9/11 and the Tragedy of Lives Unlived

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote:

“For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been!”

On this eighth anniversary of the terrible attack on September 11, 2001, we are still feeling the pain. It took just 102 minutes to kill 2,993 people, including the hijackers. And the husbands and wives, the fathers and mothers, the brothers and sisters, the children who revisit this tragedy year after year have to re-live the horror that befell their families when they first learned their loved ones weren’t coming home.

When each family contemplates its loss, it has to think of the life cut short and wonder what that person might have achieved if, somehow, he or she had lived. What might have been is indeed the essence of each individual tragedy. And, while we can sympathize with each family, we can’t possibly understand its pain.

The degree of planning that went into this fiendish attack boggles the mind. How American Flight 11, bound from Boston to Los Angeles; United 93, flying from Newark to San Francisco; United 175 Boston to Los Angeles; and American 77, flying from Washington to Los Angeles, were assaulted by suicide hijackers simultaneously can't possibly be fathomed.

The World Trade Center was demolished. So was part of the Pentagon, and after passengers resisted courageously but unsuccessfully, Flight 93 crashed south of Pittsburgh.

To most New Yorkers, the event was surreal. The enormity of the tragedy didn’t penetrate immediately. I recall one poignant moment: An African-American soldier had wrapped himself in a huge American flag. He was in full uniform, marching up lower Park Avenue alone, in traffic.  “Why are you doing this?” I asked.  His reply: “I just want people to know we are here. Ready to help them and protect them.”

Yet it’s what the bereaved families felt that day that affected us most of all – and still does. As I think about the loved ones lost and what, potentially, these family members could have achieved, they could identity with lines written by the great English poet, Thomas Gray, as he wandered through a country church yard 250 years ago.

He thought about what these poor country people buried under these headstones might have been if they had been born to a different life.

Somehow, I see his wistful words as an epitaph to the people we mourn on 9/11:

“Full many a gem of purest ray serene, the dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear/Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and wasted sweetness on the desert air.”

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