OpEd: Fifteen Years Later

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Last Sunday, I did something I have never done before. I flew on September 11.

I am a New Yorker, born, bred and raised in Brooklyn, the Catskills Mountains, and Long Island.

I moved to Florida a quarter century before terrorists took down the World Trade Center, but I had friends and colleagues from Hofstra University who lost their lives in the towers on that fateful day.

Here in Florida, I was publishing and had founded the first credible LGBT newspaper focusing on the Broward County gay community — the Express Gay News. I remember the column I wrote that week. It was titled 'They Blew Up the Place I Called Home.'

Next to my column today, there is a picture of our cover that week. When the murderers struck, they targeted the melting pot that is America. Today, where those buildings fell, a new spire rises, glistening brightly in the daylight sun while illuminating Manhattan at night. It is a powerful beacon of white light pointing directly to the stars.

Where those lives were lost, a breathtakingly beautiful memorial now stands, forever paying tribute to a day few of us will ever forget. But there is the rub, as we sit here in 2016.

Since 9/11, a new generation of Americans has been born and raised. The 17 year old who graduated high school this past June was a one-year-old infant when the towers went down. For that young person, this is barely a day of recognition, let alone reflection.

How do we make an event like this relevant to young people who were not even born on that day? How do you bring to life the pain and heartache of that day, when, in a matter of hours, 2,984 people lost their lives?

For the gay community, we learned many of the heroes that day were gay men. On the plane brought down in the hills of Pennsylvania, otherwise destined to strike the White House or Capitol Building, we discovered it was a young gay man, Mark Bingham, from San Francisco, who led the charge to intercept the kidnappers.

In New York, we would also learn that the Fire Department's chaplain, Pastor Mychal Judge, who perished while leading prayers in the South Tower, was also a gay man, albeit a celibate priest.

At the Express Gay News, we would write about the difficulty gay couples had in securing survivor's benefits, because the tragedy occurred in an era when civil unions and domestic partnerships barely had legal recognition or social approval.

Of course, as in any disaster, con artists and termites came out of the woodwork. In Fort Lauderdale, a deceitful gay man, Patrick Ian Henn, falsely claimed that he lost his partner in the twin towers and bilked the Red Cross for $80,000. But he did not fool me, and he wound up with five years in jail. He made national news too, his crooked scam exposed on CNBC's TV show, American Greed.

However, the losses that day were our nation's. Our country – all people, all colors – were targets. For our generation, it was our day that would live in infamy. For all of us, it was a day that would alter our nation's course. We would soon all learn more about a group called Al Qaeda and one Osama Bin Laden. Today, we find ourselves fighting ideologies rather than countries.

Whether it is Pulse in Orlando or San Bernadino in California, a cafe in Paris or an open-air market in Pakistan, citizens of the world are not secure from terror. It's everywhere and anyplace. Ultimately, that is the residual legacy of 9-11. Our universe is more cautious, our world more scary. But America is resilient, and we are still strong. We bounce back. It's the only way.

We may not have all the answers, but this much we know as a nation: we do not let disasters define us. Standing by the fountains at the memorial plaza in the square that housed the World Trade Center, you realize that gay or straight, black or white, Muslim or Mexican, we are all part of a shared humanity. We want to live and love, laugh and learn. 

I was also in Hollywood a few weeks ago, spending six hours in Universal Studios and taking part in their tour. It's like Disney World, and people congregate in calm, with families, friends, in good fortune and health. So it is in communities and cities across this nation. On beaches or in bars, whether on crowded subways or cheering stadiums throughout this country, America is essentially prosperous and at peace.

Our nation may have problems, but we are more a people of vision than vitriol. That's why the Republican nominee for president is so vile, so misguided, so wrong. On a daily basis, Donald Trump demonizes democracy. He amplifies divisiveness and voices extremism. Even on the plazas where we memorialize the victims of 9-11 and terror, Americans are optimistic about tomorrow. We think more each day about the new I Phone than ISIS.

The truth is America is strong, and we are growing in tolerance and diversity. We do not need an ethnic cleansing. Immigrants do not threaten our freedom, ISIS is not on the verge of seizing your city hall, and inner cities may be tough, but they are not 'war zones.' Our military is neither a disaster or disgrace, and our generals are not 'rubble.' And Barack Obama was far from being the worst president in our nation's history.

Most Americans wake up each day optimistic about our future; our hearts filled with hope, not fear. Don't let the caustic and hateful mongering cacophony of the bloated, belligerent, nominee of the Republican party change that for you. He already has done a disservice to us all.

Frankly, if dignity and decency were the barometers, Donald Trump would be exiled, not elected. In his America, you would be. Let him build his next tower in Moscow, not Manhattan. He and Putin could be lovers, big shots with more bravado and brawn and bullying than brains. Put them both on a horse together and let them each ride off into the sunset. The world would be better off.


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