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Opinion | What we were — and can be again

Joey Kennedy

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I don’t often write book reviews in this space. Indeed, this may be my first one.

But the book I’m inspired to review today is one that brings back memories: scary, awful memories. And, yet, inspiring, nostalgic memories.

Mitchell Zuckoff’s Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11 is in many ways chilling. Zuckoff is masterful in telling the story of that fateful day and that time in late summer 2001.

The terror attacks on New York, Washington, and a field in western Pennsylvania happened during my first semester of teaching at UAB. I was rattled enough being in the classroom for the first time. Barely two weeks after the semester started, the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan came down, a wedge of the Pentagon was destroyed, and that former strip mine near Shanksville, Pa., was plowed through. The terrorists, most of them from Saudi Arabia and the rest from other locations in the Middle East, used passenger jets as deadly missiles.

Osama bin Laden paid with his life a decade later.

Many books have been written about 9/11. I haven’t read them all, or even many of them. But I can’t imagine another telling as riveting as Zuckoff’s. He tells the story through many of the people who were directly involved. Some lived. Some died. Some are dead now, because of their exposure to deadly toxins as they responded to Ground Zero.

I remember watching that Tuesday morning as the second passenger jet, United Airlines Flight 175, crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The North Tower had been struck about 15 minutes earlier by American Airlines Flight 11.

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Then American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon at more than 500 miles per hour. And United Airlines Flight 93 ended up in rural Pennsylvania because passengers decided to try to retake the jet from the hijackers. Those passengers saved perhaps thousands of lives because the hijackers were trying to crash into either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

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This book has been rated more than 100 times on Amazon, and it has 100 percent 5 stars. Zuckoff deserves them.

I didn’t keep roll in my first classes for two weeks after 9/11. And once all my students returned, stunned and sad as they were, we wrote about the brutal attack. My first semester, a time when I was worried I was simply a fraud in the classroom, and I was already having to call audibles. It all worked out.

Mostly what I remember, though, was how we came together that September. How the world came together with us. A 100-plus point headline in the San Francisco Examiner on Sept. 12, 2001, read simply: BASTARDS! Underneath the headline was a photograph of an explosion in one of the towers.

But newspapers across the world showed that for the time-being, we were all Americans. Our political differences did not matter anymore. Those of us who were critics of President George W. Bush, and especially how Bush became president, stepped back and let the president be the president. During those few months after 9/11, Bush was magnificent.

Contrast that with what we are witnessing today.

We’re as divided a nation as ever, led by a corrupt, narcissistic megalomaniac who wants to be a dictator like those in Russia and North Korea and Saudi Arabia he worships. The Trump Cult disregards facts and believes in outlandish conspiracies. Our reputation around the world has been destroyed. Trump’s misguided trade wars with both friends and foes are pointing us toward recession. This sexual predator has put other sexual predators on his White House staff and on the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump may take us to war against Iran. He is a menace to our nation and a menace to the world.

Those days after 9/11, when another Republican president led from the front – even from the top of the rubble in lower Manhattan – is easy to contrast with this horrible, inept Republican president who “serves” only himself just 18 years after that fateful day.

But God bless you Mitchell Zuckoff for giving us a book that reminds us about heroes, people willing to give their lives, to selflessly save others, to show us what it means to be an American, to demonstrate that we can, as a nation, come together to help others. Those first-responders who died as the towers fell, and those soldiers and sailors and generals and civilians in the Pentagon who crawled through collapsed rooms to save their colleagues, and those men and women on United Flight 93 who yelled “Let’s roll!” and roll they did.

We forever changed as a nation after 9/11. But we’re backsliding really badly these days. In only 18 years since 9/11, too many of us have forgotten.

Thank you Mitchell Zuckoff for reminding us of what’s important.

Read this amazing book, and remember who we once were.What we can be again, if we will.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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