Today is the fourth anniversary of 9/11.
In general I tried to avoid TV news coverage. But I was channel surfing before going to bed and got sucked into a documentary about Flight 93, the one that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. It was interviews with the family members, and a re-enactment of people on the plane as they made phone calls to their loved ones. Or to their loved ones answering machines. The audio of the actual calls was played over the picture of an actor miming the call. It was creepy.
I never wrote about 9/11 directly. In some ways, it’s just to big to really be rationally considered. Its impact is so profound as to discourage analysis. It was an event whose massive trauma remains barely concealed. Just watching that snippet of TV show was enough to bring tears. It almost seems foolish to say anything at all.
On the first anniversary of 9/11 I took a day off from work. I watched the entire procession down the ramp into the pit of Ground Zero. I listened to almost all of the ceremony. I couldn’t listen to all the names. I was went back to work feeling like I had been to a funeral in my living room.
The next year I didn’t feel it was necessary to do the same. Time heals, or at least dulls the pain, and I always believed that the best way to honor the dead was to live. Not as if nothing had happened, but in a way that showed that we would not be forever stricken immobile by the past.
* * *
I was in Midtown on September 11, 2001. My entire group, about eleven people, half of whom came from the Netherlands, had convened for the first time to get together and plot out our strategy for the new department. It was exciting, a world of possibilities. We were in a conference room at a hotel around 53rd and Lexington.
Around 9am a few cell phones went off. Each was hastily turned off with an apology from the owner. I was one of them. Eventually though our HR manager got a message from our Spring St. office: a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
We all thought it was a minor thing. A prop plane probably. No one said the word “jet liner” or “Boeing” or anything else. We continued with the meeting. About twenty minutes later the HR manager came back in and said that we needed to adjourn the meeting and go into the lobby, another plane had struck the Twin Towers and they were both on fire. The enormity of it started to become real.
We walked down to the lobby. It was full of people. They were all watching the TV screens. On TV the Twin Towers burned. They billowed black smoke like factory chimneys. And then we understood.
We watched TV, not knowing what to expect. No one knew anything. Then another TV that was playing CNN showed pictures of a burning Pentagon. It was difficult to know what was going on. The sound was turned up but the local TV channel that was being shown didn’t have much news.
Then the first tower came down. There was a gasp from the crowd in the lobby. A few sobs. “Oh my god. Oh my god.” It was terrible. My colleague Jack estimated that there could be 10,000 people in each tower. How many had gotten out? We didn’t know. For all we knew, we had just seen the death of ten thousand people.
I walked outside. It was a beautiful sunny day. Just a little warm. The kind of day you see from your office and wish to be outside for. And I had just seen ten thousand people die.
And then I heard laughter. Some women coming from across the street were laughing. They were laughing. What the hell was wrong with them? How could they laugh when not a mile away thousands of people had just perished. And then it hit me. They didn’t know. There were people all around me walking on the streets of New York who didn’t know that their countrymen were being murdered en masse.
How could they not know?
I turned my head and looked down Lexington Avenue. Although it was far away, there was a towering cloud of dust rising over downtown Manhattan. It looked soft and dirty, and in hung in the air as if it had no intention of ever coming down.
I went back inside. And saw the second tower fall. And suddenly my world just lost its moorings. I told my boss that I was going to walk to my Aunt’s place on the Upper East Side. I can’t remember what he said. I got my stuff and started walking.
I walked north. I didn’t get very far. I saw a group of people huddled around a truck that was pulled over to the side of the street. The driver had turned his radio all the way up and opened the doors and people were standing around listening to the news.
I stood there, because at least there, in that group of strangers listening to a truck radio, I belonged. But after a few minutes I realized that there was nothing coming from the radio that would change the fact that the Twin Towers of New York had been reduced to dust and rubble. So I left.
I walked north to my Aunt’s street, thirty blocks away. She wasn’t in. I couldn’t get a cell phone circuit to call her. I decided to wait. I went into a sushi bar and ordered lunch. I detested myself for sitting in a sushi bar and ordering food. I was the only customer. And I think I was a little out of my mind.
The owner had a little black and white TV that was broadcasting more useless news. The Towers were still rubble. I continued to try and believe it as I ate sushi and watched the news. When I was done, I left. Besides the order, and the amount I needed to pay, neither of us said a word. What was there to say?
I walked to Central Park. But it was wrong. It was obscene. If you sat down in Central Park and turned your face to the sun and listened to the wind in the trees you wouldn’t even know that thousands of people had died. That such a place could exist in the world was just wrong. I kept walking.
