Why September 12th Matters

September 12th is very special day. Every year, reliably, something big happens on that day. This year is no different. The new Apple iPhone will launch on September 12th. Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened, hits bookstores, NASA is launching its Expedition 53 Launch Mission on September 12th. And it’s even National Milk Shake Day.

Why do marketers and brand managers embrace September 12th? It’s a day that marks the start of the fall season — full of hope and promise as the weather begins to change and kids return to school.

But that’s not the real reason. September 12th means that we can put September 11th in the rear-view mirror for another year.

Every year, I find I need to write about 9/11. September 11th is no longer a “current event”. But it’s not yet history, either; that will come with time.

But each year, in the days leading up to 9/11, I find myself asking people, both friends and strangers “where were you on 9/11?” The question seems more relevant, more urgent, as we find ourselves asking some very painful questions about our American democracy. What are we fighting for and who is a “real” American?

Image from lower Manhattan, on September 11th, 2001.
Image from lower Manhattan, on September 11th, 2001.

So here’s my story.

On September 11th, I was on my company's roof deck, looking downtown at the smoke and flames. Firemen, police officers, and ambulance drivers, all acted with selfless bravery that defies explanation. I’m forever humbled by their unflinching efforts to save people in those terminally wounded towers.

I’m a documentary filmmaker. And for me — almost without a moment’s hesitation — I knew what I had to do. I had to capture, to document what was happening in my city.

Historians have the benefit of time to look at evidence, piece together facts, and find truth in the details. On 9/11 we had no such luxury — we had to record the images, stories, and details, or risk them being lost.

The week after the attacks, people were numb. The images of the towers being hit, burning and falling were seared in our minds. And as the city mourned and began to think about recovery, I found myself trying to contribute with the tools and skills I had. I had a story to tell. So, I made a film.The film was titled “7 Days in September.”

In the weeks after 9/11, New York proved itself to be a truly global community. Faces and voices came together. The site clean-up began. An open call for memorial concepts found a young Israeli architect named Michael Arad. His beautiful and meditative design, “Reflecting Absence,” was selected to memorialize the 2,983 individuals that died in the attacks.

But of those almost 3,000 names, how many would today be considered Americans? How many would today have their name etched in bronze around the one-acre memorial pools, as we close our borders and consider replacing our golden door with an impenetrable wall? More than 100 undocumented immigrants — delivery men, waiters, cleaners, cooks — killed by terrorists at the World Trade Center 16 years ago could have been condemned to eternal anonymity if not for the efforts of an immigrant community group. Dozens of volunteers answered phones and accompanied the relatives on grim pilgrimages to city hospitals and morgues, according to Joel Magallán, a former Jesuit brother from Mexico who is Asociación Tepeyac executive director. “It was an intense job, there was no time even to cry” said Magallán.

Another 372 foreign nationals — just over 12% of the total number of deaths — perished in the attacks.

As we approach another September 11th, we’ll think about the towers, and those who perished, and the pride with which we focused on protecting our shared American values and the remarkable collection of immigrants from around the world that came here to build this country.

On September 12th we’ll buy iPhones, and dive headfirst into the politics that has put the very nature of our democracy and our nation up for a daily referendum. No doubt you’ve got feelings about this. Even as 9/11 comes, and then recedes, it may be that this year 9/11 is a good day to think about the diversity of our collective cities and towns — and do our part to support the essence of what has made this nation great.

America is a nation of immigrants, and 9/11 can serve to remind us of that, even as we remember and memorialize those that we have lost.