Sunday, September 11, 2011

... As If We Could Ever Forget

I'm not sure it's possible for anyone who remembers September 11, 2001, to forget. It's still to fresh in our minds. There have been a handful of events in my life where I remember exactly what I was doing when they happened: JFK's assassination; the announcement on national TV by Howard Cosell that John Lennon had been shot; the explosion of the Challenger shuttle; and 9/11.

This isn't to grade the events by significance. Obviously the mass slaughter of 3,000 innocent people carries more weight than the gunning down of one person, even if he was an icon to people of my era. But these events, regardless of their significance in the overall big picture, are indelibly etched into my brain as four moments when the sheer horror of what I was hearing, seeing, and -- even if vicariously -- experiencing left me speechless.

I was only 10 when JFK was shot, and being that young, I didn't understand the big picture. All I knew was that the president was dead. There was no real big picture with Lennon and the Challenger. They were enormous tragedies to be sure, but their context was limited to the visceral reaction to their occurrences. There were no long-term ramification to Lennon's death that went beyond the tragically-enough knowledge that an important voice in our lives had been silenced needlessly and senselessly.

Sept. 11, 2001, was different. I'm not even sure, 10 years later, that the big picture has totally emerged. It's as if someone thrust an extremely difficult, obtuse Rorschach Test on us and demanded, on the spot, that we interpret it. There were so many ways to go, the real question, back on that day, was "where do you begin?"

At the beginning, of course. Strip away all those questions and you have the initial shock of watching it unfold. And on that day, as well as the few days and weeks that followed, I submit that it was impossible to do any kind of critical analysis about lessons we may have learned from it, or the reasons it happened, or the geopolitical implications of it. It was enough simply to digest the horror.

We may have thought we could do it, but looking back, it was unrealistic to think that, as a nation, we could have come up with a suitable response. And I think that's one of the faults of the American psyche: that we want these solutions now ... chop! chop! He who waits somehow waffles.

That kind of shock takes months to absorb. We woke up on Sept. 11, 2001, worrying about how much gasoline cost. And on the east coast, we had a plethora of shark attacks off the coast that dominated the news. Congressman Gary Condit was embroiled in the scandal surrounding Chandra Levy. The Red Sox had already begun their annual September decline (which, I'm happy to report, continues to be a trend in 2011).

Myself, I was recovering from blood poisoning and was still home, recuperating from a recent hospital stay. At 9 a.m. every day, on one of the local cable TV stations, I watched reruns of the old Perry Mason TV show. I set my body clock to them.

I believe it was about 8:57 when I checked into the Today Show on NBC ... just in time to hear that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Oh, God, I thought. What kind of a stupid, idiotic pilot can't steer a plane away from two buildings that stick out like buck teeth in reverse on the southern tip of Manhattan?

I was curious to see what fool had done this ... and how much damaged he caused. I assumed it was a "he," at least.

When I saw, it was instant disbelief. This was no single-engine prop job ... not from the looks of that fire. And again, not being able to put two and two together adequately, I could think of was "oh, no, people are going to die because some pilot, or some air traffic controller, screwed the pooch. Heads are going to roll!

Then ...

It was right there before my eyes. I saw the plane come into the picture, and I remember saying to myself, "wouldn't you think they'd have rerouted air traffic away from that area until they could figure out how a plane could be steered so tragically wrong?"

Then, I saw the explosion. And that that point, there was no doubt. No ambiguity. My son was standing there, watching with me, and I said -- I know, the ultimate "d'uh" moment -- "you know what this is, don't you? This is a terrorist attack. Somebody's grabbed these airplanes and they're flying them all into buildings."

It wasn't long afterward that we'd learned that both of the planes that hit the towers took off from Boston. And again, in these moments, you don't have a filter. I didn't think of whether MassPort was incompetent. All I could think of was that Logan Airport is only about six or seven miles as the crow flies from my house, and that my wife worked in a building that was literally right across the Boston Harbor from the control tower.

Part of me knew that whatever nuts had hijacked these planes and caused this much carnage were dead ... but there was another part of me that felt as if they were right next door to me. Those are the things that creep into your mind when these things happen. Rationality is out of the question.

The rest of the day was a blur. My wife's office evacuated, and she ended up taking a cab home from Boston because the subway line that runs past the airport -- the one she took to get to and from work -- had been shut down. We just sat and watch events unfold, from rumors that a truck bomb had blown up across from the state department, to the tragedy at the Pentagon, to the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA ... all of it ... to watching the towers collapse. And do you know what the first rational thought I had was? It was that, my God, the world just got much, much smaller.

I also remembered what a priest from my parish said to me after the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995. He said that there was no way on earth anyone could possibly justify such indiscriminate murder. It was horrible enough that 3,000-plus people died. That it was so random, and indiscriminate, and that it was perpetrated not by a natural event, or an accident, but a massive conspiracy, was unspeakable.

Americans had always thought we were impervious to this kind of an assault. We've probably fought more wars (if you were to take a ratio of the age of the nation to the wars it has fought) than almost any other country on the planet. Yet it hadn't been since Pearl Harbor (and technically at the time Hawaii was not a U.S. state but but merely a territory) that any of the battles were fought on U.S. soil. Before Pearl Harbor, you had to go all the way back to the Civil War to find similar carnage.

And as events continued to unfold, and we heard that these terrorists who had been training right in front of our noses had done this to us ... that just added insult to the horror. Unknowingly, we were complicit in this (and I say this only in the loosest sense possible; this type of attack wasn't uppermost on anyone's mind).

So far, the theme here has been that the shock of seeing this happen, and experiencing the loss of people you knew, prevented us from thinking rationally. Before you can do that, you have to absorb the impact. If someone hits you in the stomach hard enough, you probably have to wait until you can breathe again before you worry about hitting him back.

There's no point in rehashing all the things that happened once we got our feet out from under us. Because by then, we'd moved past the initial shock and grief and into the realm of the political. I won't say I agreed with everything the U.S. did in response to 9/11, but I won't say I disagreed with it all either. And that's fine. I don't trust people who acquiesce on issues simply because that's what the party line dictates. Each situation has its unique solution, and if you tie yourself down to the same ideology and dogma every time, you do nothing but rob yourself of the opportunity to arrive at a truly measured, creative response. Sad to say, it doesn't appear as if many of my countrymen feel the same way on that.

Ten years later, my initial cogent reaction is still my strongest: This is a much, much smaller world than it used to be. You'd have to see that if a group as nomadic as Al Qaida could inflict as much damage on the U.S. as it did. Advances in communication and technology have made this a world as small, figuratively, as the state of Rhode Island.

The internet is a double-edged sword. One of its assets is anonymity, which is also one of its evils. All you need to do is go on any one of a number of hate sites to see that people who don't have to use their names to spew invective and vitriol can be pretty damn brave.

There are more shades of gray now than there ever were. There's ambiguity in everything. There are no absolutes ... or damn few, anyway. One man's hero is another man's villain. It all depends on your perspective.

Ten years and one day ago, we were oblivious to a lot of these feelings. Whether we should ever have been so naive, or so oblivious is another story entirely. But we were.

As the day segued into night ... and further segued back into Sept. 12, 2001, all I could think of was the final line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner:" "A sadder but a wiser man, I 'rose the morrow morn."

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