Monday, September 12, 2011

My 9/11 Story

Everyone has one. Anyone with any self-awareness can probably recount exactly when and where they were when they found out.


I found out upon entering my work that morning in Morris Plains, NJ (~30 miles West of NYC). A coworker leaned out of her cube and simply stated, "Did you hear? A plane hit one of the Twin Towers." Now, the first thing that came into my head was, A small plane? How do you accidentally hit the towers? Yeah...it was early, and really...who would have picked the actual scenario that was playing out. Was it naive? Perhaps a tad, but I'd go back to that kind of naiveté in a heartbeat.

I booted up my computer, which in those days was no quick feat. By the time I was logging in, the same coworker had shouted down the hallway that a second plane had hit and that she thought it was a terrorist attack. I scoffed at this remark. In my mind, it was more ridiculous to believe that terrorists had hijacked two planes and flown them into the towers than it was to think that somehow, two planes had "accidentally" flown into them on a crystal clear blue sky September morning.

Then, I got my computer up and running. At that time, the best I had at home was dial up. Remember that dinosaur? Anyway, you might also remember, if you were online at that time, that internet access in the tri-state area was sketchy at best. For some reason, my computer must have been at the head of the line on that floor. I was able to access MSNBC.com's front page. Nothing was working beyond that, but I was able to refresh the screen to get updated pictures. News trickled in that the Pentagon had been attacked and a small crowd was beginning to gather in my rather small 6'x8' cubicle. We ooo-ed and ahh-ed at what we saw and then someone told us to keep it down. One of our coworkers had a sister that worked in the towers and she was beginning to panic because she was unable to get ahold of her. From what we gathered, she had worked on one of the floors struck by the planes. She was my closest connection to a victim of the attacks. We watched as the photos changed and appeared to show the first tower collapsing. One of the salesmen remarked that it wasn't possible that it had collapsed and that probably only part of it had come down. If only he had been right. We heard of the plane going down in Pennsylvania, the rumors of heroic passengers already coming in. We would later learn that two of our corporate executives were on the flight out of Boston. The impossible...or perhaps only improbable to some...was happening and we all wondered aloud what would be next.

Of course, there would be no more. The damage was done. The second tower came down and we watched in dumbfounded awe. We all left work early that day. I returned home to meet my wife of one month. Just a month prior, we had taken photos of the cloud-shrouded towers on 8/12, the day our honeymoon cruise left NY harbor. I never expected to treasure those photos as much as I do today. At the time of the attacks, we were living in a small efficiency that had no cable access. We sat in the car and listened to as much news as we could handle and talked about what might happen next. We heard about shipments of supplies making their way in to the city for survivors, only to realize days later that there would be no mass of survivors found. It would be months before either of us saw anything more than still photos of that day. Months later, when we finally got a hold of a VHS of the documentary that French film crew had created, we sat down and watched it, crying on and off through most of it. We just hadn't had the chance to really come to grips with it the way video forces you to.

It's been ten years and I've recounted my tale many times. I've heard others' stories. The friends of ours who were on their own honeymoon at the time of the attacks and found out when they walked into a bar in Mexico. One of my bosses had to drive back from across the country after being on a business trip. Sad stories of parking lots full of cars whose drivers would not return to claim them. Stories of loved ones lost or someone who knew someone. It was nearly impossible, no matter where you were, or where you lived, to not be affected by what happened that day. And, I think there's a bit of a bonding moment to be had in reliving that day with others. Perhaps a bit of shared survivor's guilt. Perhaps a bit of healing too.

Someday, my son will ask me what happened that day and why. I've had ten years to think about it, and five years as a parent to prepare an answer. I'm still not sure I have one. I'd like to be able to give him a black and white answer, but like so many things in this world, it just wouldn't be realistic. Was evil perpetrated that day? Indeed it was. But, evil begets evil, and when such a deed is executed, you have to take a long hard look at what brought it about. I mean, there were people who cheered when the towers came down. What kind of oppression and tyranny have we committed, as a country or as individuals, that would cause this kind of response? I’m not sure we really know, nor do I believe we ever truly will. I’m proud to be an American and I can readily admit to being one of those people who wanted someone to blame. I wanted us to go and hunt someone down and get them back for what was done. That was ten years ago. Today, I’ve had my fill of cowboys. Shoot first, ask questions later doesn’t work and it certainly didn’t do anything to solve the original problem. If anything, it only succeeded in making it worse. When you kick men who are down, eventually, one might stand up and kick you back. So, maybe my answer to my son will be, “On September 11th, 2001, some men who felt they’d been kicked once too often kicked back and a lot of innocent people died because of it. We then entered into two wars in two countries that didn’t want us to be there and a lot of innocent people died. We then spent way too much time trying to 'make nice' and clean up the bigger mess we’d created and more innocent people died. Now I want you to understand two very important morals from this story; mind your own business and don’t kick a man when he’s down.”

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