By Anastasia Kaliabakos
When I was sixteen years old, I traveled on my first international flight on a trip to Italy. I had been to airports a few times in my life, but could never shake the awe of how secure New York airports like Laguardia or JFK were. There were endless lines, bag checks, and security guards with their dogs roaming the aisles of eager Americans excited to travel, whether for business purposes or family vacations. As I, a petite, nerdy teenage girl finally got in line to enter the plane, I was roughly pulled aside by a woman saying I had been selected to be “inspected.” I was brought to a small room and instructed to take off my shoes and open my small carry-on bag. I remember slipping off my green polka dot converse and unzippering my bag to reveal a much-too-large selection of books. A burly man used a stick to poke around my bag, while the aforementioned woman gently patted me down. When they were finally done, I was told to put my shoes back on and get back in line. I was rattled to say the least, and full of questions. Later on, I asked my parents how I could ever be considered a threat. My parents explained to me that this new normal of travel had come about in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001.
Although it may seem cliche, as a native New Yorker, 9/11 has been woven into the fabric of the person I am today. Despite not being born yet (my mom was about five months pregnant with me at the time), I have grown up in a generation that has only known life post 9/11. The effects of the terror attacks are still palpable in today’s America—especially in New York City. For example, every year on September 11th, the atmosphere of the city noticeably changes. There is a quiet somberness to the typically bustling city—one of mourning and remembrance. Every year, the Tribute in Light also reminds the city (and the world) of what transpired on 9/11. The 9/11 Museum and Memorial website reads, “Tribute in Light is a commemorative public art installation first presented six months after 9/11 and then every year thereafter, from dusk to dawn, on the night of September 11. It has become an iconic symbol that both honors those killed and celebrates the unbreakable spirit of New York.”
It is said that about 97% of Americans who were eight years old or older on September 11, 2001 can recall exactly where they were when they heard the news of the attacks. Additionally, New Yorkers themselves have unique perspectives when it comes to stories of where they were that day and how they were feeling. Individual stories that humanize 9/11 are hugely important for leaving a lasting impression on those who either did not have a personal connection to 9/11 or those who did not live through the events of that fateful day but have lived through its consequences.
My mom was working as a pharmacist at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital on September 11, 2001. Her day began as any other typical day would, but once the news that the towers had been hit broke, the hospital went into full Code Red. Stretchers and IV bags were brought out, filling the first floor of the hospital, so that the injured would be able to seek treatment upon arrival. However, only firemen and policemen who had sustained injuries while looking through the rubble at the World Trade Center came in. 2,977 victims died that day—there were not many people who required care because it was too late for most people to be saved. My mom, pregnant and scared, worked all day to treat regular patients and first responders and, once it was time to return home to Queens, she found that the entire island of Manhattan was on lockdown. The only path home was to walk by foot over the Queensboro Bridge, surrounded by the smell of smoke and fear.
My dad also was in Manhattan on the morning of September 11th walking along Canal street with a coworker. He witnessed first hand the collapse of the Twin Towers and immediately joined hundreds of other New Yorkers in lines to donate blood. He then went back to Village Apothecary, the pharmacy where he still works today, to help frightened and stunned West Villagers who needed medicine and care, until the late hours of the night. He drove home alone in the dark, passing the emergency vehicles patrolling the streets of Manhattan, across the eerily quiet bridge.
Stories like these are jarring for someone like me who did not live through the attacks, but the effects of 9/11 are not just evident in the impact they had on people like my parents, but also on how the society I have grown up in has functioned. As I mentioned before, September 11th led to a tightening of security implemented all around the country. Not only is it noticeable in airports, but it is also evident in the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., and in many major cities across the country. Most buildings (governmental or just privately-owned) require intense procedures to be allowed in. Typically, one must present a valid form of identification, along with a reason as to why you are visiting; a pass through a metal detector and a thorough bag checking are commonplace as well. It is interesting to hear from those who grew up before 9/11 that these strict measures used to be rare.
It also goes without saying that, for my entire life, the United States was engaged in a “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. To have your country wrapped up in a war for your whole lifespan is an experience shared by relatively few people alive today. Recently, that fight came to an abrupt end—but not the end that anyone really wanted. I think that, for those impacted on 9/11 (in the U.S. or abroad, alive at the time or born after the fact), the end of the war has brought up many emotions, memories, and opinions about the “War on Terror” itself, along with what was accomplished in Afghanistan and how much has been lost since 2001. But, ultimately, it is important to remember that unity in the face of hardship is what is most valuable to the country right now. We saw this during 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, and now we must come together and support one another following the end of this brutal, turbulent war, along with its repercussions. As the 20th anniversary of not just 9/11, but the War on Terror, approaches, we must remember the lives lost and the sacrifices made to keep our country safe.