By David T. Valentin
The year is 2001, the date September 9th and the Twin Towers in New York City just fell due to a terrorist attack. I don’t remember too much, being only four years old, but more than people might think a four-year-old would remember about a terrorist attack on the United States.
I was in preschool, Tanglewood on Staten Island and to us it was like any other ordinary day. Except the teachers were shuffling about, people came in and out of our classroom, until eventually school was closed down for the day and we were sent out. For those who couldn’t be picked up, we were put in another room for a while. I can’t remember if we were all put in the same room, but I remember being picked up shortly after.
For the whole day, my parents were glued to the TV and the feeling was tense from the moment I came home. But after that, I can’t remember much. I don’t remember the panic afterwards and the days that ensued. I don’t remember our family friend coming to our house distraught he had lost his sister in one of the towers. I don’t remember whatever coverage of the wreckage their might have been, and I don’t remember any address to the nation from President Bush Jr., nor the ensuing political fallout where we would go to war under the false pretense of W.M.D.’s, weapons of mass destruction.
I only remember it was a terrible day for everybody, a moment of holding your breath as you remembered your loved ones and friends who worked in the towers, wondering whether they made it out alive. Most did not.
I’ve heard of the great amount of comradery we had after understanding we were a wounded nation, attacked on our own soil, but every year the playback doesn’t have cover the way neighbor helped neighbor and family members and friends comforted those who had lost someone in the attack. But then again, why would we? It’s not like that could be useful to strumming up anger in the hearts of Americans. We only get to see the echo, or phantom, of those hurting that day. The constant playback of those in the towers saying goodbye to their loved ones, unable to escape the towers. The loop of videos showing bodies jumping from the towers, over and over and over.
It wasn’t until I’d seen the Broadway play, Come from Away that I came to understand not only the depth of the sorrow of that day, but the resilience and empathy that could be extended to our fellow neighbor.
The play follows 38 international aircraft forced to land after the attacks on New York City, the pentagon, and the failed attack in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 38 international aircrafts found themselves in Gander, Newfoundland—a small island at the tip of Maine in North America. Overnight, the population of the island doubled and residents of Gander and the surrounding towns rushed to make selfless accommodations for all those stranded on the planes. People were housed in community centers and other people’s houses, phonelines and computers were setup for those on the aircrafts to contact loved ones, and supplies were brought in from all over the island to wherever those supplies might be needed.
A small cast act out multiple storyline with different costumes and different accents to play off the actual massive amount of characters and their stories being shown. Wrapped up in a song and dance and a good amount of comedy, in just an hour and 30 minutes Come far Away told the story of thousands of people who had to make do with being stuck in a strange, small town in the middle of nowhere.
From ten minutes into the play to the very end, the intense stories of love and resilience and selflessness and heartbreak and tears and loss and joy and friendships had me sobbing. But I wasn’t crying so much at the sad bits of the film, the moments where characters struggled to get in touch with their family back home or learned of their loved ones who were lost in the attack. I found myself moved by the selflessness of the people of Gander, New Foundland. The resilience to make these displaced passengers of 38 different aircrafts comfortable in a town they probably never heard of.
Likewise, the way the people of the small town of Gander came together to make thousands of strangers feel comfortable all while people were desperately trying to get home or in touch with their loved ones to make sure they knew they were safe was like watching a miracle be spun into reality; a miracle that could only inspire you to seek love and joy and help others even in the darkest of times.
But as I left the theatre that night inspired by the vast amount of selfless love for one’s neighbor, the amount of unrivaled hospitality, I couldn’t help but turn my mind to the present day, to now during this pandemic where almost a million people have died due to COVID and just in the United States alone.
Why is it that when a disease ravaged every country in the world, locked citizens in their own homes unable to see one another for months out of fear of contracting COVID, did we not extend the same levels of hospitality we saw following the days after the attack on the Twin Towers? Why is it that we mitigate the fear our fellow neighbors might have of dying of this disease? Why is it that when we were expected to demonstrate the slightest bit of empathy and hospitality toward our neighbors, we couldn’t deliver?
