Who were the real heroes of 9/11?
There’s a lot. Sixteen years ago, on September 11th, it seemed like the entire population of New York was called heroes. A lot of things gave that impression: almost everyone performed amazing acts of kindness that day, and in the weeks to follow, even while dealing with rattled nerves, fear of another attack, grief, no jobs to go to, rummaging through empty store shelves and choking on the acrid fumes that really didn’t want to go away.
New Yorkers were hugging a lot, and maybe that’s why we were heroes. At so many street corners, strangers, just waiting for a cross signal, would spontaneously embrace. When it was okay to cross the street, everyone carried on. No words were spoken; there really were none to speak.
And carrying on could mean bringing supplies to a sports complex in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan that was turned into a treatment center, or going down to ground zero and pitching in. Maybe that’s why we were called heroes.
Then we all started to wake up to, and deal with, the reality of this rabbit hole we were pushed into. A medic from North Carolina – EMS workers from other states and cities were showing up in droves – was on his cell phone about a week after the attack, leaning against homemade missing person fliers taped to a lamppost, talking to someone back home, saying there was nothing to do. There were no injured to take to the makeshift treatment center. There were no dead bodies to transport. Everyone, he said, was just … gone.
One day a little girl with a piece of paper was in front of a wall plastered with tributes to the lost. She was with a police officer who was holding a roll of masking tape. She lifted the little girl onto her shoulders and handed up the tape, and the girl stuck her piece of paper on it. The paper had a great big heart drawn on it, kind of like a big border. The little girl must have drawn it before writing in these words, which went over the borders of the heart: “Mommy, I love you, wherever you had to go.”
Coping with reality at that time seemed to be heroic.
But looking back, in spite of the incredible acts of bonding and kindness and hard work during those weeks and months, we were not really heroes. We were just New Yorkers that love each other and love our city and were too traumatized to keep up the standard pretense that we don’t. It did sometimes feel like we were heroes, but we were just surviving, best as we could, and doing a good job at it.
Hero is a word applied so often that its meaning has been diluted. Americans love a hero, so we are often glued to stories about good people whose friends and family elevate them to heroic status whether they are heroes or not. Local news finds local heroes under every rock, or in every tree, like the ubiquitous firefighter who rescues a kitten from the top branch of an Elm and gets their 15 minutes of fame on the news at 11.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with celebrating human kindness or saving kittens. But labeling each act as heroic diminishes the powerful meaning of the word, one that should be reserved for people who do extraordinary acts they didn’t have to do, or that other people didn’t want to be the first to try.
Those real heroes are too often lost in the background, like the man in the red bandana who carried an injured person down 15 flights of stairs then ran back into the burning Towers to help more trapped people – ultimately sacrificing his own life. And also in the sea of true heroes, there was Leo Callum.
When that plume of smoke from the footprint of the Trade Center buildings started to fade, and New Yorkers started to process what happened, a somewhat unspoken but collective question was, “When will it be okay to laugh again?” Cullum – a TWA pilot and cartoonist who died in 2010 – fearlessly took the first step to answer that.
As my writing partner and I wrote at the time:
“It might not sound that important, but there was a feeling that terrorists not only took away our skyline and businesses and families, but that maybe they had stolen what Americans always rely on to survive a crisis: our sense of humor.
“So, he made this:
“This simple cartoon gave New Yorkers a collective sigh of relief when they really, really needed it. It reminded us that laughter makes us stronger, not weaker. And that we, as Americans and New Yorkers, weren’t going to let anybody take that away from us.”
Heroes bring out the best in us. Sometimes they sacrifice their lives to save lives, sometimes they tell us it’s okay to laugh. Often, they are forgotten, but what they always do is something big: they make the rest of us feel like heroes.