Thursday, September 1, 2011

9/11’s tenth anniversary remembrances: Day One

Twin Towers, Apr. 15, 2001 (Galvin Costello;Wiki images)

September 1, 2011

The New Yorker is publishing the memories of its writers concerning September 11, 2001. Where they were, what they were doing, how their lives have changed since that date. Not surprisingly, the first memoir I read was by Jane Mayer, who wrote an amazing book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, that I took with me on vacation a couple of years ago, and devoured. In Key West.

I’ll grant that it is unusual to take a heavily political book on a beach vacation. But any trip to Key West, wasfor mea drinking vacation as well. Open-air bars abound, so one can amuse one’s self by getting some fresh air while lubricating one’s brain cells and watching the passing parade.

What of the rest of us, though? What of those of us who were not, like Mayer and other New Yorker writers, immersed in the middle of the seminal event of probably all of our lifetimes?

Where were we when?
I was alive when JFK was killed, and when his brother was killed. And when Martin Luther King was killed. And when the Iranian hostages were taken. And when the Berlin Wall fell. And when Russia was opened up for criminal activity not associated with the Kremlin.

September 11, 2001 was far more life-changing than any of those events, or even all of them combined. Here’s how it unfolded in my small corner of the world.


I had the habit of bathing, making breakfast and watching some of the Today show while eating. I generally turned the TV off before nine, so I could be in my home office working, or at least preparing to work, by then. That day, I needed to phone a friend about riding our horses together that afternoon.

About five after nine, I tried to call. Her office was less than 30 miles from my apartment, but I kept getting a message, “All circuits are busy.”  How odd.

A phone glitch gets serious
About 20 minutes later, I decided to call a friend who lived in the same apartment complex and leave him a message about an event coming up, as he generally left for work by 7:30 a.m.  But he answered the phone. Was he home sick?

“Didn’t you know?” he asked. “The World Trade Center has been attacked so we were sent home.”

None of that made sense. We lived in Baltimore. OK. There was a building called the World Trade Center in Baltimore, but it wasn’t THE World Trade Center, and Don worked miles and miles away from it. Why would he be sent home if that was attacked?

I couldn’t get it straight, until finally he realized what page I was on and turned to it. “No, the World Trade Center in New York.”

My knees buckled. Like all native New Yorkers, I had both loved and loathed that building. But I had to admit, when I had taken Don’s two sons to NYC a couple of years earlier, that I had loved the way the towers shimmered on a hot summer day as we rode toward them on the Staten Island Ferry. His sons had bought me an NYC shot glass for my collection; on it were the Twin Towers. I’ll have to put that away, I thought to myself, the memories of Scott and Sean and our brilliant day-trip flooding in along with the realization that as many as 50,000 people might die.

“Come on over,” Don said. “Jeffrey and I are watching the coverage and drinking coffee. There isn’t much else to do, and it’s pretty horrible. You don’t want to be watching alone.”

No, I didn’t. Don and Jeffrey were two of my best friends. It would be good to share tears with them.

As I walked through the end-of-summer breeze, under the maple trees dappling the path between my building and theirs, I thought, “Ah, it wasn’t nine o’clock yet when it happened. New Yorkers don’t go to work early. Indeed, most arrive sometime between 9:30 and 10.” New Yorkers work late in the evening, though, and they’ll work hard and work Saturdays. But they avoid morning rush hour if they can.

I was proved right. The only people in the building were building workers themselves, financial types who are there before the stock market opens and their support teams, and some restaurant workers from Windows on the World. Not a full complement in all the offices or the retail space underground. Thank goodness.

Hijackers: Ignorance or planning?
I wondered, then, if the hijackers were ignorant of New York’s working hours and thought that they’d do extensive killing, like the Oklahoma bomber did by arriving early. Or perhaps they didn’t want to kill as many as they would have killed by flying later, and so they chose early flights to hijack. The first theory held more water if they were really ignorant hijackers, hired only to wreak havoc and not for their ability to assess a culture and a target.

The latter theory held more water if whoever had organized the operation wanted more to make a statement or to change the course of history than to actually kill people.

I was leaning toward one of those conclusions as early as that first morning.

But mainly, I felt sad and oddly disconnected. Everyone felt oddly disconnected, I suspect. But my feelings of disconnection had also to do with the fact that I felt I should have been there, should have been in MY city with my peers witnessing and suffering through this worst of all global terror attacks in history. I felt I had made a cheap escape by living elsewhere, when my heart belonged in the Big Apple, my spiritual, and often my physical, home during much of my life.

New York would recover. I never doubted that. But as the day wore on, what I doubted was that any nation that had elected George W. Bush as president could deal effectively with whatever it was that had wreaked havoc that morning. By that time, it was clear to anyone with one scintilla of common sense that George W. Bush was too common to cope with a multi-faceted disaster, a fact that crystallized more profoundly later on as he failed during Katrina as well, and during the financial meltdown. 

Being kind to Bush
Using the term failed is a kindness; what I mean nowand probably had inklings of thenwas that Bush was responsible in large part for the terror attack (whether by omission or commission will be debated in some circles for decades), the ineffectualeven cruelresponse to Hurricane Katrina, and the execrable trashing of the American economy by his leadership or lack thereof until the financial meltdown and his handling of it as he left office.

Did I know all that then? I’ve been a journalist for a long, long time. My instincts were kicking in, alerted by the stench. And on the morning of September 11, 2001, there was a lot more stench in the air than that of jet fuel and crumbling glass, steel and mortar. There was a stench of negligence at best, complicity at worst. It’s a stench that lingers still, as the posturing buffoons of Bush’s dunderheaded government continue to spew their filth onto the population they served so ill.