Back in April, I got a phone call from one of my oldest friends. I was in North Carolina, quarantining with my parents. He was in New York, isolating from his mother who has MS and would be vulnerable to COVID-19. We have experienced countless life events together. He took a deep breath and said, “this is bad.” I answered, “I never in my life thought anything would be worse than September 11th.”
Nineteen years ago, he and I sat in AP calculus class as two planes flew into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, an act of foreign terrorism that killed roughly 3,000 innocent people and irrevocably changed life as we knew it.
Our high school sits two miles from the main gate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. They locked us in. As many of the students lived “on post” and the majority of our parents worked there, we really had nowhere to go. West Point shut down with our parents inside. The bridges shut down. The Hudson River shut down. New York shut down.
Prior to September 11, 2001, for 17 years, eight months and 27 days, I moved freely in and out of post. It was a haven for me as a child. I would hike in the woods around neighborhoods. I would play hide-n-seek in the historic Arvin Gym. I’d have picnics on the banks of the Hudson with family and friends. I’d play basketball in the Holleder Center, or run on the track at Shea Field. On September 11, 2001, my freedom in that world came to a crashing halt.
The next time I tried to enter post—to watch Army basketball practice, to visit my mom, to go to a friend’s house, I can’t remember—the line of cars snaked its way into town. When I got to the gate, I was met by a soldier in BDUs, with a semiautomatic weapon and a bomb-sniffing dog. My car’s hood was popped and the internal workings checked. The doors were all opened and everything inside was subject to search. The dog sniffed around my car’s perimeter. A mirror scanned my car’s undercarriage. I submitted to it all. I was 17 and I was trying to save lives, in whatever way I was told would do it.
Fortunately for me, the soldier in the BDUs with the semiautomatic weapon and the bomb-sniffing dog was the father of two dear high school friends. A military nurse who had been reassigned to military police work because the MPs were so overwhelmed with base security. He placed his hand on my arm as I cried through the entire search. He told me it would be ok. But ok or not ok, I knew it would always be different. There was no longer anything normal.
Nineteen years later, we are nearing 200,000 deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19. That is like watching 9/11 happen every day for 67 days. I can’t fathom how horrific that would be. And yet, it’s our current reality. I recognize that I write this from a very comfortable position: with my health, with my family, with a place to quarantine, with the ability to work remotely, with the ability to work at all. But 19 years ago, I watched my life change forever, and allowed it, because I was told it would keep people safe. Today, all you have to do is wear a mask. No one is asking you to by gunpoint, there are no bomb-sniffing dogs. It is much easier to keep people safe than it was then. So, what are we doing?
What are we doing?
Today there will be countless memorial ceremonies across the world for the victims of 9/11. As there absolutely should be for the rest of time. We don’t yet know how we will honor the lives we’ve lost from COVID. But one way is to protect the people who are still here. To do everything in our power to make sure that no one else has to lose a loved one to something preventable. To something we now have the tools to mitigate.
Just like 19 years ago, our lives will never return to normal. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be good again. That doesn’t mean we can’t be better than the things that happen to us.