I was honored this morning to give a speech at the local Service of Remembrance on my town square in Jackson, Georgia but the honor was to stand there among heroes…our firefighters, law enforcement officers and military. Below is the text of my remarks today, typos and all.
There are never adequate words that can be expressed that will convey the range of feelings that go through the minds of Americans when they think of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The world we knew then, and the world that we know now, are strikingly different places. It has been 3,653 days since the towers first shook, since fire bloomed in our nation’s capital….since smoke rose from the green fields of Pennsylvania……three thousand, six hundred and fifty three days since our national confidence was shaken and we learned the reality that we were not immune from the anger and hatred of others. Not a single one of those days has gone by, that the events of that tragic day have not crossed the mind of someone in this nation.
A firefighter’s wife, a policeman’s son, a stockbrokers parents, a mail room worker’s brother, a banker’s sister, a restaurant worker’s best friend…..each of those whose lives ended on that day, was somebody that meant something to someone. Those lives that ended, ended on a day much like this one. A clear blue sky, a cool breeze in the air and no clue of what was to come.
The events of that day were not the first time that tragedy and adversity has tested the strength, the will and the resolve of the American people. In the last one hundred and fifty years, we have borne witness to events that have shaken our faith just as they have called us to action. Those events serve to remind us that even those whose strengths are built upon the foundations of liberty and freedom can be wounded by those who serve the forces of evil…and they also remind us that Americans always rise to any challenge against those things that we hold dear
We have seen our country torn apart by a Civil War but we rose to the challenge of putting it back together again over the many decades since. We have seen our country attacked with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the destruction of our Pacific fleet in 1941, only to rise to the challenge and bring about victory in 1945. We have seen a great president fall to an assassin in 1963 but have risen to the challenges that be put before us by landing the first man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth…..and we have seen the destruction of September 11, 2001 and rose to the challenges of making our country safer and bringing to an end the one who caused the events we remember today when elite members of our military took Osama Bin Laden out in May of 2011. In every crisis and against every threat to our way of life, Americans have stood, shoulder to shoulder, and met the challenge each and every time.
These events have shaped our history but they do not define who we are as American people. Enduring liberty and freedom gives us our purpose but courage, character and determination are some of the characteristics that define who we are and these are what gives Americans the willingness to sacrifice for their fellow citizens and enables us to meet each test that is put before us. Our triumphs and our successes do us great credit but what sets our nation apart is that when the worst of things happens to us, the best that is within us rises to the surface.
When the first tower was hit, at 8:46 AM on the morning of September 11, 2001, within a matter of minutes, we saw courage in action as one wave after another of New York’s finest men and women arrived on the scene, rushing into a burning skyscraper over 1,360 feet high. Carrying heavy equipment and medical supplies, they ascended the only way they get to the fire, climbing one story after another through the stairwells…..firefighters….police officers…..paramedics and first responders. Many of them were fathers and mother with children at home, yet that thought only spurred them to move on faster, to get the job done and to get back home to their loved ones. 403 public safety workers perished in the collapse of the towers. Each one of them knew that could be the outcome, yet they went forward anyway, running into burning buildings as other ran from them.
We saw character in action in the aftermath of the destruction as rescue workers, construction workers, military and volunteers poured in to help search for survivors, later supplemented by more from surrounding states and eventually, all over the country. For weeks they worked, first to find survivors and later to find and secure the victims buried within the rubble. They wouldn’t give up and they stayed and they searched, rescuing 20 survivors and locating over 1,600 of the deceased. Working in unimaginable conditions and dealing with things that most of us could not imagine, they showed the remarkable character that defines Americans.
And we have seen the determination of the American military, from all branches of the armed services, as they have fought to bring those responsible to justice, have fought to reduce the danger to our country, have fought to make the world a safer place and in many cases, have died doing their duty. We see this determination in the parents and relatives of those who fight, who know their children and loved ones pick up a weapon and put themselves in harm’s way to allow us to continue enjoying the freedoms that even today are still part of a uniquely American life….and we see it on the faces of countless others who do their part in whatever way they can, even if it is just to pray for those men and women to come home safely soon. Courage, character and determination are the core attributes that bring out the best in us at the worst and as long as we possess these, we will continue to prevail.
This morning we gather to remember all of those who were lost on that tragic day ten years ago….those who died in the attacks…. and those who died heroically trying and in many cases, succeeding in preventing further loss of life. We remember our soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice….and we honor those heroes that survived and still go out and put themselves in the path of danger so that we might live in a safer society.
This morning as remember and honor them, we should also remember that it’s not the image of planes striking buildings and those building crumbling to the ground that we should carry with us….it is the image of three firefighters, their faces stained with dirt and grime and standing atop a mountain of rubble as they raise the American flag proudly over what is now hallowed ground….nor should it be image of a plume of smoke rising from a field in Pennsylvania that we remember today but the memory of a group of unarmed civilians who, knowing that they would die, resolved not to allow the terrorists to inflict further death and destruction on our country and who brought down that fourth plane….and we should remember that the Pentagon is not the true face of our military….it is the soldier, the sailor, the airman and the marine that stands tall and proud and protects us every day.
These are the images we should carry with us when we leave this place today…..and hopefully, when we leave here, we will carry with us some of that sense of unity that we had that day and in the weeks to follow….the unity that reminds us that individually, we may not succeed but collectively and with God on our side, we cannot fail.