Saturday, September 11, 2004

September 11, 2001

I'd like to say something poetic in commemoration of the day our world changed. But I'm not a poet. All I can offer is my own experience and thoughts.

On September 11, 2001, I was at home. My wife had scheduled a dentist appointment for herself, so I took some time off work to watch our then 16 month old son.

I was on the phone talking to my sister about day-t0-day things. She lived (and still lives) in Union City, New Jersey. I think we talked a bit about my son, especially of interest to her because she was pregnant with her own first child at the time. But I don't clearly remember what we talked about otherwise.

That is until the moment she looked out her window and noticed smoke coming from the World Trade Center. She seemed a bit rattled seeing this, explaining a friend of she and her husband worked there. She apologized, but said she had to go.

A little odd. In my mind's eye I pictured a little trickle of smoke rising from the building, assuming some sort of fire on one of the floors was the cause. Dangerous, to be sure. But this was a huge modern building. Surely there was little chance of serious harm. A few people treated and released for smoke-inhalation. A blurb about it on the news that night. That's what I figured.

But just out of curiosity, I flipped the television onto CNN. Wow. That was more than just a little fire. Some blurb on the bottom of the screen mentioned something about an airplane hitting the tower.

By coincidence I had seen something - maybe it was on the History Channel - regarding an airplane hitting the Empire State Building back in the 1940's. Some sort of bizarre navigational accident. I naturally assumed this to be something of the sort.

It was immediately apparent from the gaping hole in the side of the building that this was no tiny airplane. The reporters at CNN were openly speculating about what kind of plane it might have been. Someone even floated the notion that it was a fully loaded passenger plane. But that was way out on the edges of extreme speculation at the time. Neither CNN, nor my own mind, took that comment very seriously. Some sort of cargo plane was the preferred notion.

Anyway, after several minutes of watching CNN (and flipping to other channels that had begun interrupting their broadcasts to cover it also), and seeing that they were as clueless as I was - just standing there staring at the smoking hole and making guesses really - I went to my computer and dialed up Free Republic. They tended to have good breaking news coverage, with the first links to real information as it appeared.

A combination of the dial-up modem (we didn't get broadband until later), and Free Republic's inablility to handle huge traffic spikes in those days (they're much better now) made that a frustrating experience as well. I kept trying to refresh the site and see if anything new was breaking. But more often than not, I got a time-out response instead. Now and then I'd get through and see what new comments or threads were saying. Lots of speculation - some seemed rather absurd and conspiratorial. Speculation that this was an act of war for example. And - much like television, but a bit less guarded in this case - speculation that this was an act of terrorism.

I spent a bit of time walking back and forth between the room where the television was, and the computer room (which became the nursery when our second child came along). But I was definitely at the computer when I saw a big urgent breaking news message about a second plane hitting the second tower. That was almost too absurd to believe - but also easy to check.

I quickly ran back to the television just in time to see CNN - or maybe it was on ABC at the time - replay their tape of the second tower being hit.

That was the moment when I changed. Not the moment it sunk in or anything. But definitely the moment it happened.

What exactly changed is still hard to say. Something deep in my gut that defies easy encapsulation to this day. But it's something that still drives me to surprising decisions and emotions.

It's the thing that makes me angry when I see someone scoff about the Iraq War being all about Halliburton war profits, and Texas oilmen. Or when people mock patriotic displays with a contemptuous sniff as mere jingoism. Or when there's a large festival (they usually claim to be "protests" or "rallies") aimed at trying to bring national morale down.

Honestly before that moment those sorts of things earned my disagreeement, and even occasional intellectual contempt, but rarely stirred real emotion. But like I said, something about that moment changed me.

A little while later in the morning, after the towers fell, I was outside pushing my son in his swing. To those of us not at work that morning, I think there was eventually a point you just turned off the television and walked away to just let it soak in. My retired neighbor John noticed us back there. He wandered over to ask if I'd heard the news. I said I had. He said it was like Pearl Harbor. I agreed. And that was about all we said. Words generally didn't come easily that morning. He walked back to his house and I kept pushing the swing until my wife came home.

