Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
A lot of words have been spilled about September 11, 2001. A lot of perspectives shared, a lot of remembering done, a lot of documentaries and retrospectives made. In the run-up to the twenty-year anniversary, I wasn’t sure I would feel emotionally capable of another look back. This year, this 2021, has enough grief of its own, doesn’t it? Aren’t we at capacity? Recognizing the twenty-year anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11 in the middle of a raging global pandemic felt like too much to me. I didn’t know how to stop and grieve the losses of that one day, again, when this pandemic has at times daily claimed the same number of casualties as 9/11—when it has now, in America alone, claimed over 225 times the casualties as that fateful day. How do we pause to memorialize one day when every day we are filled with new losses that also need to be added to our memory?
Big questions often have small answers. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that questions that feel too big often have simple answers—answers that explore the pieces of the whole. And this is where I found some peace, comfort, and the ability to grieve in a rightfully ordered way on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
National Geographic, in collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, released what might be called the definitive documentary of the day: 9/11: One Day in America. In the twenty years since 9/11, I feel like I’ve seen all the news reels and watched all the programs that interview residents of New York City living in and around the towers that day. I’ve read the long-form pieces unpacking everything from the tragedy of the jumpers to how Rudy Giulliani was viewed as the hero of the city. I’ve listened to the recordings of the 9-1-1 calls. In 2018, I went to the 9/11 memorial and paid my respects in person. But I have never seen anything like this documentary series. What 9/11: One Day in America does is it shows us the day as, in a way, we all saw it—as first-hand witnesses. But for those of us who weren’t there on the ground, it sits us down beside the survivors and walks us through each minute, step by careful step, as each featured individual tells their story of rescue, hope, heroism, and survival.
The metanarrative of 9/11: One Day in America is of course the events of September 11, 2001, but aside from the ticking clock of the passage of time, there is no single narrator or narrative to guide the series. 9/11: One Day in America is designed as a patchwork of stories—as a stitched together montage of individual accounts. There are no politicians interviewed, no mega-famous people, nobody featured who anyone watching would recognize as a “personality,” and definitely no person who would divide viewers into any sort of politicized perspective on the day. The statement on the series is that it is the day, “Told in Full” by the survivors, and each of the six episodes is true to that mission.
Empathy is a powerful force, and empathy is evoked through the documentary style utilized in 9/11: One Day in America. To look into the eyes of the survivors on the screen, to listen to them telling their own stories, is to remember that the scatter of running people in the streets of New York City all had names and faces and families. Tragedy is tragic not because it impacts a nation, but because it destroys real people. Fathers, mothers, children, friends; there would be no great catastrophes without the culmination of individual losses. We are all precious in God’s sight.
Mr. Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers. If you’ll look for the helpers, you’ll know that there’s hope.” He was speaking about news coverage of disasters, and how he wished the news would devote time to showing the rescue workers and efforts that take place during such things. I think Fred Rogers would be pleased with this docuseries, because it fulfills exactly what he expressed we need, and in the coverage of the helpers, we do find hope.
On 9/11, those of us watching from home could see from a distance the helpers in amongst the melee and catastrophic damage, and I would venture that there’s hardly an American alive who doesn’t know the tremendous sacrifice of so many New York City firefighters that day. But I’ve not really, until this year—this twentieth anniversary year—thought to look back to the helpers and the survivors (who were so often one and the same as the helpers) to honor them, remember them, and even to find hope. To look back through the lens of the stories told in 9/11: One Day in America has been the microscope I’ve needed to view the enormous national tragedy of 9/11 as the many personal tragedies it also was.
The helpers on the ground that day were survivors of one of the darkest days in America, and they have stories to tell. Their stories can show us how to rightfully remember that day. They can tell us their memories of how they survived, and they can share about those who didn’t. They can’t speak for the dead, but they can honor them in distinct ways that only those bound by shared tragedy can. And when we pause to remember 9/11, it teaches us how to pause and grieve in our current tragedy. The firefighters on the ground that day regrouped after the South Tower collapsed to remove their helmets for a moment of silence to honor their fallen comrades. It was a gesture; it could have waited until the job was done and everyone was safe, but they paused in the middle of great tragedy to grieve.
Listening to the survivors featured in 9/11: One Day in America was powerful; I highly recommend that you watch the series and hear their stories yourself. Certainly grief fatigue is real and present with so many of us right now, but even in the midst of ongoing, present tragedy, we must pause when we can to remember why life is sacred at all. There is a sadness that leads to lament and hopefulness for the future, and a sadness that can lead to bitterness and wrath against others. “Look to the helpers,” honor the dead, look to the survivors, and always remember that joy comes in the morning.