This second day of Rosh HaShanah 5779 is also September 11th, the 17th anniversary of that terrible day when terrorism became real to Americans. For many years I chaired the 9/11 commemorations in Tucson, Arizona and worked to keep the memory of both the victims and the rescuers in our minds and hearts. The memory of 9/11 reminds us all that evil exists in this world, and that it is always easier to destroy than to build.
I think anyone older than 25 can remember where she or he was when those jets struck the Twin Towers, and later the Pentagon. For my generation it is a memory as vivid as the shooting of JFK was for another generation, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor for an even earlier one. Somehow, tragedy stays with you in ways that joy does not. Not everyone remembers where they were when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. But everyone knows where they were when thousands of Americans died in that coordinated terror attack on 17 years ago today.
The world has changed in many ways since 9/11, mostly not for the better. We are wiser about the threats posed to the citizens of civilized nations by ideological insanity. But we are also much more closed and paranoid than we were prior to 9/11, more likely to believe that evil conspiracies abound in the world. After all, if a group of Islamist terrorists armed with box-cutters could hijack and fly passenger jets into buildings, what isn’t possible? Human bombs walking into cafes and subways? Terrorists tunneling into buildings? Incendiary kites and explosives tied to balloons?
It can make you doubt that human beings can actually be good.
But the truth is that we have an equal ability to be good as we do to be evil, a similar capacity to do good as to do evil. Out of 9/11 came many incredible stories of heroism and kindness, of human decency and respect that shined through the smoke and horror. And the response to 9/11 brought people together in ways that had not occurred before. The best response to hatred and evil is not comparable hatred or anger, but dedication to building bonds of respect, understanding and goodness.
Today, on 9/11 and the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah, the second day of the Jewish year 5779, I suggest we each take a few minutes to remember those who died on this tragic day, and the many men and women who sacrificed their lives or their health trying to save them. But I also urge you to reach out to someone you would otherwise ignore, to seek to begin to build further ties of respect, kindness and openness. That is the best way to remember 9/11, and to turn its tragedy into human good.