Thousands of flags fill the banks of Gray's Lake in Des Moines, a 9/11 memorial, for the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Photo by Suzanne Behnke/IowaWatch)

When the anniversary of some tragedy rolls around, we are reminded of what was lost in those events.

We reflect on the lives that were taken and the upheaval those deaths brought to their loved ones, their friends and their communities. What might have been — that’s often a topic during those reflections.

We saw this over the past weekend when the nation observed the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But when you stop to think about the events of that horrible, horrible day. When you pause to really contemplate the tremendous loss of life in the span of a couple of hours. When you reflect on what occurred in the years since then, you realize that our nation has, regrettably, lost much more than just 2,977 lives.

The best way to understand the magnitude of those losses since 9/11 is to look at the contrasts between then and now.

On 9/11, in New York City and Washington, D.C., and in places like Choteau, Mont., and Omaha, Neb., the prevailing attitude was “How can I help?” People put aside what might have been in their own personal interests.

You didn’t see tens of thousands of people making demands. You didn’t have people threatening legal action if they were not allowed back into their offices or apartment buildings or airliners. You didn’t have members of Congress and governors question our president’s patriotism.

Instead, there was a sense of “we are all in this together,” that we need to care for and care about one another. Countless times, people went to extraordinary lengths to provide kindness within the chaos, to put the greater good above self-interests.

Brian Clark and Stanley Praimnath are two such people. Clark and Praimnath worked on the 83rd and 81st floors in the south tower of the World Trade Center. They first met a few minutes after a United Airlines jet plowed through their floors at nearly 600 mph, creating a massive fireball of jet fuel. 

Somehow, the two survived the impact, although Praimnath was trapped under his desk. Clark, through a lucky guess, found the only stairway that was not cut off by the crash.

He descended two floors, then heard Praimnath’s cries for help through the stairway’s walls. Disregarding his own safety, Clark left the stairway to investigate. He located the voice and freed the injured stranger.

Together, they made their way to the ground 80 stories below, through smoke and heat and debris. They reached safety just four minutes before their tower collapsed.

“We’ll be brothers for life,” Praimnath told reporters. “I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t stretched out his hand that day” — if Clark had not put the well-being of someone he did not know on equal footing with his own safety.

As Brian Clark and Stanley Praimnath were hurrying out of the World Trade Center, the federal government closed the skies over the United States and ordered all planes to land at the nearest airport. For Emilio Martinez, who was heading home to Denver from a business trip to Ohio, that put him in Omaha.

Martinez wanted to be with his family, but instead of simply renting a car, he rented the largest van available at Eppley Airfield. Then, holding a handwritten “Going to Denver” sign on a piece of cardboard, he found seven strangers, all as scared as he was, who wanted to get home to their families, too.

They all piled into the van, and Martinez drove them 500 miles to Denver, dropping each one at their homes. The grateful travelers offered to pay Martinez for the cost of the van or the gasoline. But he said no. Helping them reunite with their loved ones was more important than money, he said.

Some things are just more important. Consider:

There’s a little farming town in northwest Montana called Choteau. On 9/11, several years of drought had left the area’s farmers and ranchers reeling financially. But a week after 9/11, the 1,700 people of Choteau held a rally to raise money to help the people of the largest city in America.

Do you see a common thread here — that of people thinking about the greater good and the needs of others? Do you see the unity of purpose that was evident 20 years ago that is absent these days?

In all, 2,977 people died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11 or from injuries they suffered then. To date, 659,800 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. That figure is 200 times larger than 9/11’s death toll, and we are recording deaths at a pace equivalent to one 9/11 every two days.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans saw more intensive security measures at government buildings and in offices throughout the nation. Flying now requires screenings of our luggage and ourselves. We have to remove our shoes and cannot take beverages through security checkpoints. We are limited to small amounts of toothpaste, shampoo and other personal care products when we travel.

We tolerate these restrictions on our freedoms because we know they are helping to prevent another 9/11. But wearing a cloth mask and getting a vaccination are too great a sacrifice to make for the well-being of our family, our friends and strangers.

If we want to see true unity, we have to go back 20 years to find it.

How sad.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at

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