Zarin Loosli Essay

Gaining Empathy

9/11 wasn’t real.

I’m not saying it didn’t happen—it most certainly did. It’s impossible to grow up in America without hearing the numbers: 19 highjackers on 4 planes killed 2996 people and injured 2564 more. These numbers are shocking—and that’s exactly the problem.

I am a member of the first generation to grow up without a memory of that catastrophic day; I was only eighteen months old in 2001, far too young to have any memory of these horrific events. In addition, I struggle to conceptualize modern attacks with a scale of dozens, much less the thousands of casualties seen back then. I had heard the stories, watched the newsreels, and participated in the moments of silence; I have even been to the memorial in New York City, but despite all this the scale was just too incomprehensible. I knew the facts, but 9/11 did not feel real.

That didn’t change until this summer. My scout troop had just concluded a week of rafting, caving, and zip-lining in the Pennsylvania mountains, and as we climbed into the car, our leaders announced that on the way home we would be stopping by the Flight 93 memorial.

When we arrived, my immediate reaction was surprise. I had imagined a small slab of stone in an otherwise empty field, something more along the lines of memorials I’d seen to those who fell in the Vietnam War, but I had massively underestimated American patriotism. The Flight 93 memorial is a massive concrete structure that captures the solemn elegance of my imagined memorial through a simple geometric design but, thanks to its sheer immensity, is still a worthy monument to the heroic actions of those on board that plane. As we approached the structure, our entire group—a group whose default conversation consisted of loud banter and rude jokes—began to speak in hushed voices.

As we entered the building and began to read, it became clear that the events that occurred in that Pennsylvania field can be differentiated from the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon in several critical ways. Unlike New York, the only casualties were those onboard; compared to the thousands who died at the World Trade Center, only 40 lives were lost in Pennsylvania. I could read the names of every person who died in that field; I could see that one was a pregnant mother and that two were military personnel. Unlike at the Pentagon, those onboard were completely aware of what was happening, and they decided to do something about it. At the memorial, I read excerpts from the phone calls these people made in their final moments and I learned how these people unanimously voted to risk their lives in a counterattack born of a desire to spare their fellow citizens.

The Flight 93 memorial finally allowed me to overcome the chronological and emotional divide that separated me from that autumn morning 16 years ago. It took something that I understood intellectually and historically and forced me to consider it on a more visceral, human level. Suddenly, the people who died in these attacks were more than just a statistic. Suddenly, they were tragic and heroic in a way that, until that July afternoon, they hadn’t been. Suddenly my respect for those events and the people who lived through and died because of them stemmed not from the general air of solemnity that inevitably accompanies any conversation about that day, but rather from the fact that I suddenly understood that the people who died on 9/11 were people.

Suddenly, 9/11 was real.