Thick smoke billows into the sky from the area behind the Statue of Liberty, lower left, where the World Trade Center was, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. Credit: Daniel Hulshizer / AP

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Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?

That’s the opening line to Alan Jackson’s  famous song he wrote after Sept.11, 2001. For several generations, it was a seminal moment.

I was a senior in a Catholic high school. I remember distinctly sitting in theology class discussing Albert Camus’ “The Fall.” The question we were all grappling with?

Is human nature, at its most basic, good or bad?

Did you stand there in shock at the sight of that black smoke risin’ against that blue sky?

On the school P.A. system, the principal came on. He told us that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers.

Between classes, they had rolled televisions into the cafeteria. As a senior, I had some flexibility in my schedule.  

Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer and look at yourself, and what really matters?

This past June, I delivered the commencement address to my alma mater’s graduating class. As I tried to write it, it hit me: These kids were not yet born on Sept. 11, 2001. They weren’t even a glint in the eye of their parents that fateful day.

Did you feel guilty ‘cause you’re a survivor? In a crowded room did you feel alone?

For the entirety of their lives, American troops had been in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden had been killed by the time they were teenagers.  

They felt a world apart. Yet, at the same time, I saw my classmates in them.

They struggled with Camus. They faced the question of the inherent “goodness” or “badness” of humanity. And they had their senior year greatly impacted by a world-historical event that inevitably will change the future course of our nation.

Did you notice the sunset for the first time in ages or speak to some stranger on the street?

From the perspective of a high school senior, the early days after Sept. 11 were heady. The previous winter had seen “Bush v. Gore,” “hanging chads,” and Tim Russert’s demarcation of the nation into “Red States” and “Blue States.”

We read about the Cold War and the inherent unity in our nation when we had a collective other — the USSR — to rally against. “Politics ends at the water’s edge” was a famous rallying ethos. We were 8 years old when “Desert Storm” came to our televisions, watching American might eviscerate one of the largest standing armies in the world.

Sept. 11 seemed to make our history come alive. President George W. Bush’s approval rating spiked to 90 percent. He spoke for all of us when, standing amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, he declared that those responsible “would hear all of us soon.” Unity ruled the day. German sailors saluted American ships. Communities rallied to support those impacted.

Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers? Stand in line and give your own blood?

In short, the attacks by al-Qaeda answered the question we were struggling with in religion class. Humanity, at its core, is bad. The murder-suicide of the terrorists proved it.

Unless that was an aberration, the exception that proved the rule. Was the rallying, the selflessness, the togetherness which followed the true reflection of humanity’s nature?

It’s hard to say. We have free will. We individually make our own choices, good or bad. And those choices reveal what we are.

Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us. And the greatest is love.

On the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, it behooves us to recall our own reactions to the news. And it is important to keep in mind the good that followed the bad. A lot has happened since then, but those who fail to remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Let’s not.

Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?

Michael Cianchette, Opinion contributor

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.