Well, it’s an easy answer. Just the same as news outlets and stories of 9/11 focused on the devastation and loss of the attacks to strum up anger toward a common enemy while ignoring how such rhetoric might affect our fellow Muslim neighbors, so too did media ignore the systemic failures of our government to provide for their citizens to do the bare minimum to protect them from a pandemic simply because it was not convenient to the narrative; because it was not convenient to a political agenda.
Sure, there were people out there hustling to make the lockdown work for those incredibly inconvenienced by it all, elderly, immunocompromised and disabled individuals who could not leave their homes just for groceries and what not, but many of those stories have been lost—piled under the controversy of unvaxxed individuals and an almost disgusting want to try and go back to a normal before the pandemic, a normal that didn’t even exist for many. And much of the hardships we had to go through were because of the government’s refusal to provide meaningful financial aid and informative ways to prevent the spread of the virus, such as stimulus checks for people to stay home and providing proper PPE.
An estimate of 894,880 people died of COVID according to the CDC over the past three years and yet there are no talks of any memorials to commemorate the fallen, no grand speeches to address the way our country has changed at every facet, nor any kind of reflection to really change the way we operate in our society so as to better accommodate everyone. Just the same as soldiers dying for their country, under the guise of defending freedom while politicians fight for resources in the Middle East, so too did essential workers die being told they were heroes while not being provided compensation for their “bravery.” And all to keep the economy afloat when the United States government could have easily financially provided for its people.
Two decades out from 9/11 and now we know for sure our government lied to us about the Iraq war, the W.M.D.s and Iraq’s involvement with terrorist organizations. But it seems there’s been a collective amnesia about history.
As we move from one tragedy to the next, it seems to us all it’s too late to do anything about the lies, too late to do anything about those who fought in the war and died for a lie. But the lie is so deeply ingrained into United States rhetoric and society that we excuse the false narratives of the past, and because it’s convenient to continue believing we at least tried to do the right thing, rather than admitting we did the wrong thing, we stick to those false narratives instead.
But we’re only three years out from this pandemic and still counting. While the newer COVID strains have weakened, victims of the disease are still being hospitalized and still dying as we’re all forced to just work through it all without worrying about contracting a highly infectious disease.
I’d like to believe we can correct the course of our narrative and admit the ways in which we were wrong. But perhaps it’s an exercise of control. Tragedies like 9/11, as we’re told, happened for a reason—because terrible people wished to threaten our fragile democracy, a story we know is a lot more complicated than just that.
But as for COVID? COVID, regardless of the conspiracies of it being created in a lab or the conspiracy it’s being used to create a new world order or whatever, is a terribly bad thing that happened for no good reason, and sometimes bad things happen for no reason and it’s out of our control. And the one thing we could have controlled was the hospitality and empathy we could have extended to our fellow neighbors to ease the pain of loneliness and loss during it all and to hold our government accountable. And yet we chose to place the systemic failures of our government on the individual, to pretend like our neighbors were the enemy all along.
But there’s still time to at least adjust course. With lockdown ended, schools still bouncing between in-class and remote learning, and families struggling to financially stay afloat, we can still use our narratives to extend hospitality where it’s needed so that the grief of this pandemic doesn’t echo down generations and decades; that instead we can say in the present moment and in hindsight we did the right thing so that, two decades later, we’re not still scrambling and wrestling with the problems this pandemic caused.
If our narratives are not used to tell the whole story and only used to inspire anger, false forms of heroism against our fellow neighbors and an invisible enemy across the sea, it is nothing more than propaganda, a selected perspective of the human experience and a fractured sense of the truth. If we were capable of great selflessness and hospitality for our fellow neighbor once before, like the people of Gander, Newfoundland, it means we are capable of such kindness, selflessness and hospitality again and again and again.
In the end, it is not that these virtues are lost in these times or that people have become nastier, but that we continue to choose the lazy way in engaging in the false narratives, choosing instead compliance rather than resistance and a course of continuing anger rather than a course of healing.