelong sadness for tens of thousands of people and a previously unknown fear. New Yorkers saw the suffering up close, while the rest of the world watched from a distance.

I witnessed sadness, anger and fear in my parents, and in my teachers, and in adults all around me, as the city and everyone in it were forced to instantly understand that nothing was safe; no life could be protected from all the world’s danger and evil; no home was a haven. I wasn’t scared that day (too young to comprehend how much had changed in one morning), but I’ve come to understand why the grown-ups were.

Since then, I’ve spent four anniversaries of the date in my hometown, where the towers fell, and two in New Haven. Today marks the seventh time I will wonder why I’m going to class, why we’re not all at home with our families, and why we aren’t taking time, personally or as a nation, to give our singular attention to our loved ones on a date so important in our history.

It’s hard to be away from home on September 11. Last year was especially difficult, since the University-organized vigil in remembrance of the event was perverted into a political sermon built on accusations of inadequate patriotism. On that day, we were to remember the dead and to pause, cherishing with faith or with empathy for fellow humans the gifts of life, community and love that those of us still alive continue to share. But nothing of that was done. I can only hope that this year Yale shows better judgment in its memorial.

For the rest of the day, memorial will have to come from within. Each of us must remember for ourselves — if we choose. Each of us can pause to think about what happened, what was lost and those who suffered. We don’t need to do so, and we can’t be forced to, but I believe such action is appropriate.

There was a time when I believed September 11 belonged to those it had hurt the most. I felt I shouldn’t tell my story because others had suffered more. On a day of death, nothing less mattered.

Seven years later, I feel the opposite. September 11 is now and will always be an anniversary. It marks the years since my city, our country and the world experienced something they had not known before.

The event for which we remember September 11 affected not only the thousands who lost the most, but also, and importantly, the millions in New York who directly experienced the event and its aftermath, the tens and hundreds of millions who watched and empathized from around the country and the world and the billions who entered a new era of world history.

September 11 belongs to no single group — it belongs to us all.

Take time to reflect today. Remember where you were seven years ago, and what you experienced. Or recall what others felt, what others lost. This day marks an anniversary that we honor best when we remember together.

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