September 10, 2021

What I Was Doing on 9/11/01

The 20th anniversary of 9/11/01. Hard to believe. 

The week before, I was living in the 1700s by reading David McCullough’s “John Adams” and learning that Jefferson hardly said a word during the Second Continental Congress while Adams never shut up, one seeking to avoid conflict at all times in delicious detachment, the other embracing conflict as if it were his birthright…


I doodled some poetry in my journal: 


dust skies

of potent portent

hold clouds of God’s beard

through which the moon rays

twinkle like gauzy diamonds.


I read an editorial in the diocesan newspaper that suggested that instead of getting angry with non-Catholics, one should realize that just as its impossible to love your neighbor without loving yourself first, so it is impossible to respect your neighbor’s religious views before loving your own religion.  

Ironic, I guess, to read that on the eve of 9/11.  Then came the day itself.  From my journal:


A beautiful crystal-clear day began with a meeting in the Auditorium.  I always looked forward to meetings there, with the plush comfortable chairs and the sweet anonymity a large venue affords.  It was scheduled from 9:30-11:30 and I'd planned to get in some reading.  The online version of the New York Times has links to the first chapters of literally thousands of books. The dullness of the meeting caused even my boss to appear to nod off, so I became engrossed in RFK's last moments.  I remember being surprised that an Arab was responsible for his death.   I knew it was Sirhan Sirhan but just thought of him as a crazed assassin, not one with possibly a political agenda.  I thought about the current violence in Jerusalem.

Soon after I finished the last page, the Q&A session began.  The guy in charge was unhappy there were so few questions.   I was sitting in the back row and noticed that  Matt, the sharp actuary had left and now returned.  That seemed a bit odd, since no one ever gets up to use the restroom during these meetings  (usually because it would disturb their sleep).  But he had left and come back and now seemed a little jumpy.   Meanwhile, the guy on stage showed an admirable toleration for long moments of silence.  The "dead air" didn't seem to bother him in the least.  Finally he remarked that he would have to plant a few more questions next time.  At this point Matt walked down to the front of the stage, very odd behavior indeed, and appeared to hand Phil a piece of paper and whispered something in his ear.  Phil,  at around 10:30, gave him the microphone and said, "tell them".  

Matt said this is going to sound like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, but two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center and another one into the Pentagon.   Suddenly there was the image of the World Trade Centers burning on the wide-screen behind the stage, as if we wouldn't have believed him had he not arranged for it to be shown.   It looked as surreal as a Godzilla movie.  Phil immediately told us to go and we headed to our desks shocked and alert.  We dove for the internet, but it was impossibly slow.   Everyone in the country was hitting those servers.,,, - all no good.   Finally we got into  Thirsting for news, I found my walkman and listened to NPR.   My wife, on a business trip in Orlanda, called with a tight, uncomfortable voice and we discussed how she could get home given that all U.S. air travel was halted, apparently for awhile. I called my mom.  

The feeling in those first moments was most of all pure surprise - surprise that those permanent buildings could fall so completely.   Surprise at the catastrophic loss of life - we knew almost instantly from news reports that the buildings probably had 20,000 people in them at the time of the attack and we could do the math.   Just one second of silence for each victim would result in an hour and a half of silence.  The cumulative loss of life-years would probably total over 150,000.   I was also surprised at the seriousness and ingenuity of the terrorists.   I'd always thought of them as fanatical annoyances,  a cost of modern life in that every five years or so they would blow something up and cost the lives of soldiers or occasionally civilians.  And sadly, the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 didn't seem to register much for me.  It was sad and tragic but life isn't risk-free and terrorists can't really be controlled anyway or so I thought.   But this was so breathtakingly over-the-top.   This went beyond the normal risk of life and was an obvious act of war.  I couldn't imagine what the terrorists thought this was going to prove.  They'd awakened a sleeping giant, and I was relieved by President Bush's resolve to not let this pass.  This was obviously the kind of crime you could never forget.  We would root out every person responsible if it took 50 years.  I had this image of us like the Nazi-hunters, the Jewish organization still seeking to prosecute 75-year old Nazi's living under false names in South America.   

I was amazed that American soil was so disrespected.  It was as if they had to find bigger and bigger provocations to get our attention.  And the result now is a total sense of clarity - self-defense demands a response and they will get it.  How long had it been since America was a victim?  Never in my lifetime.  It  was such a weird feeling - America a victim?  Impossible.  Suicidal.  What a colossal misreading of how we would respond.    

It seemed a time for prayer. About 11:30 I walked to St. Patrick's for Mass where the atmosphere was electric in its sorrow.   I don't recall much of the Mass other than being distracted.  We prayed for the victim's families, and for all those who had no time to prepare for their death.   

After church I headed back to a cafeteria with the gate already down.   Only 12:30 and the gate down?  The café doesn't close until 1:30.  I asked why they had closed early and the manager said, "they're sending all employees home at 12:45…"  Shocked again.  Closing?   I thought it as an overreaction to what had happened but also realized that there was no way any work was going to get done anyway.    

At home the television became a sort of IV that I couldn't go without for very long without difficulty.  I wanted to constantly switch channels, it seemed unbearable to miss something, some small detail.  I wanted mastery over the facts, and I wanted everyone’s opinion,  Chris Matthews, Tom Brokaw, Bill O'Reilly,  Peter Jennings, Dan Rather…my stepson was livid.  Furious.  Meanwhile the day was spectacularly beautiful.  The juxtaposition was startling.  I'd finally had enough and went outside.  But listened to NPR as often as not.  

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