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As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, why should the younger generation “Never Forget 9/11” or even care about what happened? This question was posed to me by a 20-something-year-old director during a recent filming of a 9/11 20th Anniversary documentary. As offensive as the question may have seemed initially to me, I realize it’s one that we all need to think hard on so that the foundation of our freedom does not fade away. 

The preservation of our democracy and the freedom it yields is undeniably dependent on what America’s younger generation thinks. If they dismiss 9/11 as another irrelevant page in our country’s forgotten history, then our freedom will falter. As a 9/11 first responder in New York City, I have been disinclined to discuss 9/11-related memories outside law enforcement and military circles. But the 9/11 documentary interview was an opportunity for me to open up to the stakeholders of our nation’s future. So what happened on 9/11 and why does it matter? Here are my thoughts about what I experienced.

On Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement officers ran forward into the destruction and mayhem in New York City and Washington, DC, to rescue civilians and save lives. According to CDC data, it is estimated that thousands of people from over 78 countries were in the World Trade Center Towers when the terrorist attacks occurred. It didn’t matter to the police where these people came from. They charged forward with the noble goal of evacuating everyone to safety. Numerous lives, Americans and international, were saved thanks to the unwavering courage and honor of first responders. Tragically, 71 law enforcement officers died during the rescue operation and one additional officer died while fighting the terrorists on United Airlines Flight 93. 

“So what?” a millennial may reply. “People die all the time.”

Instagram news flash for younger folks who may not realize this: Police officers do not get paid to die. Police officers are not comic book heroes with superpowers and indestructible bodies. Police officers are brave human beings who risk their own wellness daily in order to protect law-abiding Americans. There is no police officer job description that states an officer is required to run into burning 100-floor buildings that are ablaze from the jet fuel from planes that were crashed into them. Hero officers ran forward from their heart and not a job description. Without a doubt, those they rescued will always remember them. 

While 72 law enforcement heroes lost their lives on 9/11, four times that number have since died from illnesses associated with their sustained toxin exposure at Ground Zero (“Ground Hero”) and the Pentagon. 

According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the names of 286 9/11 law enforcement first responders have been inscribed on the Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. Tragically, more names will continue to be added. These are the names of officers who set aside their own wellness and remained on the impacted 9/11 grounds during the days that followed. How could any American forget these officers’ honor and selfless sacrifice? 

Did the 9/11 terrorist attacks cost Americans anything beyond the loss of more than 3,000 precious lives. After factoring in the cost of property damage to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and other buildings, the destruction of businesses, the cost of the recovery operation, the expenses associated with the World Trade Center Health Program, the losses incurred by the travel industry, the insurance payouts, stock market losses, etc, it is estimated that the economic damage to our nation exceeded $2 trillion. This mountainous debt is the terrorists’ inheritance left to you, young Americans. 

Their goal was to damage your country and your freedom.

“But we’re protected by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States,” proclaims young America, “and 9/11 didn’t change anything.” That view can stain the sacred parchments and liberties memorialized on them. Neither of these sacred documents guarantees our freedom. It is people interpreting and fulfilling the promise of the parchment, and not the parchment itself, that ultimately provides our cherished freedoms. Both parchments and the freedoms codified on them cease to be indestructible when we forget those who gave their lives in defense of them.

The American treasure of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” will continue to be targeted by the evil deeds of terrorists. If we forget our fallen heroes who died protecting us, then our complacency will only serve to jeopardize the sustenance of our liberties. It is a simple but fatal reality: If we forget, terrorists win. 

Tomorrow’s freedoms are promised to no one. As we prepare to commemorate the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I urge all first responders to share their personal stories of that day with other Americans. This may help pierce any barrier of youthful indifference. As Americans, we must Never Forget our 9/11 heroes nor that fatal day when terrorists attacked our democracy. 

Jon Adler is the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation.

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