Eventually I heard that they were beginning to let trains run out of Penn Station. I walked there as fast as I could. Apparently the news was still circulating, because when I got there it was not the mob scene I expected. They called a Trenton train and I rushed with the other New Jerseyians to get out of Manhattan. I sat on an aisle seat. They held the train until every inch of space was packed with people. Then it pulled out of the station. The train was full of people, and silence.
Once we got out of the tunnel, and passed that psychological barrier between chaotic death and the tranquility of the west bank of the Hudson river, people started to talk. I looked across the aisle and saw that the man sitting down on the other side was covered head to toe in dust. He was completely grey. He had wiped his face, but his clothes were saturated. He wore glasses and carried a briefcase.
He told someone next to him that he had been in one of the towers. That they had at first been told to stay at their desks. Then they were told later to evacuate the building. They were on their way down the narrow stairs when their building was hit. He escaped death that day. But he saw many people who could not walk and were waiting for someone to come and help them down. They probably did not escape.
I wanted to ask that man a thousand questions. But I couldn’t. Not a single thing I could ask would change anything of what I knew. The towers were still rubble.
I don’t remember how I got home that day. I was living in Bank Street at the time, so it’s possible I took the Dinky to Princeton and then walked. I remember Ann was so happy and talkative that I was alright. She didn’t really think I was in danger, but she couldn’t get through.
We sat and watched CNN all night. As it got dark another building collapsed. Ground Zero was a smoldering, glowering ember. We saw on TV the people lined up on the streets to cheer the rescue workers as they marched into and out of the devastated area. It immediately made me cry. There were people lined up on the streets who could do nothing to help, but they wanted to do something, so they cheered for the ones who had to walk on the smoking heaps of rubble picking up body parts. God bless those people. All of them.
At some point it simply became too much and we had to turn it off.
I went to bed that night knowing that most of the people in the towers escaped, and knowing that the death toll at the Pentagon was relatively light. The tragedy was not as bad as it easily could have been. But it was still difficult to sleep, thinking that less than a mile from me nearly three thousand people had been murdered in a single act of hatred and lunacy.
It was two or three days before we were able to go back to our office on Spring street. When we did, it was exactly the same. But completely different. Just like everything else in the world.
In that one day, in those few hours, the world changed.
* * *
I didn’t go to ground Zero for almost two years. I just didn’t want to see it. I didn’t think I was strong enough, and I didn’t want to find out. The only time I did go was by chance, when I was in the area and walking by. It looked like a massive construction site. Except for the fence, and the tributes, and the hawkers selling Twin Tower memorabilia, you might even mistake it for just another development project. But it’s a grave. It’s a crime scene. It’s the site of the largest murder in the history of the United States.
The last thing I want to say about 9/11 has to do with Afghanistan.
Almost immediately after that day the speculation began to rise that Osama bin Laden was behind 9/11. Subsequent evidence strengthened that belief. The idiot Taliban played a little dance for as long as they could around the issue, and much of it was broadcast for us in condensed spoonfuls in the news.
In October my dad got two tickets to an Eagles game. I have only been to three football games with my father, so I was really excited at the opportunity. Just before the game started the jumbo screen over the field was suddenly turned to Fox News and the sound of President Bush addressing the nation was piped over the loudspeakers. It was a bit difficult to hear, but you could clearly make out President Bush saying that on such and such a time he had ordered such and such military forces to invade Afghanistan.
There was cheering throughout the stadium.
My father and I though, were silent. I don’t know exactly what my father’s reasons for silence were. I like to think that as a man in his late sixties, having seen his country engage in many a foreign war, he knew better than to cheer the imminent death of both Afghan and US people. But you’d have to ask him.
I was silent because although I agreed whole-heartedly with the decision, I knew that in the end it only meant more killing. Yes, it would be killing the name of justice. It would be the righteous wrath of a country who had been sucker-punched in the face by nineteen guys with box cutters. And if Osama bin Laden and his lunatic henchmen should meet the business end of an M-16 or 2,000 pound bomb, my heart would rejoice. But going to war just didn’t seem something you should cheer for. People die in wars. On both sides. And not just the soldiers.
Today is the fourth anniversary of 9/11. And, to our knowledge, Osama bin Laden remains alive.
The United States never sent more than 10,000 soldiers into Afghanistan, accomplishing its political objectives with a minimum force level and a proxy army called the Northern Alliance. Instead, we sent over 130,000 troops to engage in a bloody occupation of Iraq, a country who had nothing to do with 9/11.
Saddam Hussein is safely in custody.
Osama bin Laden may die of old age or natural causes.
Perhaps on the next anniversary of 9/11 it will be different.