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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The horrors and lessons of 9/11 live on in our oral histories 

Flowers and flags left for those who died

Flowers and flags left for those who died on 9-11. Credit: Todd Maisel

My grandson came home from school this week with a notice. On Sept. 11, his fourth-grade class would see a short, age-appropriate animated video about the awful attacks 18 years ago.

He's 8 years old.

And while he knew a little bit about what happened nine years before he was born, it also got me thinking about how we relate our history to the generations that succeed us and what it is we want them to remember.

There was the nightmarish scene itself, the fire and smoke and ash, the collapse of the towers that did not seem possible, and the daze of unreality that gripped us. There also was the way that the attacks held up a mirror to our best and worst selves. 

There were the innocents who died. And the courage of the passengers on United Flight 93 who attacked the attackers and forced their plane apparently bound for the U.S. Capitol down into a Pennsylvania field instead. And the bravery of the rescue workers, those doomed and those who made it out, and everyone who worked at Ground Zero and all of us who cared for each other and helped the city and region grieve and heal. And President George W. Bush’s principled declaration that Islam is not our enemy.

There were the bad-faith acts by our own government and by individuals that led to profiling, surveilling, suspecting and sometimes attacking fellow citizens, and to waging war on other innocents abroad at great cost in lives, money and destruction. 

There were members of Congress standing side by side, partisanship in pools of tears at their feet, singing "God Bless America," a camaraderie that did not last.

There is a death toll that still grows, and that says that someday, the number of those who died on 9/11 will be fewer than the number of those who died after 9/11 because of it.

The true guts of all this won't be conveyed by history books. It will come from oral histories told to those who follow us. And, someday, as with all events, there will no longer be anyone who lived through those times to tell those stories.

That's partly why the State Legislature passed a law this year encouraging schools to remember Sept. 11. And why I talked with my grandson about some of what happened that day. And why he sat down with his classmates to watch a video on Wednesday.

And he learned. That what happened was not an accident. That some of his classmates had relatives who died in the Twin Towers or on one of the planes. And he told of his father who helped with the cleanup.

Were the planes "normal" flights? he asked me afterward. Yes, they were, normal planes on an abnormal day.

We'll talk about that, too.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.