It has been six years since we sat, horrified and stunned, watching the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, unfold at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, in a field in Pennsylvania and on television screens across America. Sometimes it feels like just yesterday. Sometimes it seems like an eternity ago. Nightmares are like that. They are timeless terrors that know no boundaries; they never leave us and yet they catch us unawares.
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Certainly, we will never forget the events that unfolded that tragic September morning. But what have we learned from this constant reminder of our loss and our vulnerability? Have we become stronger or smarter as a country or as individuals? Have we taken up the responsibility to honor the dead with new understanding and new resolve?
I believe we've learned a lot. Today, as we replay all the graphic footage, try to ponder the positive points and the lessons learned from this atrocity. Here are 11 lessons that come to mind.
1. Heroes are everywhere. The many brave and selfless acts of firefighters, flight attendants, co-workers, passers-by and volunteers proved that Americans are generous with their courage and that heroes are all around us.
2. Protect the cockpit. Complacency in the cabin during a terrorist attempt is no longer an option. The airlines have reinforced the cockpit doors and implemented safety procedures, but in the end, if terrorists attempt to force their way into the cockpit, ordinary citizens must try to stop them at all costs.
3. Air travel is integral to our way of life. Air travel completely ceased the week after 9/11. From mail and cargo transport to business and leisure travel — the entire country was at a standstill. We now realize how crucially important air travel is to our everyday life as a nation.
4. Terrorism has many faces. Whether it is Osama bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, or a female suicide bomber, terrorism has many faces, and we must never judge a book by its cover.
5. We must support the men and women of our military. We may not agree with the decisions of the leaders in our government and armed forces, but service members and their families are risking their lives for our country. We owe it to them to support their sacrifice unconditionally.
6. America is vulnerable. Terrorism is now a fact of life for everyone. As a nation, we were aware of terrorist activities in foreign lands but did not expect them at home. Unfortunately, terrorism is here as well — and here to stay.
7. We must not let the terrorists win. If we hide and alter our lives greatly because of the fear that has been generated by these attacks, we will be helping the terrorists accomplish their goals. Life is short, and we should try to lead normal lives as much as possible without fear.
8. Terrorism affects everyone. Depression afflicted many people following the terrorist attacks. Many of these people had nothing to do with air travel, New York, the Pentagon or any of the immediate victims. When I returned to the town where I grew up, I found that a carefree surfer friend of mine who barely kept up on current events was in the hospital for severe depression stemming from the 9/11 tragedy. We need to keep an eye out for all of our friends and loved ones during such times.
9. Airport security is an awesome responsibility. There is much disagreement about whether air travel is safer now than before 9/11. I, for one, think it is. Yes, we have all heard the jokes, watched the comedy skits and poked fun at the many procedures implemented by the Transportation Security Administration, but I believe there is more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.
10. We can all do our part. There is a greater need for a higher level of personal security and awareness. Don't leave your bags unattended. Be aware of your surroundings and speak up if you witness anything suspicious. If it weren't for a persistent flight attendant and some quick-thinking passengers, we might have had another tragedy with the "Shoe Bomber" incident.
11. We are at our best when times are at their worst. People donated money, gave blood, flew flags and were truly proud of our great country. Americans' ability to come together in times of need is truly heartwarming.
For the airline industry, 9/11 will always be a watershed moment, the horror between "before 9/11" and after "9/11." Many innocent people were lost that day, and it is important that their loss not be in vain.
Always remember: React, learn, grow.
James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.