Rettke: How we honor the dead 20 years later means more now

What we’re still learning about the tragedy of 9/11, two decades later

“Where were you when?” is a question I’m sure we’ve all pondered this past week as we mark the 20th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

We do that often for things such as 9/11, the Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, the moon landing, the Challenger explosion.

We ask ourselves these questions because, I think, there exists a communal understanding that what happened that day altered our lives somehow. Not just in a national trajectory, foreign affairs, policy-making, Big Picture context. But in a “We’re all humans, and what I saw, witnessed, experienced, felt that day is a phenomenon that was shared broadly, across my community, among my fellow Americans” way.

It’s that sharing of grief that makes it’s imperative, comforting even, to know we’re not alone in those feelings, especially after a trauma.

To (de)age myself, I was 9 years old in third grade back home in Missouri when 9/11 occurred. I remember that morning disjointedly.

I was getting ready for school when the first plane hit the tower. I remember my mother, who just had gotten out of the shower, was watching the events unfold on TV. Her bedroom was across the hall from the one I shared with my sister, and she had the local morning news on, watched as the second plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. My mother’s hair wrapped in a towel, she was exclaiming something but I don’t remember what, and standing very close to her television.

In Mrs. Rufkahr’s third grade classroom that day, the TV was on, which never happened, the day’s broadcast playing in the background. I’d realize later that the news was (as it often is in breaking mass casualty situations) jumbled, unfolding by the minute. It wasn’t clear what was fact or rumor, or who was in danger and who wasn’t. I don’t think I’d heard the word terrorist ever used before those aftermath days.

I didn’t fully grasp or truly understand for sometime the horror of what it meant to lose nearly 3,000 lives in minutes. That empathy is learned, I think, through years of being told to “never forget.”

It’s a communal, national lesson, an obligation that, like wars and assassinations and other marked events, is taught in school. We’re told to remind ourselves annually that it’s important to be emotionally moved by death on a large and unexpected scale. That people died because our country was attacked by outsiders, and that we should feel sad about it. And then we should do something about it.

The idea of what it means to be moved by death is, for obvious reasons, something I’ve been chewing over this week, especially in the context of these COVID-19 pandemic-era days.

How do we, rural folks in the Midwest, 850 miles away from New York City, give honor, respect and mournful due diligence to something that all at once feels deeply personal and staunchly American, especially if you have personal ties or lost a loved one? What if you’re far away? It’s easier to disassociate, harder to contextualize?

We do our duty by being empathetic, giving space, holding moments each year to intentionally remember that a life taken in such a way is sad. And that the repercussions of such a heinous act require action.

I’ve been struggling with this lately, because I’m deeply worried that many aren’t doing that anymore.

Being empathetic is an obvious trait we should take in all aspects of life, and while the reminders are front and center during anniversaries such as this one, it seems for some performative in the context of current events. I’m pretty pessimistic about the state of our collective human conscience these days, when basic steps like protecting each other against a virus have devolved into a divisive, political mess that we all can feel even in our own local communities.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States is averaging more than 1,500 deaths per day, as the delta variant grips the nation. That’s a daily average death toll of more than half the lives lost in the events of 9/11, and it isn’t even the deadliest day. On Jan 8, 2021, our country recorded more than 4,000 deaths in a single day due to COVID-19.

If we can honor such significant loss of life 20 years after 9/11 occurred, we must remember to do it now, too.

Being moved by mass death isn’t just about numbers, or what day lost more people. It has to be about rekindling that collective consciousness that says we should all do better because we’re all “going through something hard.” Remember the early pandemic days during lockdown when you’d walk around the neighborhood and see paper hearts with encouraging messages displayed in people’s windows?

We’ve forgotten what it feels like to suddenly have 3,000 fewer people in our world, because it keeps happening again and again. Unlike the stark and jarring minutes-long tragedy that unfolded 20 years ago, so disruptive and abrupt, this tragedy is drawn out. Maybe we’re all a little desensitized, a little apathetic.

I think in those moments then, it becomes all the more important to reroute our thinking, try and be intentional about reminding ourselves that what is happening is not right.

We have to ground ourselves in the knowledge that these are pivotal moments in our country’s life where reality necessitates that we put our differences aside and move forward collectively.

That, much like annual 9/11 ceremonies do, we should honor the deaths by doing what we can to prevent more.

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke

Kelsey Rettke is the editor of the Daily Chronicle, part of Shaw Media and DeKalb County's only daily newspaper devoted to local news, crime and courts, government, business, sports and community coverage. Kelsey also covers breaking news for Shaw Media Local News Network.