September 11, 2001.
I woke up that morning just after 8am–Houston time—a friend’s call served as my alarm. I turned on the TV as an automatic reflex. 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. This wasn’t an accident; this wasn’t the tragic result some confused 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 after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Then, things got stranger and more surreal.
There were more reports of other planes that couldn’t be accounted for….more hijackings. Jumpers from the upper floors of a doomed skyscraper with only minutes left to remain intact, 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 the horrible, lamentable event of that day.
Then came the first 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.
In those waning hours after the attack– as the nation emerged wounded and disoriented from the debris cloud of our it’s own disbelief, we were glued to our TV sets. As reality continued to force feed us the acceptance of a most horrific situation, I realized that after witnessing so many interviews, a shape-shifting in the collective American consciousness was occurring. 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. A certain amount of nationalism and pride was starting surface, in spite of the horror. But that was often drummed into silence by an almost primal mélange 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 fundamentalist psychopaths who believed they were divinely inspired and justified to do as they pleased. They made no discernment between civilians and soldiers, children, men or women—everyone was fair game. Plus, this vicious, murderous event occurred on 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 its simplicity. It was treacherous in its total 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. The North Tower fell, the Pentagon was attacked, Building 7 collapsed and the news was confirmed regarding the crash of the fourth hijacked plane, United 93 in that field in rural Pennsylvania.
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 and heroism. 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.
That morning, these survivors entered their respective offices at the World Trade Center representing a wide cross section of America. Men, women, execs, middle management and hourly wage earners. They went about their daily routines…getting coffee, making copies, faxing Atlanta; talking to the Tokyooffice…to a client in Cairo. And they did these things as vastly different people—physically, ethnically; socially.
Yet 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, money, solvency, debt, flooring, 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 by surviving, were covered in humanity, really.
And it covered them from head to toe.
At first glance, it prevented me from discerning who and what they were. I couldn’t tell whether they were rich or poor; a Wharton grad or a high school drop out. What were they ethnically? It was even that easy to discern gender.
On September 11, 2001 they were merely survivors. Tragedy and devastation removed all other labels.
You see, on 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. Not even men or women. They were just people who miraculously survived 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.
Somehow, that day made us do the unexpected; what the terrorists hadn’t anticipated: hate had unified us.
And it did…for a little while, anyway.
I can only speak for myself, but on the dark day that was September 11, 2001, this realization was a tiny bright spot of hope.
It isn’t much, but it’s something I still cling to seven years later.