Monday, September 11, 2006I haven't a great deal to add to the flurry of 9-11 anniversary blog posts this morning, besides the thought that I had a hard time listening to an September 11th audiomontage on NPR this morning: we will always mourn the immense human cost of that day, and the more personalized these accounts are, the more deeply we can empathize and relate to the families and survivors of those tragic events.
That said, I'm troubled by the growing mainstream sensationalism, commercialization, and political co-opting of 9-11 - from both sides of the aisle, sadly - which neither serves to protect our present or our future, nor the memory of the dead. Two good retrospectives from rather different viewpoints: Salon.com's "Forbidden Thoughts About 9/11" and Slate's "Blogging 9/11," a sobering and fascinating look back at the Internet's reactions shortly after the attacks.
09-11-02 One Year After
[Note: this column originally appeared in Unzen Koans on September 11th, 2002.]
Is it possible that 365 days have come and gone? It seems like that fateful morning happened just yesterday. As I look around me almost every superficial detail of life appears the same as before, but underneath, something has been profoundly altered.
As a small child in the early 1970’s, I would often get a chuckle when adults would reminisce about where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or when Pearl Harbor was attacked. I had no clue what it was like to remember such a watershed event in retrospect; I thought the biggest event that had happened in my lifetime was the breakup of the Beatles. It’s now a faded memory from a Manhattan hotel room, a grainy black-and-white television picture seen from knee-high. Video footage of the Beatles’ final performance in the spring of 1970 will remain the first major media ‘tragedy’ imprinted in my mind.
Isn’t it strange how political upheavals have little importance in a child’s mind? I barely remember anything on TV from Watergate, and I’m ashamed to say I barely recall John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981 although I was 13 at the time. There must have been more pressing insular matters at hand, like anxieties over school and the latest hit music. So, my biggest memories of the 70s and 80s are the Beatles’ demise, the Nixon-Ford era recession (although I did not know what recession meant at the time; I just knew our family suddenly didn’t have much money), the first gasoline crisis, the US Bicentennial, the other gas crisis and the ‘Disco Sucks’ era (propitiously well-timed), and the final loss of Reagan era innocence – the assassination of John Lennon.
This first anniversary of September 11th makes me stop to take pause, to think. I have had the luxury of having mainly the small vicissitudes of a human life touch my experience, and many in a vicarious way at that. I am part of the TV Generation, who watched the world happen through a glowing glass window. I believe I was born into a good time, and in a good place. So many others like myself are truly lucky in that way, and for that I am grateful.
So, what do I fear?
I mostly fear the pedestrian daily fears of the middle-class. I fear being in a car or train accident. Not having a job. Falling ill to an unknown sickness, or having a loved do so. I fear accidentally being the wrong place at the wrong time and falling victim to a random crime. I try not to fear for things I have no control over, like being crushed by steel scaffolding plunging dozens of stories from a skyscraper while I pass beneath; but these things do happen sometimes. Even in my town. Look at the words: so much about fear is about falling. At 9:00am on September 11th of 2001, those same everyday thoughts of fear might have crossed the minds of people inside the World Trade Center, as well as everyone else across the country.
As we were driving south on Lake Shore Drive the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, all was normal except for a strange, low-grade sense of anxiety and foreboding. Nothing had knowingly happened to cause the feeling, we just acknowledged it and continued sipping our Starbucks™ coffees and watching the bumpers ahead in busy morning commuter traffic. The first signal that something was wrong that day was when we heard the squeal of braking tires, and crashes in quick succession off to our right: three cars had rear-ended each other like falling dominoes. The time was about 8:30am Central time, 9:30am on the East Coast.
Had we been listening to the radio at the time, we might have heard the first news reports of a plane crashing into the WTC. After being dropped off, my partner tuned in Mancow Muller’s Chicago morning radio show and heard some talk of the World Trade Center being hit by a plane. If you’re not familiar with that show, let’s just say it’s the type of ‘morning zoo’ where this kind of story just might fly as an elaborate War-of-the-Worlds-like hoax – so it’s not surprising that Mancow’s co-hosts (and probably most people tuning in) thought he was pulling their legs. It wasn’t until I walked into the office at the University of Chicago that a co-worker broke the news. “Have you heard? A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.” At first, we all assumed the crash was accidental, “it had to happen someday”, “law of averages”, and all that. I turned on the small boom-box radio on my desk, and tried to tune in the classical station - but everywhere only the unimaginable breaking news.
A second plane had struck, so this was no accident.
Minutes later, breathless announcers reported that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Then the plane crash in Pennsylvania. I had never heard such a combination of intense excitement, horror and genuine anxiety in a newsperson’s voice as I did that day. This was an intentional, multi-pronged attack - far bigger that the Oklahoma bombing - and it was working its way westward. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the Sears Tower was only a few miles away, and a moment of panic struck me as I realized I could shortly be in the middle of a nightmarish urban war zone.
Basic survival kicked in while I worked and listened to the blow-by-blow on the radio, as the twin towers fell: it was quite unreal. Or, at least it felt unreal because I had never been in the time/space of such a disaster – descriptions of the jumpers falling to their deaths by ones and twos, holding hands for the oh-so-brief rest of their lives. But the sounds and images that probably affected me the most from 9/11 were the reports of how people trapped in the burning towers and in the doomed planes managed to get a final message across to loved ones before dying. If you are still not convinced that technologies like the cellular phone or instant messaging have drastically changed our world, consider that never before in history could ‘last words’ have been communicated over great distances with such immediacy. I can’t imagine either the agony of speaking to a loved one knowing I only had minutes to live – or of being on the receiving end impotently hearing last words through the ether, incapable of doing anything at all.
My partner and I were in communication every few minutes on the cell phone to keep track of our whereabouts, since phone service was cut off to most parts of the city. We were lucky; we did not personally know anyone who died in the disaster. Not so my partner’s cousin who lives in northern New Jersey, for whom 9/11 was an entirely different and much more personal matter. She works at a large insurance firm in Metropark-Iselin, NJ, and the burning towers and plume of debris from the WTC site were not images on television or descriptions on the radio, but rather a very real scene visible from her office window. She told us how everyone on the floor piled up to the windows to watch the fire and destruction in real time, while it simulcast on television, internet and radio in the myriad cubicles. Because of her line of work, she knew dozens - perhaps hundreds – of the dead.
No, I don’t spend every waking moment with a new fear of a terrorist attack; that’s more of a peripheral thought process, awakened by looking at news on the web, in magazines and in the papers, or on TV. Perhaps that’s why that except for playing DVD’s and videos, the tube just never comes on in our house. We don’t watch TV any more. We did not make any declaration or vow to not to watch television, it just sort of happened over time. Maybe because there’s just too much bad news out there to have it Technicolor-force-fed to us at the end of the workday.
Was the World Trade Center attack a ‘disaster’? After 9/11 my personal definition of the word has changed. Consider that the ancient root of the word ‘disaster’ means ‘ill-starred’, or ill fated. Things like floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and cancer are ‘disasters’, but the attack on 9/11 was no disaster in the sense that it was no accident, no act of God or Nature, no force majeure.
It was an outrage. A crime. Plain and simple mass murder. We have now tasted some the horror that London, Paris, Hiroshima and Warsaw once felt; that Kosovo, the West Bank and Jerusalem feel today – some of us through the glowing glass window, some of us have touched it with our bare hands and seen it with our own eyes. The rest of the world’s troubles had arrived at our shores; not merely like a bullet or missile, but from within, like a cancer.
Life goes on. We live, work, travel and play as always; but now, there is a shadow under the door – and I want to take time to look at the sun, the moon and the stars even more.