Some scars we must learn to live with, for though their originating wounds fade over the distance of time they can never fully heal. And while two decades have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, for some of our fellow Americans, the trauma in that day of infamy does not feel so distant. Some of those wounds, carried over 20 years, still feel like they were inflicted yesterday: an unknowing final goodbye to a loved one; images of devastation burned into the psyche; a blanket of chaos smothering the world like the eerie ash that coated New Yorkers’ skin and skyline.
Many remember where they were on 9/11, but for many of our Berkshire neighbors, some of whom shared their stories with The Eagle, theirs were particularly intense scenes in a nationwide tragedy. Foster Goodrich still feels the last embrace he had with his beloved brother, Peter, in Williamstown, before learning a week later that his “soulmate” since birth was on United Airlines Flight 175. Mike Jaffe, now a Great Barrington resident, remembers all the details of the morning when he made a fateful decision to eat breakfast with his family, delaying the commute to his job on the 96th floor of the World Trade Center north tower. Larry Beach, of Clarksburg, vividly recalls hearing “the unmistakable sound of engines throttling back” while walking through a Pentagon courtyard at 9:37 a.m., followed by a fireball exploding from the building and airplane insulation falling around him.
On this day, we solemnly mourn the thousands of lives senselessly lost — including courageous first responders who ran toward unimaginable danger to help others — in a terror attack that pierced the heart of our country like no other in its history. We honor the veterans and their families whose lives were forever changed by the ensuing war on terror. We also wrestle with the evolving anguish that still lingers as we look back on 20 years of processing such incalculable grief at a national scale. We owe it to ourselves as Americans to honestly grapple with the fact that this processing has not always been healthy or fruitful — from jingoistic war-making in theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan to the anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments that continue to sustain the worst corners of our politics. But we also owe it to the victims and survivors of that hellish day to recognize our capacities to strive for good in the wake of catastrophe and the points of resilience that buoyed us — and build upon them.
Peter Goodrich’s family, for instance, saw the anniversary of the terror attacks not just as a time of mourning but a time of service. In 2004, the Goodriches founded a program to help educate young Afghan people. They brought high school- and college-aged students to the U.S. to study, and through the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation supported several humanitarian projects in Afghanistan, including the creation of a school in Logar Province. They lost a family member who meant the world to them, and transformed their grief into a lifeline for people they didn’t even know on the other side of the world.
In the Berkshires more broadly, it’s heartening to see the kind of unity that should be embraced as a counter to cruel terror that ultimately seeks to divide us. The unique burden put on everyday Muslims and Arabs across America after 9/11, from discrimination to targeted hate crimes, is a moral stain unjustifiable by the fears inevitably sparked by mass atrocities like 9/11. Some Muslim-Americans who spoke to The Eagle, though, said that while they still experience that discrimination — particularly while traveling — they feel “valued” and at-home in the Berkshires. We always can and should work to make our communities more inclusive, but we should also be proud that the Berkshires’ neighborly values can embody the best of how our nation should respond to and cope with our darkest hours, whether they were yesterday or 20 years ago.
Among the devastating elements of events like 9/11, often a striking one is how arbitrarily suffering is distributed in the moments just before and after. Someone boards a plane on a Tuesday morning; another person has breakfast with family and is late to work; a young adult makes her family proud by enlisting in the military; a Muslim family immigrates to their new home in the U.S. — none could know what history had in store. But what is not arbitrary is how we choose to rise from the ashes of sheer destruction. The unity that America saw immediately after 9/11 is now sorely absent; it is up to us, as individuals and communities, whether we can get it back. The lessons of dealing with the political distortions that often follow such nationally traumatic events are not learned automatically; we must take on the responsibility of grappling with them. The time we have with loved ones is finite and fleeting; never take it for granted.
The Goodrich family chose a path of healing that didn’t just help them go on but saw that others were helped to go on as well. They certainly went above and beyond in the project of turning grief into service of others, but we are all capable of joining this project in small but meaningful ways. As the nation prominently revisits this painful moment 20 years on, it is a heavy day for us all, but for some it is unfathomably so. Turn to those in your lives whose loss was particularly grievous and let them know that we still support them, as neighbors and as an American community. We will never forget the impact of that day, but we must also never forget that duty to help heal with which we are all tasked.