The Day That Changed Everything

This is a book about love. That’s an odd thing to say about a collection that spans 9/11/01 to 9/11/02, and that centers on the attacks on America. But the primary emotion I felt in those days was a love, or a tender sense of appreciation, for everyone who played a part in the drama—the dead, the survivors, the firemen and the heroes on the planes, the families left behind and their shaken neighbors down the block. For us. September 11 changed everyone, and for me, among the changes was one that had a professional impact. It liberated me to include in my work what I felt but had not always expressed: the idea that people are precious, that they’re beautiful and deserving of honor and respect. And the knowledge that we are all brothers and sisters together, whatever our circumstances. Before 9/11, I held these convictions but they did not always seem pertinent, or appropriate, to what I was writing. But after 9/11, I felt free to say what I thought and let it frame my work, and even become an engine for that work.

I think that I have this in common with a lot of people. People always say we became better, more appreciative as a people after 9/11, especially New Yorkers. But I think the event simply left a lot of people feeling freer to be who they were, as if, in Os Guinness’s phrase, tragedy cracked our hearts wide open and forced the beauty out.

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I call this book “A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag” because those were the things that rose from the rubble. The heart stands for those who were brave for others, and for the greater fellow feeling among our citizens that followed the collapse of the Towers and the bombing of the Pentagon. The cross stands for a rediscovered respect and gratitude for religious faith. The flag was the renewal of American patriotism that followed the terrible day. The heart and the cross on the cover were given to me by an iron worker named Larry Keating who ran, without orders or clearance, to the fallen towers early in the afternoon of 9/11, and was the last worker to leave when the takedown and cleanup were over, ten months later. The burn marks and the stress marks where the thick steel bent tell you where they are from. Larry was a reader of these pieces, and when he heard from a mutual friend that I was pouring coffee one night near Ground Zero he found me and handed me an old, beat-up paper bag. Inside were the heart and the cross. He had cut them from Tower Two.

The heart, the cross and the flag rose from the rubble and filled the clouds over the Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a blank Pennsylvania field. They rose with the smoke and entered the air all around us.

I haven’t changed a word. These pieces were written on the run, starting the day the Towers were hit and continuing for 50 of the next 52 weeks. They are imperfect. But it seemed to me when I reread them that their flaws—of tone, language, and emphasis among other things—were true to the event, that they reflected the jaggedness of the time, and the fears and emotions it engendered. It just felt right to print them as they ran.

A number of thoughts and observations in this book became Officially Accepted Truths of the event and its aftermath, and were, to the best of my knowledge, said here for the first time. “God Is Back” spoke of the resurgence of religious feeling on the mean streets, “Welcome Back, Duke” celebrated the return of a certain kind of manhood, and “Courage Under Fire” attempted to make New York’s firemen more nationally celebrated and understood. I feared early on that what they did was not getting serious enough attention in the country.

September 11 was also to an extraordinary degree a changer of individuals. For so many people it was a moment in which the points of their lives came together and made their importance clear. For others it was a kind of reckoning.

A lot of lives changed. I’m still seeing them change. You probably are too.

September 11 is a terrible story and a beautiful story. I’ll never get over it and I’m glad I won’t. This is a book for those who feel the same.

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(Editor’s note: This is the introduction to Ms. Noonan’s book, “A Heart, a Cross and a Flag,” a collection of her OpinionJournal essays.)