I remember. I’ll never forget.
The tears still well up and my body tenses with anger whenever I see footage of that morning. Photos, videos, audio, it doesn’t matter. It still affects me the same way. As I’ve done each and every year since the events of that day, I watch the Fox News and ABC News coverage of the event as archived here. This is one of my rituals since the first anniversary; I don’t ever want to forget what happened that morning. And on this fifteenth anniversary, nothing has changed. The feelings are the same.
September 11, 2001 is the watershed event of the second half of my life.
This iteration of our war with “radical” Islam began on November 4, 1979 in Tehran, Iran. 2009 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the takeover of our embassy, an act of war for all, except liberals and progressives. Four years later, the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut was blown up, and my favorite president left the Middle East instead of taking the war to them; the Achille Lauro was hijacked in 1985 highlighted by the heroic act of throwing an invalid Jew overboard; TWA Flight 103 in 1988, an event recently brought back into the limelight by the condition of the only convicted Libyan terrorist in that country’s perilous civil war; the First Gulf War in 1990, with its indecisive and portentous resolution; the cold and snowy February 26, 1993, when the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time by Ramzi Yousef and the apostles of the blind Sheik Rahman; the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 (an act of war); the US Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, on the same day, within minutes of each other (two more acts of war); and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 — yet another act of war, as if the previous three were insufficient for the appeasers, the hand-wringers, and the cowards. All of these events preceded the events in New York City.
It’s not as though we hadn’t been warned.
On that Tuesday morning, so clear and blue and beautiful, I was freelancing at a nationally-known retail company that owns hundreds of stores in malls all over the United States. Two of those were large retail stores in the lower malls of the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center. I had been hired to write some new manuals and specification documents and to tweak some technical documentation. It was my sixth month there, and it was to be the penultimate month the corporation would be headquartered in Miami-Dade County; it was moving to the mid-west with the usual lay-offs, transfers, resignations, and tears. My consulting gig was scheduled to end on the last day of September. The mood was already depressed and sullen.
I was in the office they had assigned to me, having coffee and reading emails. A little after 9:00 AM a CNN news bulletin arrived in my email inbox that said that a small airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I immediately logged on to CNN.com and saw the breaking news flash on the home page. Frankly, I didn’t suspect anything; I knew about the B-25 bomber that had crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s and I went along with what the initial reporting had to say. My mom called to tell me the video and pictures she was seeing on CNN so I started to follow the event closely. By 9:20, after the second plane struck, amid the frantic bulletins being put out by CNN, I realized what had happened. My phone calls became frantic. I called my wife, who had been organizing a huge event at her work, ad told her to go to the nearest television to see what was happening. I felt helpless and angry. We were under attack again, this time in a unprecedented fashion.
I was able to get to the already packed lunchroom on the ground floor where a large television set bolted to the wall was displaying horrifying images. Both buildings on fire, the smoke, and those poor people trapped on the upper floors. Some of the employees who were in store operations started calling the two stores in the North and South towers. We heard, through the grapevine the crowded lunchroom had become, that the employees were confused because they had been told to evacuate, then to stay, then to leave, again. Screams had been heard during those telephone calls. My mind can scarcely imagine what was behind those screams. With about fifty other people, I saw the first tower collapse. The sound of uncontrollable sobbing surrounded me. I was in a state of shocked disbelief. I didn’t know what to feel and what to do. I went outside to clear my head and think while smoking a cigarette. My wife was not answering her cell phone. Around 10:15 I answered a call from my sister-in-law who was in the service at the time and living in Maryland. I’ll never forget her words: “George, they’re attacking the Pentagon! What the hell is going on?”
