It's been a while since I posted even an image to mention 9/11 on this blog.
I was 26 when the planes flew into the World Trade Center and Pentagon and a plane fell in Pennsylvania, headed for somewhere else. I saw online today that they now believe that plane was supposed to target the US Capitol. As devastating as it was to see the towers fall and the footage of a plane slamming into the Pentagon, I can't imagine where we'd be had that plane headed into DC airspace, let alone reached its target.
At the exact time of the crash, Jamie and I were in a hotel room in Las Vegas. She'd been laid-off, and I was still just figuring out a new job, and we were married for a year and a half.
You can't really explain to young people, without sounding naive, that in the years before 9/11, the people on the news weren't always insane, and that they used to do actual, fact-based reporting. Or that we knew our political systems was divided and a little broken, but we could agree on some list of fundamentals someone had to carry with them when they went to Washington on our behalf.
It's hard to say that didn't fall with the towers.
A lot of other things happened, then, too. It wasn't just the endless cycling of footage of burning buildings and plumes of debris and ash filling New York's avenues.
For maybe two or three weeks, politicians tried to figure it out together. I do remember them standing together on the steps of the US Capitol, even mixed together. It was a welcome sight - knowing that they'd put aside partisan nonsense.
I can tell you that twenty years ago, the casinos in Vegas stayed open, even as the airport shut down for a week and every rental car in town disappeared as people made good their escape. But, yeah, if you wanted to feel insane on 9/11, all you had to do was spend the first half of your day watching the footage and trying to sort out what was going on, then head down to the casino floor which you had to cross to get to any food. And while the machines weren't quite as packed as the day prior, and they'd turned off the TVs in the bars... it was business as usual. People laughing over drinks.
I fought the urge to grab them and shake them and ask if they didn't understand what was happening. To this day, I think it's possible many of them didn't know. They'd woken, gone down to eat and started to pay the slots and walk around. But not much changed over the following days.
In the next hours we'd come to understand what happened in well reported facts, but the fact it had happened at all made no sense.
"First responders" entered the parlance overnight as we a way to describe the hundreds of firefighters, police, EMTs and others who had run toward disaster as the buildings burned, only to witness the horror of the collapse of the towers, or be caught in it themselves.
And then the need for more emergency personnel, even as the next wave of first responders mourned their colleagues and friends.
From our Vegas hotel room over the next days we watched as recovery efforts began. This is the part people think of when they think of 9/11 and America at its best. The raising of flags over the rubble, the lines of people moving debris, people treated and triaged on the street. I remember finally crying watching a military band in England play the Star Spangled banner.
Mostly I remember the cold pit of not knowing what came next. Flights were grounded - I could see the Vegas airport from our hotel window, and it sat still and empty, and even service vehicles quit moving around after a day or so. When planes flew again, should we expect them to fly into the White House? Would they plummet into local landmarks?
Or, would a dirty bomb go off in some un-thought-of city?
I was twenty-six, and since I was thirteen, aware of the window of the age for the draft. When it came time to fill out the index-sized selective service card in the wake of the Gulf War, I'd drawn daisies and roses on mine. I had no desire to go to war for oil or abstractions. But now? The US had a standing military and we weren't so far off from the Gulf War, the arrival of stealth bombers.
I had married someone who needed me at home, any ideas of dropping my life and putting on a uniform made little to no sense with terrorists. This wasn't Japan knocking at our door or the Nazis rolling over France and into Russia. It was a few guys entering the country and overstaying their visas, taking flight lessons and living in plain sight.
We stayed in our room a lot, but couldn't just stare at each other and the news, so we got up some and walked around casinos. New York, New York was pointedly empty even as their giant marquee played a digital American flag flapping on a loop.
We got out of Vegas eventually. First day of flights, actually. Jamie's mom, who knew how to do some fast talking and flex her clout with her Platinum status with American Airlines, got us out two days or so after we were scheduled to leave. Jamie was running out of meds, and it wasn't really an option for us to just stick around in perpetuity, and I'm still amazed we made it out when we did. We still spent the night in Dallas in an airport hotel, not quite able to make it home in one sprint, but we got home.
But it was like we went into that dumb pyramid of the Luxor and exited into a different world. Overnight we went from the ease of flying and going through the kabuki of security on the way to your gate to re-entering airports now patrolled by people with heavy armor and the kind of assault rifles I realized I'd never seen in person before, only on television.
Back at work and in conversation for weeks, everyone explained how they'd identified the targets they thought maybe they lived near, and what they had done when they saw the news. A shocking number had just carried on with their day. But living in a government town with a capitol dome, a large stadium and a tower of its own, people in Austin had their reasons to feel anxious. But we mostly waited for the other shoe to drop somewhere else.
I'm not sure people still talk about anthrax, but in a window when people were glued to the news, someone started mailing envelopes stuffed with the stuff to the news bureaus of the major TV networks. Someone died. I don't think they ever figured that one out.
