While supping with the Literatti this weekend, the subject of the sixth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks came up. It’s hard to broach such a subject without first wincing at it’s still lingering impact, then you tend to immediately reflect back on where you were, what you were doing–even what you were thinking, when the sad, tragic events of the day gave us a reason to remember it.
I woke up that morning just after 8am-Houston time—my friend Mark’s call served as my alarm. I turned on the TV as an automatic reflex and continued my brief conversation. When I hung up a few minutes later, I looked up and saw that the “Today” show had a camera trained on the North Tower. All you could see was a huge, gaping hole with fire and smoke billowing from it.
I remember thinking instantly that this was the handiwork of Osama bin Laden. No, this wasn’t an accident…no, this wasn’t the tragic result some sight impaired Mr. Magoo-like pilot in a Cessna who’d lost his way trying to follow the meandering shoreline of the Hudson.
This was intentional. This was bin Laden making good on his threat.
Then, things got stranger and stranger and the day got more surreal.
There were more reports that even more planes couldn’t be accounted for….more hijackings. The Pentagon was attacked….jumpers from the upper floors of a disabled high-rise with only minutes left to live, were captured by TV cameras as they fell to their deaths.
It was intensely painful.
And just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did. A second plane hit the South Tower. There is, I swear, an eternal imprint on the souls of every person who bore witness to that horrible, lamentable day.
Then came the collapse.
I watched The South Tower crumble first. Floor by floor. I watched walls and ceilings, and tons and tons of steel girders fall to the earth. What took nearly three and half years to build, came down in 12 seconds. And as I watched, I remember thinking that the objects that were falling were doing so with long and rather odd looking plumes of smoke trailing behind.
I don’t mean to be impertinent or disrespectful with what I’m about to convey, but I can remember feeling a bit disembodied emotionally. And when that happened, I remember thinking that the plumes of smoke, at different heights, widths and lengths reminded me of Sideshow Bob’s hair. From “The Simpsons”. I couldn’t shake that insane image.
Notice the photo on your left.
I distinctly remembering being struck by the comparison, then feeling absolutely awful that my mind “went there” while witnessing such a horrible event. Then, a few years ago, I realized that my mind was merely going into avoidance/denial mode BECAUSE what I was watching…what my mind was processing was so horrible.
The mind does what it must to make sense of something so utterly senseless.
Case in point: I interviewed a man once who lost his leg in a car accident. He told me that as he lied there in the crumpled heap that was once his truck, he heard members of the Fire and Rescue unit attempting to extract him. He was going in and out of consciousness, but distinctly remembers at one point, being overly concerned with whether or not he turned off his coffee maker before leaving the house that morning.
This, as most of his left leg was lying two feet away from him.
Shock is an awesome, protective phenomenon. The mind is amazing.
In those waning hours after the attack– as the nation emerged wounded and disoriented from the debris cloud of our own disbelief, we were glued to our TV sets. After a few hours, as reality continued to force feed us the acceptance of a most unpleasant situation, I realized I was witnessing (especially after so many interviews) a shape-shifting in the collective American consciousness. A rather laissez fare and cavalier attitude toward the government, foreign policy and national defense was rapidly changing in the course of one very event filled afternoon. I was starting to hear an almost primal melange of base emotions being discussed openly and honestly: despair, grief, anger, shock, dismay, rage, bitterness, disbelief, pain, revenge…
We’d been attacked by the most dangerous nemesis known to man: hate fueled by a fundamentalist psychopath who believed he was divinely inspired and justified to do as he pleased. This was exacerbated by the fact that the vicious, murderous event happened our own soil. It cost us our sense of security. We immediately stopped feeling safe and started feeling vulnerable. We felt duped, as if we’d been had, because the method used—and it must be said—was brilliant in it’s simplicity. It was treacherous in its effectiveness.
Perhaps, that’s what made it even more frightening. That somewhere, somehow we…The United States of America, the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world with its extremely sophisticated method of intelligence gathering, had failed.
We’d been breached by our own planes, in our own airspace and by a failed system of airport security checks and balances put there to protect us.
We weren’t impervious.
That became more apparent as the day progressed–the afternoon offered no reprieve. Building 7 collapsed and the news was confirmed regarding the crash of the fourth hijacked plane, United 93 in that field in rural Pennsylvannia.
Still, I kept watching, hearing stories of those who managed to escape death’s clutches; I watched reports about people who saw evil “up close and personal” and lived to tell about it. I heard countless tales of bravery, heroism and altruism. After a while, I stopped listening to what they said and instead just looked at them for what they represented; what the day had forced them to become.
That’s when I saw something beginning to emerge…like the mighty Phoenix.
I started looking at the day’s events as the late Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning might have viewed it. He was able to see life’s beauty and promise while suffering through incredibly inhumane conditions as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. So, as the tragic events of September 11th continued to unfold before me, I began desperately looking for something/anything that could be construed as redeemable.
And then, I saw it. It hit me.
That morning, these people–these survivors, entered their respective offices at the World Trade Center representing a wide cross section of America. Men, women, execs, middle management…hourly wage earners. They went about their daily routines…getting coffee, making copies, rushing to meetings, finishing reports, they made calls and checked foreign markets for overnight activity. And they did these things as vastly different people—physically, ethnically, socially.
Yet after the fall; after the towers collapsed, those who survived emerged from the dust and debris, covered in the same whitish colored ash that just hours before had been two-110-story American icons— architectural wonders brought down by physics, gravity and hate. The ash represented so much: pulverized remnants of offices, insurance, money, solvency, debt, flooring, tiles, invoices, hopes, dreams, goals….so many different human lives.
These people, who woke up that morning for the sole purpose of being inexorably and permanently changed, were covered in humanity, really.
Lump sum humanity.
And it covered them from head to toe.
At first glance, it prevented me from discerning who and what they were. Were they high powered Wall Street executives or members of the secretarial pool? A high powered attorney or a window washer? I couldn’t tell whether they were rich or poor; a Wharton grad or a high school drop out. What were they ethnically?
On September 11, 2001 they were merely survivors. Tragedy and devastation removed all other labels.
You see, on this one day; this one extraordinarily tragic day in our history, these very different people, really weren’t very different at all. For a few hours anyway, they ceased being black, white, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Gentiles, bosses or subordinates–they weren’t rich or poor. These were just men and women who miraculously survived it all and in the hellish aftermath of one of the worst terror attacks in history, found themselves covered in this thick, white, ashen “sameness”.
How ironic, too…..
White represents the total absence of color.
I can only speak for myself, but on the dark day that was September 11, 2001, this realization was a tiny bright spot. It gave me hope.
It isn’t much, but it’s something I still cling to….six years later.