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Column: Remember our losses, and recognize the futility of war

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 9/16/2021 10:10:01 PM
Modified: 9/16/2021 10:10:07 PM

On Sept. 11, 2001, I stood at the entrance of the Calhoun School in Manhattan, welcoming students to the first day of school. Our opening had been delayed for a week due to construction.

I’d heard that a plane struck one of the twin towers, but assumed it was an errant private aircraft. It was only when my son called my cell from North Carolina and asked, “Do you know what’s going on?” that I learned the true enormity of the day.

I didn’t leave the entrance or lobby for the next nine hours. We quickly devised a strategy for informing students, carefully calibrated by age. We set up central communications and a plan to offer housing for students who could not go home. Our counseling staff developed a plan for whole school support and comfort.

In early afternoon I was given reason to fear the possibility of a bomb in the building and evacuated 570 students and all faculty and staff to Riverside Park. I stayed in the building until I dared bring them back after our maintenance staff and dozens of construction workers did the best search they could.

My heart stayed in my throat for hours. What if I was wrong? I and others scanned the deep blue September sky for more signs of air attack, believing that anything was possible when the impossible had already happened.

While my ability to provide security was a delusion, I carried the heavy weight of responsibility through the day.

By late afternoon, ash-covered women and men silently walked north on Manhattan’s avenues, carrying the unspeakable burdens of their proximity to unimaginable horror.

Long before 9/11 I had been at the top of the towers, standing with my nose pressed to the floor-to-ceiling windows. For months I would revisit that moment and have short bursts of feeling the floor give way beneath me. In the days after, my wife counseled traumatized families. A young boy drew a picture of stick figures on boards, riding the sky away from the inferno, transforming jumpers into surfers.

For the families and friends of 9/11’s victims, there can be no peace. The dogma-besotted beasts who did this deserve no sanctuary, no understanding. There is no hell more searing than what they wrought in Manhattan, but if such a thing were to exist, it should be their eternal fate.

Among the victims, of course, are the courageous responders who died — and their families who have, at least, the thin gratification of knowing their lost loved ones exhibited courage and honor at the very edge of human capacity.

I write this so I will not be seen as cynical or insensitive. I am neither. The grief, the terror and the courage of that day are as profound as humans can experience.

But ...

We must also use the anniversary to gain perspective and understand that our pain is not the only pain. Sept. 11 was acutely horrifying both in its sinister methodology and its nearly instant extinguishing of life. But each one of our 2,996 was no more or less devastating than other violent deaths.

The congregation in one short span deceives us into believing our wounds are uniquely deep and traumatic. They are not.

In recent days we have been reminded of the folly of our response to 9/11. It was understandable and predictable. We lashed out with misdirected fury that has only now fully receded. Twenty years of futile war in Afghanistan ended with a few more American soldiers lost, each an unfathomable tragedy to their families. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, 71,000 innocent civilians have died from our military strikes.

I do not mean to create a moral equivalence. Perhaps you think our actions were moral and justified, but that ethical parsing is of no solace to the survivors of those dead women, children and men.

The Watson Institute estimates that as many as 207,000 innocent Iraqi civilians died as a result of our invasion and occupation. In the early days of that war we dropped napalm, incinerating dozens of soldiers and at least a few civilians.

Or go back to my era in the military. Accurate statistics are elusive, but our military caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The government of Vietnam estimates that as many as a half million more have died from the effects of Agent Orange and dioxin. Another half-million children were born with birth defects. The United States government calls these numbers “unreliable,” but cannot refute the overall evidence.

Yes, as we remember 9/11 we should remember and honor our own losses. But we should also use that pain for national reckoning and circumspection about the futility of war.

Steve Nelson is a Valley News columnist. He can be reached at

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