photo by Flickr user The Picric Hamster
The flags began appearing even as smoke still rose from the rubble of the 9/11 attacks. Soon, the Stars and Stripes were everywhere: on flagpoles, of course, but also on hastily printed posters and decals displayed on everything from bumpers to billboards.
In New Jersey, people quickly hung flags on or from many of the more than 1,000 overpasses that cross the state’s two big toll roads, its eponymous Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. They were not officially sanctioned. Instead, ordinary citizens and local civic groups joined the national show of solidarity on their own. For a brief period on and after that terrible day 19 years ago, there were no Republicans or Democrats. There were only Americans determined to stand together, as a shocked world waited to see how they would respond. The world had good reason to be impressed, and we had good reason to be proud – then and now.
New Jersey suffered grievously that day. Although the World Trade Center towers fell in New York, a large share of those who worked there came from across the Hudson River. The metropolitan region’s rail links are arranged such that commuters from New Jersey can more easily reach the Manhattan financial district than can suburbanites from Long Island, Westchester County or Connecticut. Although those suburbs lost many to the attack, their rail lines tend to encourage work farther north in midtown Manhattan. New Jersey offers a better commute to Wall Street. The 9/11 attack in lower Manhattan cost the lives of some 750 New Jersey residents. Many others escaped to safety on an ad hoc flotilla of rescue boats that braved the flames, dust and chaos to get them back across the river.
The flags – some tended, some neglected – hung undisturbed from New Jersey’s highway overpasses for nearly 19 years, until this week. Then someone at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority decided the flags needed to go. We don’t know who made this decision; the agency that runs both major toll roads has an executive director, John Keller, and an eight-member board chaired by Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti. In the best of bureaucratic tradition, they sent forth a spokesman to explain that the flags violate a ban on all forms of banners or other advertising on those highways.
Apparently, nobody noticed this for 19 years, minus a few ill-considered days.
New Jersey’s highway poohbahs may have forgotten why those flags were hung, but the rest of the state has not. The reaction was powerfully negative and gratifyingly bipartisan. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, quickly invoked powers he may or may not actually have to suspend the order to remove the flags. Lawmakers from both parties promised to introduce bills to clear up any question about the legality of displaying the American flag along and above the state’s American highways.
Today’s anniversary is always a sad and solemn occasion. This year’s observances will be different from the rest, of course, thanks to the ongoing pandemic. But a quick search for “9/11 commemorations 2020” will show that America has not forgotten this day, no matter how near or far they find themselves from the smoke that rose from the rubble.
In Manhattan, the customary twin beams of light will shine into the sky after sunset. There were plans to cancel that part of the event before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo intervened. Across the Hudson in New Jersey, children who were just born to parents who died that day, or who were born shortly after to parents who never had a chance to meet them at all, will be able to see those beams. If they drive on a toll road to reach a good vantage point to gaze over the water, they will probably pass a flag that commemorates all those who died, as well as those who rushed to rescue the people they could save.
In a few weeks, the youngest of the children who were born or in gestation on Sept. 11, 2001, will cast their first votes to choose a president. Although they are too young to remember that day, they should know that their country has not forgotten, and that it never will.