Everyone over a certain age remembers where they were and what they were doing that fateful Tuesday morning twenty years ago. I was in the United States Capitol leading a tour of Jewish leaders preparing to tour the Capitol dome with Representative Eric Cantor, who was but a freshman member at the time. (He would become House Majority Leader by 2011.) The tour group and I had a harrowing day getting off of Capitol Hill, culminating in a tearful reunion eight hours later with my wife and then-infant daughter.
September 11th was seared into America’s collective memory that day, joining December 7th and the few other dates that live in such infamy. The 2,977 people whose lives were so cruelly taken from us by the nineteen hijackers came from all walks of life. They were of all colors, faiths, and nationalities, as are their families and friends with whom the nation joins in mourning today.
While we will never forget the horrors of that day, we must also always remember the extraordinary courage shown by countless ordinary Americans who rose to the occasion. The 343 firefighters who gave their lives at ground zero so that others might live. The Pentagon personnel, military and civilian, who made it to safety only to turn back and risk everything to answer the cries for help from their colleagues. The heroic passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, who gave America its first victory in the War on Terror by refusing to be among its first victims.
We remember them all heroically.
I shudder to think of what my own fate may have been if it weren’t for the bravery of the everyday Americans on Flight 93, which was headed for the Capitol. Thanks to the leadership of passengers Todd Beamer, Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, and Tom Burnett, who together led the effort to retake the plane, I was able to go home that night to my family, to hug my wife and daughter. 20 years later we still remember that day.
Although the two decades that have passed since 9/11 may make it seem distant for some, for its survivors and the first responders who rescued them, it is not long ago nor far away. They continue to bear the burden of their wounds, both visible and seemingly hidden. Many are still dying from 9/11 related illnesses; the CDC estimates that dust and debris from the attacks exposed nearly 400,000 people to toxic pollutants.
All of us in Washington, New York, and across the country owe a tremendous debt to these Americans. That has meant ensuring that the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund never runs out of money. Since its inception, the fund has provided $8.67 billion directly to victims. And in 2021, over 5,000 claims have been filed. Yet there are still Americans facing pressing health problems from exposure, and many more who will confront health complications in the future. We pledge to never leave them behind.
It is also important to mark their sacrifice, especially on this 20th commemoration. A Memorial Glade was added to the National September 11 Memorial in Manhattan just over two years ago. I encourage you to visit, for those able and under the current circumstances, to honor our American heroes. The Glade’s focal point is six large stones that are inlaid with World Trade Center steel recovered from ground zero. In the words of Israeli-American Michael Arad, the 9/11 Memorial’s original architect who also designed the Glade, the stones “jut up and out of the plaza as if violently displaced, and convey strength and resistance.”
It is strength and resistance that we, too, must show in the face of terror and even the risk of it, both at home and abroad. For all those we lost 20 years ago this week and for all those still among us. We owe them at least this.