Culture

A 9-Year-Old New Yorker on 9/11

David Harris

I’ve had a familiar conversation with many in the US and in several foreign countries. It’s the discussion of exactly where you were, what you were doing, and what you did after you heard about the attacks on that crystal clear, warm summer day. 

Though I was only 9, I remember 9/11 more vividly than most other days in my life. My family had a practice of having family devotions each morning before starting our homeschool routine. After breakfast, the five of us would gather in our living room to sing hymns and pray together. We hadn’t quite finished when the phone rang. It was a neighbor urgently telling my mom to turn on the TV. Happy to delay schoolwork, my two brothers and I plopped down on the carpet and started watching Channel 7 ABC News just seconds before Tower Two was hit. 

I remember my mom immediately beginning to sob, and a look of anger came over my dad’s face that I didn’t know he was capable of. I distinctly remember my dad calmly, but through gritted teeth, explaining that the small dots falling down the sides of the building were people jumping into thin air rather than being roasted alive by the intensifying flames. 

Living in a small Hudson River town just under 80 miles from where the Towers once stood, I ran to the backyard and climbed up on our playset to find out if I could see smoke from the collapsed towers. I told my friends later that week that I could see the plumes coming from Manhattan, but in actuality, all my younger brother and I could see were the wispy cirrus clouds that drifted across the pleasant September sky. 

Like most, we watched TV the rest of the day and for days afterward. Later that night, my dad called for a special prayer service to be held at church. While I would never have admitted it at the time, I was very worried and scared, so I faked a sudden head and stomachache so that I could stay home with Mom.

The Autumn of 2001

Down the street from the house I grew up in is a small, well-manicured park with a WWII monument right in the middle of a grassy field. This is where the Memorial and Veteran’s Day services have always been held. The town supervisor asked my dad to deliver an invocation and benediction for a service to be held at the park a few days after the attacks. My dad asked if any of us wanted to go with him, and I immediately volunteered. 

I’ll never forget that night. In New York, there’s a refreshing chill in the evening air that starts around mid-September, but it didn’t have any effect on the turnout. The park was packed –  the most packed I’ve ever seen before or since. Sitting next to Dad, I was perched next to the monument above the crowd. The classic patriotic songs were sung robustly, tears were shed freely, and perhaps most importantly of all, my dad spoke and prayed about how hope could be found only in Christ during times of great turmoil. I was proud of my dad, proud to be Christian, and proud to be an American. 

That day sealed, in my young mind, who the heroes were: firefighters, police, and soldiers. I wrote letters to young men from our church who were deployed in the coming months and treasured every medal, patch, picture, and army surplus item I was given. One day I hoped that I would also be serving in the armed forces to bring justice to those who perpetrated the horror I was witness to at such a young age. 

There are many other vivid memories from that autumn. Going to a Catholic church in Manhattan for the funeral of a distant cousin who was last seen helping someone in a wheelchair in Tower Two. Getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in rural New Jersey because there were so many funerals for local firefighters that the backroads were jammed. Asking dad what “Islam” was. Hearing the stories from commuters from church who were either in the buildings or worked nearby. Donning camo in the backyard and pretending to fight Jihadists with my friends. 

9/11/2001 changed my hometown forever. Because it was within commuting distance from NYC and there was a train stop, city dwellers flocked up to our county to get out of what they believed was an increasingly dangerous place. Vigils and funerals went on for several weeks.

Much ink has been spilled on the “9/12 phenomenon,” referring to the surge in patriotism, the sudden return of many to church, and how every car had a small American flag attached to its antennal. In many ways, though dark, it was a beautiful time. Neighbors became closer, families tighter, and strangers became friends. Even though this only lasted for a time, the memory is still a sweet one for many of us. 

Post 9/11 Questions

It’s incredibly surreal to realize that 22 years have now come and gone since that time. My idealistic perspective on the events has profoundly changed. I used to angrily defend the honor of the US Government when my left-leaning friends would say “anti-war” things. Now I have no idea what to believe or think about what our leaders were doing either leading up to or after the 9/11 Attacks. Was there inside information beforehand? Were the attacks simply used to become entangled in misguided attempts to “spread democracy?” What was the point? Why are our veterans killing themselves at horrific levels? The questions are maddening, disheartening, and even depressing. 

Blessings in the Midst of Chaos

In 2023, how do we even approach thinking about 9/11? More specifically, how does a guy from New York fight the dark, invading thoughts that chase after him every September? What do we do when our whole paradigm around such a pivotal historical event, one that touched us deeply, starts to shift under our feet?

Philippians 4:6-7 holds an especially pertinent principle for us today: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (NKJV). 

The anxiety among us has not at all calmed since 2001, in fact, it’s risen exponentially as further chaos engulfs our society. But Philippians 4 gives the only real answer to anxiety: to pray and bring our requests to God, but to do so with thanksgiving – essentially, to count our blessings before we do anything else. So, as strange as it might sound, here are three blessings related to 9/11/2001:

A Brutal Reminder

Whatever your specific perspective on the 9/11 attacks, there is absolutely no doubt that the depravity of man was on its fullest display. Each year, when we reflect on the catastrophic loss of life through horrendous means, we are reminded of the fact that though our lives may seem secure, we may be face-to-face with our Creator at any time if that is according to His plan. Whether for purposes of judgment or mercy, the fact that millions in the US and around the world had and continue to have an explicit reminder of their own mortality is, providentially, a blessing.

Pictures of Biblical Heroism

From a worldly perspective, the Titanic disaster might seem like an occasion of senseless, purposeless death. But in the midst of the chaos that befell the famed ship, acts of incredible bravery, heroism, and intrepidity were performed, in many cases simply because of a sense of Christian duty. The same is true for 9/11. In John 15:13, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (ESV). The example of the firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, and ordinary citizens who threw their own safety to the wayside in order to save as many lives as possible is quite literally the greatest tangible expression of human love that can be aspired to. It is worth setting time aside to honor the memory of those who willingly sacrificed their lives so that others might live. This too, is a blessing. To quote Shakespeare, “This story shall a good man teach his son.”

Those Drawn to Christ

While many have lamented the lack of national repentance following 9/11, there are specific instances of those who came to Christ in part because of their experiences on that day. While many will point out that church attendance didn’t increase long term and there was no “mass revival,” as one who grew up in a church where nearly everyone had a personal connection to the events of that day, I am familiar with many stories of people who either came to Christ or started taking their faith seriously following their experiences in Manhattan on 9/11. God used the horror, trauma, and stress of the situation to drive many sinners who lived and worked in NYC to the foot of the cross. 

The story of 9/11 shows us the depths of depravity and the heights of courage. It provides a greatly needed reminder that whether a man is making million-dollar deals on the top floors of a skyscraper, or sweeping floors in the basement, his greatest need is the same: the salvation and eternal security found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

This is worthy of reflection. 

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