I wish there was some grand poetical moment that transpired then. But, truth be told, we exchanged hurried words about what we knew had happened, and I rushed off to work.

At work, two coworkers and I went to lunch at a sports-bar/retaurant, thinking they'd have plenty of televisions to see any news. The place was packed with others who had the same idea. Everyone went silent when the president came on to address the nation. Then went back to somewhat more subdued than normal conversation when he'd finished.

Other odd recollections. I remember how eerie it seemed to hear no airplanes in the next few days. To see no contrails in the sky.

I remember how in the days that followed we all expected something else to blow up, or crash, or in some other unexpected way to continue to kill us.

I remember seeing the images of Palestinians celebrating and dancing in the streets, and to this day they have not recovered my respect. I wish them good only in the abstract way I wish humanity in general good. Every other particular about their national identity was poisoned for me that day.

That was a personal reaction, but also seems representative. It was part of the undefined nature of the foe and the terror of the unknown. Our minds lashed out for anything specific to fix on. If you showed yourselves to relish our suffering, that was good enough to earn our lasting enmity. If you showed yourselves to be our friends (I think of the marvelously brave statements and actions of Tony Blair, and how he rekindled our love for the United Kingdom with a power not felt for decades prior), you became like our extended family. And if you sat on the fence - spoke diplomatically, but offered only words and hollow gestures - that was noted too. And still isn't forgotten.

That period some have called a "holiday from history," our seemingly endless September 10th, didn't seem like a holiday at the time. Remember how much energy and importance we put into things like welfare reform and the Clinton impeachment? Not to minimize the importance of those things. But this put those days into stark perspective.

When I looked at those towers burning - saw the trapped people leaning out of the windows, and in some cases (this was mentioned, but not shown on the television as I recall) jumping rather than burn to death - heard that the Pentagon had been hit - heard that the vice president was heading to an undisclosed location - listened to reports about more potential targets, and still no word of who was our foe - watched one tower fall, and then the next - and then I looked out my window at the bright warm sunny late summer morning - the contrast seemed almost too obvious not to notice. We had been enjoying our own bright warm sunny late summer. And now it was time to face - something deadly. We didn't even know what it was yet. But here it was among us - killing us. Not demanding anything. Just killing.

This is a perspective that seems to have been lost by far too many people only three years later. When we saw those towers burning that morning, we realized - even most of those who pretend otherwise now - we realized at the time that someone had brought war to us. No matter how many filmmakers, politicians, or academics claim otherwise, that day we all knew it was not the other way around.

And so, not being poet or philiosopher, all I can offer is what I felt at the time. Not terror. Not despair. I certainly didn't feel like apologizing or worrying about "why they hate us." I felt resolve. And I still do. And I think most of the nation still does as well.

We may disagree on how to best respond to that day. But as a nation, I truly believe we will not rest until that nameless foe (which now goes by many names - and that's some of what now divides our effort, but lets leave that discussion for another day) is defeated. Until we're satisfied that it will not rise up and kill us anymore, anywhere.

We won't be defeated until we lose our resolve. And every year September 11th comes around, every time I think back to that day, that's the feeling that rekindles in me. And I hope - no, I believe - that it does for most Americans.


Blogger Army of Mom said...

Well written. You mirrored what so many of us felt that day and I sense a kindred spirit, just FYI. I, sincerely, got a chill reading this. My husband (who is from St. Cloud, Minn.) was also home on 9/11 watching our 16-month-old son before I dropped him off at Mother's Day Out and went to the dentist! He and I went to eat that afternoon for lunch and noticed the hush in the dining area as we ate and watched the news channels. I stopped by the church to light a candle and say a prayer and saw my RCIA instructor. We said a few words about it. It seemed like everywhere I went that day, people were speaking like old friends. I watched it throughout my dental procedure. The hygenist would stop while we both watched. Same with the dentist. We couldn't help it. I didn't blog about it in detail because I have written about it so much. If I dug out my Zip disk, I could probably lift things I've written previously and post them. Feel free to visit my blog. You did a great job with this. Went back and read much of your blog and really enjoyed it. I added you as a link on my blog.

12:25 PM  

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