While we all stood up and sang The Star Spangled Banner, those partisan differences were shelved and a set of laws no one thought through were passed that screamed "we're scared shitless and don't know what to do", and they called it The Patriot Act. We identified the attackers as Saudis, and turned our attention to Afghanistan. We did ourselves a lot of damage at first - killing an NFL player turned soldier in the process, and missed Bin Laden by a few hours due to one error another. That's not a knock on the military - it's Afghanistan. It was always going to be a nightmare. I figured we'd learned from the Russians and we'd be in and out in 6 months. Instead, we had our longest sustained war in American history, which the public completely forgot about until we pulled out 20 years later.
I had friends who were in New York. An attorney who connected subways at the WTC and was running late that day and so wasn't there when the planes hit. Another who was there at a film academy. Others in Brooklyn. I couldn't imagine. I can't. I can only remember the numb feeling of sitting in America's Sodom and Gomorrah with its endless sea of strangers and targets, with no way to get out except on foot.
What I do remember is that people were incredibly kind at the airport and we applauded when our flight into Dallas landed. And again into Austin in the morning. You forget that people can pull together and show decency and amity.
I've seen online that we're to extend grace to others and think positive thoughts about our fellow countrymen on 9/11. But I can't. I remember a few weeks of believing in people, and then the exploitation for political gain and profit, and the start of two wars under the theory we'd "fight them there instead of over here". We were told to never forget, like the orphans and survivors of those wars wouldn't do the same. The phrase was used as a bludgeon to cow Americans into accepting invasions on their privacy and liberty and Congress voted for those wars over and over.
And, of course, 9/11 started a market for panic and doomsday sayers. People bought survival kits and were buying plastic to seal up their houses. And, of course, the attacks on anyone not-white in the US went on the rise.
In the coming months, we'd pick up and move to Phoenix, just to add to the chaos of what would begin and continue for the next twenty years. From there, I watched as someone at a podium ginned up a new term in Weapons of Mass Destruction, WMDs, and said they must be in Iraq, and a bunch of guys finally got their war with Saddam Hussein, who at least one of my co-workers thought was the same person as Bin Laden. I saw my first pro-war rally outside my office.
It's harder to pinpoint when the cable news orgs de-camped to specific political points of view and CNN gave up on the objectivity that had been the hallmark of its first decade or so. Fox had shown up strong during the 2020 elections, and used the events and aftermath of 9/11 as a wedge issue in clumsy propaganda-speak, and appealed to hawks. I'm not sure if that's when they took to placing CGI flags flapping behind their anchors, but it certainly was occurring during that 2001-2003 window.
It seems impossible for Americans to connect the dots of how these things ever happened. Drawing them a picture from World War I to World War II and the re-engineering of the Middle-East as we simultaneously fell into a Cold War fought by proxies is maybe too much and too abstract. We never pursued and rooted out the forces that convinced young Saudi men to immigrate to the United States and launch attacks at us from our own soil. Eventually we killed an old man with a reportedly extensive pornography and Disney film collection who a bunch of dumb-dumbs had reason to believe was full of good ideas, reflecting their anger back to them in political and religious frameworks.
But not knowing isn't helpful and it doesn't excuse anything. Magical thinking about the United States as God's right hand enforcing His will upon the peoples of the world (and expecting no resentment) is no more or less the thinking of anyone with imperial intent. And its driven American policy for a long time.
The attacks of 9/11 can and will happen again. I'm somewhat surprised they haven't happened again. Not just from outside assailants. We were only a few years from the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing in 2001. But because there weren't a million cameras pointed at that building, and the drama didn't unfold in real time on our televisions, it became abstracted, we found a bad guy and we killed him for what he did, not paying all that much attention to why. Just labeled him a madman and moved on.
So. When they say "Remember 9/11", I don't know what they mean. I remember the heroism of the First Responders and the everyday people who helped one another. I remember people died horribly at the hands of people who did not know them. I remember anger, fear and uncertainty. And the comfort of seeing the nation seem to pull together for a minute.
But I also remember the 10,000 steps that got us there and the 10,000 we've taken since, far too few of which sought to ensure it never happen again and many more which have ensure it will.
I'm grateful for the people who rushed toward hell opening up before them. I wish I could say I'd have the courage to do same. And I'm grateful that 9/11 was, really, a small group of fanatics acting far more alone than they knew, and the brave passengers of United 93 who stood up and saved untold lives.
But I also want to show my thanks by considering how 9/11 happened, and that we can't separate out what we do as a nation and how others will respond. We can't just have warm thoughts of gratitude to firefighters and police. As much as we supposedly think before putting our troops lives on the line, so, too, should we remember those who were just there for a work shift of helping their fellow New Yorkers or Pennsylvanians or Virginians on 9/11, who died on that day or after from their participation in the recovery. It all matters. Someone is going to want to hit back when we make bad decisions.
There will always be people who are going to be furious with these kinds of sentiments. I get that. It was an attack on American soil, and now you're justified to respond in kind. I don't necessarily disagree. But what I've watched in my adult life, of the disintegration of how we look at each other, of who a real American is, and with our love of conspiracy to explain away the obvious and factual - ending in a band of morons rushing the US Capitol in January of 2021, of refusing a life-saving vaccine and holding a country hostage, has a straight line from how we thought of how to respond to the horrors of a single day.
As per usual, insightful and well said.
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