September 11, 2001, is a day that will forever be etched in the minds of American citizens and of humanity worldwide. That single day, one day in the span of a year, in the course of a lifetime, and in the history of our nation, will never be forgotten.
Each of us has individual images that flash into memory. News stations repeatedly showed on particular image, that of a plane crashing into Tower 2 of World Trade Center, over and over again as if to make it real for us. That powerful, single image said more in an instant that thousands of words could capture. And yet, that was only the beginning. If “One is the loneliest number,” as the song says, then one is also the number that simultaneously describes the positive and negative events of the past week. “One” may stand for loneliness, but it also stands for singular courage and for unity.
One could focus in dim fear on the power of one individual: Osama bin Laden. This one man’s name is repeatedly mentioned in news conferences and coffeehouses throughout our country. This is scarcely any one citizen who hasn’t heard his name invoked in shock and anger hundreds of times since September 11. Even children are aware of his presence, as interviews with students from Stuveysant High School near the attack site in New York indicated. His network of terrorists systematically planned a horrific act of unspeakable violence on one unforgettable day.
And yet there is one other individual who was just as ubiquitous. Millions of people watched on television as New York’s Mayor Rudy Guiliani walked tirelessly amidst the firefighters and courageously answered repeated and horrific questions about the casualties in his beloved city. Howard Lutnik, CEO of Canter Fitzgerald, eloquently captured the emotion of a nation as he described his relentless quest to find “one person alive, one survivor.” His unabashed grief at the loss of more than 700 employees was only matched by his commitment to call each family of each missing employee and to go to each of New York’s 170 hospitals with a list. That list contained not only names of his employees but also the name of his only brother, also missing.
That same number “one” describes the unification of “one nation under God” — words that grew in impact and meaning. On the East Coast, a unified team of firefighters, police and rescue workers struggled to aid victims and search for survivors. Residents of the West Coast awakened to images they couldn’t comprehend and immediately rushed to donate blood and money. Throughout the country came one unifying rallying cry: Do not let the terrorists destroy our spirits. One word kept our country riveted and our experts focused: terrorism. Our president received the support of a unified Congress, refusing to let its usual political division interrupt its purpose. One song that we now hear played out with new meaning and impact: “God Bless America.”
As I sat glued to my television set along with the rest of the country I thought: I am one person — what can I do? As brave rescuers entered the dangerous, smoking ruins of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I truly was pained by the powerlessness of being unable to directly assist. Donations flowed in record numbers, yet that still seemed so meager in comparison.
Then I witnessed the sheer determination of Port Authority policeman David Lim as he fought back tears and emotionally described his gratitude at being rescued from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. His commitment to “just keep going” inspired prayer with renewed strength. I literally have begged and pleaded with God for even one survivor to be found, if only to honor the thousands of rescue workers’ amazing efforts.
In the midst of this, another single image started to proliferate through the countryside: the starts and stripes. Everywhere we looked, the flag seemed to rise up and multiply itself, as if a giant banner of healing had literally wrapped itself around our entire nation. For the first time the question of our national anthem, “if our flag was still there” was answered with a resounding yes. The palpable comfort that uniformly embraced us with that sight was a single, unifying image that will likewise not be erased.
Further proof of the power of the individual crept into my consciousness with the courageous story of Father Mychal Judge, the chaplain to the firefighters who died while giving last rites to the victims of the original bomb attack. His uncommon sacrifice embodied the efforts of thousands of faith leaders across the country, whose stirring words sought to inspire and gently heal our hearts.
The particular words of Reverend Billy Graham resonated as he spoke eloquently about the need for unified forgiveness and vigilance against prejudice. The idea that one might even pray for the conversion of the terrorists’ blind hatred was an idea introduced on Oprah. Throughout the country, for every ignorant accusation against an innocent Arab American, stood a rabbi or minister next to a Muslim cleric. Instead of attacking a single race, the vast majority of Americans embraced them.
My finance and I watched this personally as we brought a close friend of ours, a Palestinian, to our candlelight church service. Hands reached out — hands of African Americans, Filipinos, Mexican Americans and Caucasians — to shake his hand in the traditional Catholic sign of peace. Are there Americans in our communities who would reject him, a young, patriotic filmmaker? If so, then we, as individual Americans of other races, can ensure that their bigotry is uniformly drowned out amidst single handshakes or hugs of solidarity.
Finally, among all the images of the past week, I personally witnessed a tiny sign of the American spirit in generations to come. Two young girls, one Pakistani and one Caucasian, sat outside under the hot Southern California sun selling “LemonAid for America.” Deliberately spelled, their homemade sign waved proudly as they informed us that “100 percent of the proceeds will go to the victims, along with our piggy bank funds.” Additional childlike posters reading “Let Freedom Ring” and “God Bless America,” (complete with hand drawn flags and daisies) announced that they intended to send a single message loud and clear.
The power of one — one nation, one rescue team and even one single individual — cannot be denied and will always leave its mark upon the world.