Then the other plane hit.
Immediately, I knew the nation was under attack, and I had a good idea of who did it. However, I reserved judgement and remembered the wild speculation following the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Having worked for a newspaper just out of college, I recognized that all the jabber being generated and broadcast instantly around the world into living rooms, offices and commuter radios was just that – jabber.
Real information has to be sifted from the sheer speculation, and the spontaneous game of “telephone” that kicks into high gear when big events happen made it very difficult. A comment by someone, who heard from another anonymous someone at the scene that this or that happened gets magnified by the broadcast media and internet. America is still living with a subculture of conspiracy theorists who base many of their wild narratives on the rumors and ill-informed statements from that morning.
That morning, surfing the web and listening to the radio is a frustrating exercise, with few verifiable facts and a lot of talking heads.
A little later, we learn that another plane has hit the Pentagon. Immediate sadness and concern washes over me. I grew up in a military family, and suburban Maryland and Virginia houses a huge military population. Thousands make the commute to the Pentagon in congested Metro-DC traffic on a daily basis. I hope that I don’t know anyone who has been killed or injured.
News filters in that flights are being directed to the nearest airports to land, and America has become a no fly zone.
Then we hear that there is another plane that is not responding to radio communication — and it is heading for Washington, DC.
I convince my boss at the time to call headquarters and see if we would be allowed to go home. I work for a telecom company in an office a few hundred yards away from the National Security Agency near Fort Meade, Maryland. There’s a major airport not far away, and the skies are regularly crisscrossed by the contrails of airliners serving BWI which is situated just south of Baltimore, Dulles, west of Washington, DC in Virginia and National Airport, right on the Potomac River.
He makes the call. We all disperse to go home.
I step out into a clear, cool, gorgeous day. It is surreal. The sky is a brilliant light blue, and everything is quiet. Most strikingly, there are no planes in the sky — anywhere. I make the 30 minute drive home listening to the radio and calling my wife to see if our mutual friend is okay. She is. She is actually in Maryland visiting her mother. We later learn that everyone in her store made it out okay.
When I get home, I watch the television, and see the images of the people leaping out of the burning buildings, almost lost against the impossibly immense sides of the towers. A mix of emotions flashes through me — pain, anger, resignation, deep sorrow. My instinct is to withdraw emotionally and try to dispassionately decipher what it all means. It doesn’t work completely. I manage to anesthetize myself a little, but the human tragedy is too much.
When the footage of the towers collapsing (seemingly in slow motion due to the almost unimaginable scale) comes across the screen, I am at a complete loss. Oddly, the thought that goes through my mind is that I will never be able to go up to the observation level and press my forehead against the glass again. I remember doing this watching helicopters flying below me as the tip of Manhattan stretched out around me.
I don’t remember what I did for the rest of the day. Likely I watched the television and surfed the infuriating web (I had dialup then) looking for details until I couldn’t do it anymore.
In the days following the attack, I kept looking for something to do. Some activity or program that could make this right.
There was a brief flash of unity in America and the world. The stage was set. The stars were aligned. The opportunity was there.
World leaders sent messages of support, willing to put aside their animosity toward the Bush Administration and mobilize to bring the fight to the people who committed this atrocity.
Although I hated George W. Bush with a partisan passion, I looked to him, our president, for leadership and direction. I really did. I wanted him to bring the bitterly divided country together to move forward against our real enemies and to build an international alliance to keep this from ever happening again.
He didn’t do this.
I was ready to roll up my sleeves and make some sacrifices to get the perpetrators. I wanted to hear of a plan to coordinate with our allies to root out the terrorists and show the people of the world what the might of American can do.
I heard the experts pleading with the Administration to cut off the terrorists’ recruiting base by demonstrating American benevolence. Build schools and infrastructure where they are needed, provide medical and agricultural assistance.
Step after step, Bush and his neocon allies showed what 9/11/01 meant to them. Opportunity for revenge and wealth.
The Administration rebuffed offers of help and insulted the world leaders who disagreed with the notion of a preemptive strike on countries based on flimsy (and as it turns out, non-existent) evidence.
Now we are almost a decade away from that terrible day, mired in two intractable wars with a wrecked economy, a bitterly divided electorate
The view of America around the world is of a nation of not-so-intelligent cowboys who shoot first and ask questions later.
We have gone from being the good guys pictured in every World War II movie to the burgeoning military machine that kidnaps and tortures people — assigning some to concentration camps with no due process.
I love America, and what it stands for — religious tolerance (although I am atheist), equality under the law, freedom of speech, and opportunity.
I am deeply saddened and angry that these values and goals seem lost in many American’s anger and resentment, and their downright ignorance of the principles this nation is build on.
I know there are many who disagree with me on what these things mean and how they play out in reality, and that’s fine. I am more than willing to discuss these issues and have a dialogue with people who adamantly oppose what I believe.
That doesn’t mean that I accept that intolerance and violence against a religion or it’s practitioners is in any way supported by the Constitution.
The rancor over issues surrounding 9/11/01, has been played out in outbursts by nut cases like Pat Robertson and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell — who blamed gays and the ACLU for the attacks–or the current uproar over the Muslim center in New York or the burning of the Koran in Florida.
TV clown Glenn Beck and half-term former Alaska governor Sarah Palin are holding a sold-out extravaganza in Anchorage (ticket price: $75-$225). They state the date is a coincidence. Uh-huh.
These folks have co-opted the events of that September morning for their own political or financial agenda. They invoke 9/11 to provide cover for some of the most anti-American sentiments and actions imaginable, or are trying to make a buck.
They have the right to say and do all of these things, but they do not have the right to do so without criticism — and I offer plenty.
In contrast, I plan to remember that horrible day with a simple commemoration.
I will light a single candle tonight and remember the lives lost. I think that’s appropriate.
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