Honoring victims, heroes, and memorializing 9/11 with our children will shape a better future

"The most important lesson about September 11, 2001 I want my granddaughters to learn is how united our country can be."


MARQUETTE, Mich. — Twenty years ago, from our home in Marquette, Michigan, our family watched as horrific terrorism hit the shores of this great country. As we tuned into the news that tragic morning, I sat there as a father of three children knowing the world just changed in one of the most dramatic ways ever in history.


When our children came home from school, like most of America we allowed them to be glued to the TV. Our country centered its attention on New York, NY; Washington, D.C.; and Shanksville, PA. We listened to Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather as they shared the latest developments. We sat in shock, tears, and confusion as the ash of Ground Zero consumed the screen. We squeezed each other's hands, hugged, called loved ones, and provided as much comfort as we could. The times were uncertain, questions were coming, changes were inevitable, and our nation would soon address this act of war.


I remember my heartache. I remember my resolve. In the following days we witnessed some of the bravest acts of heroism in this country's history, and we all marveled at our country's unity.

Now, 20 years later, as a grandfather to four young children, our family and nation require a more profound reflection than what guided us through those tragic events. This weekend we must reflect on that somber day and balance our painful experiences with the heroism that prevailed. We need to acknowledge the depths of loss and despair, but also focus on the resolve of our heroic first responders and troops as they ran towards danger to save lives.


On 9/11 2,977 innocent lives were taken. Then, in a war that continued for two decades, 2,455 American soldiers went into battle in Afghanistan and never returned home alive. 4,500 Americans were killed in the invasion of Iraq, not to mention the deaths of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Many U.S. soldiers who did make it home suffer the continued trauma of PTSD, and every year nearly 6,000 veterans die by suicide. In total, the human cost of the post-9/11 wars nears half a million lives. Our reflection of that day requires us to confront the realities of the geopolitical lessons we have learned in a 20-year war.


Through strides and missteps, we learned valuable lessons about ethical detainee integration, methods of engagement, diplomacy, justice, cultural competency, and religious coexistence. We brought to light legal challenges on domestic surveillance and privacy. We learned how to improve intelligence agency efficiencies and information sharing, and we made significant changes to enhance our national security.


But, all the while, our political parties became further divided. Journalism changed. Social media arguments replaced constructive conversation. Dangerous rhetoric reigned, and sadly, our nation lost its unity.

How do we explain the past 20 years to our grandchildren? How can we prevent these heinous acts from ever taking place again? I have delicately explained the events of 9/11 to my grandchildren, defining terrorism, telling them terrorists flew planes into big buildings in populated cities, killing thousands.


The most important lesson about September 11, 2001 I want my granddaughters to learn is how united our country can be. When they grow up in what seems to be an ever-dividing nation, I want them to look back on the wake of 9/11 and see how we put our differences aside, and healed our wounds together, as one nation. I want them to understand the United States' collective values and principles. Our resolve unified us, and our unity helped us process and share our grief.


I tell them that children their age donated their savings to victims' families; that police officers, firefighters, and first responders ran towards the buildings to rescue others. I tell them Congress gathered and held hands across aisles to mourn with each other, political rivals hugged and cried together. Mostly, I tell them about American bravery, resilience, and hope.


While we acknowledge how far we have come since that fateful day, it's essential to see how far we must yet go. For us to never forget, we need to pass the memorialization to our children and grandchildren. We need to remember the lost — the innocent victims, the heroes that made the ultimate sacrifice, our brave soldiers, NGOs, and diplomats that served in Afghanistan and Iraq. We must honor them in our actions and preserve a peaceful and prosperous future, a future for which so many fought and died.


Since 9/11, generations of American citizens have responded to the call and dedicated their careers to protecting and serving our country. In 2011, duty called my wife and me overseas. During the height of the Afghanistan War, we served in the State Department in Pakistan when justice was delivered to Osama Bin Laden. We had the distinct honor of serving in Kabul, Afghanistan; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Baghdad, Iraq during our decade of service at the U.S. Department of State, working to promote peace and prosperity.

Patriotism doesn't belong to any single group or class of people. It doesn't belong to just one political party. We all must strive to be patriots, not only because of our shared principles but also because this nation is designed to celebrate our differences.


I hope my granddaughters look at the stories of 9/11 and desire to serve their country by standing up for American ideals. I hope this weekend’s anniversary empowers all young people to advocate for tolerance, peace, and justice. On the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, I hope our grandchildren feel a connection to all their fellow Americans, past and present. May they understand the same bond that we felt to each other in the wake of that tragic day. May it inspire all of us to shape a better future and work towards combating terrorism, hate, evil, and injustice anywhere it exists in the world.

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