For me, 9/11 was simultaneously the most personal, most public, and most political event in modern history. I should have lost my mom that day, but I didn’t. Our country should have been reborn that day, but it wasn’t. 

It’s not just that I am a man who was born and raised in New York City. It’s not just that my family goes back generations here: my dad and his two brothers were cops who patrolled its streets, and my mom worked on the 97th floor of Tower One. It’s that I am a 9/11 kid – for better or worse. I am the last generation in this country who will remember firsthand September 10th and the world we lost, September 11th and the horror of that day, and September 12th and the promise of a country that never came to be.

You might be too young to remember 9/10, or perhaps you weren’t even born yet, but America was a different place. At that time, half the country didn’t have internet in their homes, and those who did use a dial-up modem that couldn’t be used while someone was on their house phone. Even more rare than a computer with internet in your house was a cell phone. Just 28 percent of the population had one of those, and of course, there was no such thing as social media. Looking at someone’s family vacation photos was agony, not something you did for clout. 

The world was bigger then. It was still a time you could move a few hours away and have little connection to your hometown. The world was far less connected without the internet and social media. And although there had been terrorist attacks in the past, the dangers of the world felt distant. America felt settled after a few decades of limited war and a massive decline in crime throughout the ’90s. Our two oceans provided us with the same illusion of protection our grandparents enjoyed.

Then 9/11 happened. If you weren’t alive then and didn’t live in New York City, let me briefly describe what it was like: it was hell. 

A sheer, constant panic and fear came over you in waves that someone you knew was dead. I hate making these stories personal, but I want to share my experience of that day. 

As I said, my mother worked in Tower One on the 97th floor. Early that Tuesday morning, my maternal grandmother’s sister called her and told her to turn on the news. She flipped the channel with my grandfather by her side and saw her daughter’s office billow with fire and smoke.

My grandfather, a man who never cried in front of me to the day he went to his eternal rest, let out a scream so loud my great-aunt said it was like he was screaming directly into the phone. He was grief-stricken, believing his daughter was gone–totally beside himself. 

Within the hour, my mother called from a store not too far from the towers saying she was late to work that day and missed the attack. 

An uncle came to my high school at St. Francis Prep. to alert me that they had made contact with my mom. This was before I knew the towers were hit. Immediately afterward, there was an announcement that all children whose parents were police officers, firemen, or worked in the World Trade Center should come down to the guidance counselor’s office. I went with dozens of other teenagers with blank looks on their faces of uncertainty. Some I knew, and others I didn’t. It was the last time we all went into that room thinking both our parents were alive. In retrospect, it felt like we were drawing straws, and those who drew the short straws would be broken that day. 

I couldn’t go to class. I just stood in various school offices as the towers fell, wondering if anyone knew how many people died. I kept trying to find some comfort or guidance in adults who knew about as much as I did about what was going on in Lower Manhattan; there was none. 

By the time my mother came home, it was late in the day, she collapsed on my grandmother’s couch, and the whole family was silent, grateful we were lucky and feeling sick that we knew so many who weren’t.

There were many extraordinary acts of bravery, including those of my Uncle Peter: a Vietnam War vet, a window washer at the World Trade Center, and probably the most humble man I know. After the attack, he ran into the building looking for his niece, my mom. Along the way, he helped people injured and struggling to leave. He ran in and out repeatedly, helping anyone he could in a mad dash to find my mom. Finally, the police told him he couldn’t run in anymore because the building was coming down. Feeling defeated in a way that doubtless brought memories back of the war, he walked in a daze from the World Trade Center to Queens–seven miles away. Nonetheless, he was one of many heroes that day who helped people survive.

After that, waves of grief, fear, anger, and, most importantly, unity washed over the country. The nation rallied around a President who promised justice for the thousands of Americans lost that day. On September 12th, our country was unified in our pain and brokenness.

It’s hard to explain to a generation that has never known real national unity, but the whole country rallied around our shared values. It was not just our president and our first responders; it was genuinely shared core beliefs. Our leaders promised that they would build from this to create a stronger and safer country.

But who can stand here, 20 years later, and claim we are more united after those attacks than before? 

In the two decades that followed 9/10, 9/11, and 9/12, our leaders staked our future on the promise of neoliberalism. We would be safe because we were at war. We are united because we are diverse. Our biggest shared value is our right to disagree.

They took all the social capital of that moment, with which they could do virtually anything in the name of national security and safety, and spent it on bad domestic policy and stupid foreign policy that cost us our best and brightest.

George W. Bush told Americans to enjoy the shopping mall as our borders migrants and drugs overran our border, our economy collapsed. Meanwhile, he squeaked by a second term, milking the votes of a dying generation’s fear of terrorism and opposition to gay marriage. The previous sentence in bold sounds quite cynical about opposition to gay marriage. Not sure if that is what you intended, but I thought I would let you know one way or another. It was the most devastating political loss of all time. 

So as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we remember those lost. We recognize the acts of bravery and unity. But on a political level, we think of what could have been but was lost to a failed leadership who thought they could build a nation on liberal ideas alone.