After 11:00 AM the company let most of the non-IT employees and contractors go home. My wife’s project, a project she had worked her ass off to organize for months, had been cancelled. I went to pick up our then five-year old son who had been dismissed early from his kindergarten class. After my wife arrived home, a little after two that afternoon, she and I spent the next ten hours (and the days after that) watching the news coverage, seeing the carnage, and that terrible, terrible sight of smoke rising over those smoldering ruins. We saw the second airplane hitting the tower and the resultant orange and black fireball. We saw the footage of the people running away from the Towers, covered in gray dust, some in dust and blood, and of the people jumping to their deaths as the favorable option to burning alive. We saw the first tower collapse. We saw the second tower collapse. My wife gasped when she saw the replay of the towers collapsing; she had not seen it happen live. We saw the carnage at the Pentagon. We saw what remained of the heroes of Flight 93 in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But the ruins, those awful ruins of what had been there hours and days before, those I think, will be the signal images of that day for me. We cried, together. We were witnesses to a seminal moment in history.
Since that day I’ve listened to countless stories from friends, acquaintances and colleagues who were there, in New York City, near Ground Zero. The story that affected me most was told to me by one of my best friends. Because of a fortuitous desire to have a real breakfast, he, along with his partner, were running late for a 9:00 AM meeting with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, then headquartered in the World Trade Center.
“George,” he recounted, “that day remains so clear in my mind’s eye I can relive it almost at will. It was like being in an episode of the Twilight Zone. Around 9:30 that night we were walking down Lexington Avenue towards 49th Street, trying to find a place to have a bite, and we were the only people on the street. Imagine that! Midtown Manhattan and we were alone, everything was closed. I saw people sleeping in hotel lobbies who had not been able to go home. Eerie doesn’t come close to describing it.”
He went on to tell me, with emotion in his voice, that the folks they were meeting that day became like family, concerned as he was with whether they had survived or not. Ironically, the only one scheduled to meet with them that did not survive that day was John O’Neill, ex-FBI and the new head of security for the Port Authority.
I visited and marveled at these structures, I went to the observation deck to view New York City in all its glory. I ate at Windows on the World. I shopped in the malls under the buildings and then caught the train back to mid-town. Every time I see a movie where the Twin Towers are featured in a long shot I seethe. The New York skyline is incomplete. The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan weren’t just buildings, they were symbols of American ingenuity, of our know-how, of our indomitable can-do attitude, of our unapologetic capitalism. Those two great American symbols died on September 11.
On the eleventh anniversary of the attacks, just four short years ago, on the same terribly symbolic date, our current leaders allowed Islamists in Benghazi, Libya, to once again kill and maim in the name of Allah. Obviously, our fear of offending Muslims was greater than our will and desire to stop the massacre of four of our own, including an ambassador.
Our so-called leaders choose to do nothing.
The flawed (and biased) 9/11 Commission Report stated that our government exhibited a “failure of the imagination” in not seeing the warning signs that had been pointing inexorably to the attacks of 9/11. I agree. But, the American people are guilty as well. Most of us tend to live our lives in such a way that we want — no we demand! — bad news to go away. Please, don’t bother us with all that negative stuff, okay? We want to live in a bubble, living our lives in hopeful (blind) optimism, being happy, having fun with American Idol, reality TV, Entertainment Weekly, and all the other mind-rot. We just want to be left alone to follow our bliss.
The last time we could afford to feel that was on September 10, 2001 — especially in today’s world, with an administration that has coddled and supported the worst regimes in the world.
On September 11, 2001 we came face to face with an implacable, ruthless, and merciless enemy that has sworn itself to our destruction and the destruction of Western Civilization. It has been working at it for almost 14 centuries. It doesn’t matter what country that threat comes from: whether Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Egypt, or whether it’s Al-Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL, AQAP, Hezbollah, Hamas, PLO, or whether it comes from white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed US citizens within our own borders, radicalized by mosques we dutifully ignore so as not to offend. It doesn’t matter what flavor it is, whether Sunni, Shia, Salafist, Wahhabi, or secular Baathist. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we cannot ignore the danger that we, our children, and our children’s children, face as we hurtle into the second decade of twenty-first century.
Only future historians will tell us what else we lost on that day.
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(This essay was originally published in 2009 and has been slightly edited to reflect new events and dates.)