For the past eight years, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum has hosted a 5K Run/Walk and Community Day. The purpose of the event is to commemorate the 2,977 people killed on 9/11 and to honor the spirit and resilience of New York City. The course follows what came to be known as the “Hero Highway,” named after the crowds that would gather to cheer the thousands of rescue workers making their way to Ground Zero in the days and weeks following the attacks.
Unfortunately, there will be no 5K this year. There will be no community day. And “Hero Highway” will stand empty. This reflects the painful and sobering reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our enemy is a virus that renders even a fleeting moment of shared communal joy as potentially lethal and that has now killed more Americans than the deadliest terrorist attack in our nation’s history.
When terrorists took the lives of thousands nearly 20 years ago, our collective impulse was to come together in shared grief and solidarity. Today, we face a different but no less deadly threat. Yet, this time, in order to protect our family and friends, we cannot rush to the aid of strangers. Instead, we stand six feet away from each other, and we practice “social distancing,” a concept that runs completely counter to who we are as Americans.
The past few weeks have been marked by unthinkable loss. And, once again, the number of casualties have been more than any of us can bear. Hundreds of thousands have been infected, hospitals have been dangerously overwhelmed, and every day has been met with another premature tragic death. Businesses are shuttered, many unlikely to return, and millions face the daunting question of how they will put food on their tables.
But there is reason to hope. Every day, thousands of men and women across the country, putting their own health at risk, are rushing to the aid of those in need. The pandemic has brought forward a new wave of first responders: doctors, nurses, supermarket clerks, warehouse workers, truck drivers, transit workers, police officers, and so many more. “Hero Highways” are now popping up across the country with every shift change. And with each passing day, there are more hospital beds, more ventilators, more test kits, more masks, more antibodies, and more volunteers.
Like it was in the aftermath of 9/11, this will be a defining moment for New York, for our country, and for our global community. Our actions today, and in the coming weeks, will determine the course of history. And we all have a choice. We can choose despair. We can choose to divide. We can choose helplessness. Or, we can choose to stay in and save lives. We can choose to find commonality with those with whom we normally disagree. And, we can choose to imagine and build the foundations of a better and safer world.
This year’s run is a marathon. We are about to hit a difficult stretch, and we will all need to push through. We face uncertain short-term and long-term challenges. And, we all feel an unprecedented level of anxiety for the well-being of our families, friends, colleagues and communities. We have no choice but to persevere … just as those rescue and recovery workers persevered to recover the victims, clear Ground Zero, and enable our city to rebuild and renew.
It will take time for life to feel “normal” again. Just as it was after 9/11, things will be different. A new normal won’t happen overnight. But, in some ways, this new normal should give us all a new appreciation for many of the things that we once took for granted. We will appreciate a semblance of stability. We will better appreciate the time that we have together. We will appreciate the freedom to roam without limitations. We will value the importance of community.
The tragedy of 9/11 taught us about this city’s and this nation’s deep reserves of resilience. We have faced challenges before, unimaginable challenges. And, we came through it, rising to the occasion. We will get to the other side of this one, too. But only if we are willing to sacrifice for the common good.
Our museum is a testament to men and women of good will from around the world who had, and have, the will to do just that in a moment of extraordinary need.
Alice M. Greenwald is the president and chief executive of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, where Scott Rechler is vice chairman.
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