One Victims Journey by Wendy Lanski
Reflection on 9/11 is a daily, sometimes hourly event for me. As I reflect on the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, I realize that when others describe me, they use two words that were never in my everyday realm – “victim” and “survivor”. At first, when the realization of what I lived though was fresh, I vehemently denounced these labels, until I understood that they were the titles earned when one experiences first-hand the biggest terrorist attack on American soil. I had to live with the fact that now, when introduced to someone for the first time, it’s not my education, career accomplishments, happy marriage or hobbies that anyone wants to discuss, it’s the “how did you escape 9/11?” The upshot of my experience is that as victims and survivors, we can be the poster children of resiliency.
My story has many of the components that everyone has seen on the news since the events of that terrible day – the descent down 29 flights of stairs with the smell of jet fuel permeating the air, running barefoot through the streets as both of the grand towers fell, a stint in the emergency room and witnessing the sights, smells and sounds of unimaginable horror, and the lasting health issues and internal scars that will never heal. There are the stories of the brave firemen and policemen who gave all, as well as the everyday heroes, like my wonderful friend Abe who perished because he refused to leave the North Tower until help came for his wheelchair-bound friend. What many do not understand, is that these images never leave the survivor. They are branded permanently into the soul. I have made it a personal mission to do what I can to encourage thoughtful discussion and remembrance, fight against radicalization not only in my country but throughout the world, and live every day.
A common thread that weaves survivors together is the need for acknowledgment and remembrance. Some people do not know what to say to a survivor and what they should know is that it is better to just say “I’m thinking of you”, than to say “I know how you feel” or to tell you how close they were that day when they were 30 miles away. People mean well, but sensitivity is key. Please never ask a survivor when they are going to “get over it.” As each year passes, memories fade in the minds of the masses, but this does not happen for many survivors. Politics gets in the way of memorials and ceremonies. For 12 years survivors have been shut out of the formal memorial at Ground Zero. They have not been invited, and to that end have specifically been excluded. The beautiful 9/11 Memorial was 10 years in the making, much too long for those who needed it to help the healing process. The museum is still not open. There needs to be an “Executive Order” of sorts to cut through the red tape and accelerate progress of these necessary acts of remembrance. There has been a movement to make 9/11 a National Day of Remembrance, but employers have not embraced this movement with paid time off. The legacy would be a real national holiday.
Retaliation and Protection of Our Nation
I have had many debates ensue as a result of my next statement – the U.S. did not do enough in the immediate period after 9/11 to catch the organization responsible for taking the lives of almost 3,000 innocent people, and permanently scarring countless others. We pay a professional football player much more than a TSA executive, and there are people working in convenience stores that are making more than some airport screeners. The terrorists know this. While we have made strides since the attacks to make our world a safer one, let’s do more. I don’t have the ultimate answer, but I think everyone would agree that we need to restore the feeling of safety and security that existing in the pre 9-11 World. The government and citizens need to partner towards a common goal. I would love to see more task forces and agencies with survivor and survivor advocates, and I would happily volunteer my time.
There is a much overused expression – what does not kill you makes you stronger. The strength is the resilience. No one thinks they can survive a terrorist attack, but so many of us have done so, at so many levels, all over the world. For me, I think of a conversation that I had with a Holocaust survivor at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. He told me simply, “do not look to forget your experience, look to incorporate it into who you now are”. The small annoyances of life do not matter; achieving enjoyment in the day to day becomes a goal. Going forward and gaining small victories and attainable goals is a testament to resilience after tragedy. Being resilient never means forgetting or “getting over it” – it means remaining vigilant but continuing to enjoy your life in the memory of those who lost their life. It includes, taking the time to cry, to scream, to be unhappy or feel extreme sadness, because at the end you get up the next day and continue. The Freedom Tower is the ultimate symbol of the resilient nature of New York and of all survivors.
When I reflect on 9/11, I am consistently reminded that we should live our lives fully, love with our whole heart, and be kind to others. We need to remember that we, as those who have witnessed history, have an obligation to fight against radicalization and educate those around us. As a board member of Strength to Strength, and the chair of the Victims Advisory Committee I have the opportunity to give a voice to the victim, and to speak for those who no longer can.