Sunday, September 11, 2011

Nine-Eleven Plus Ten

Last Sunday, a lead editorial in the Washington Post lamented the attention given to what happened in New York City on September 11, 2001, at the expense of the tragic scene on the same day in Washington, as a jet plane crashed into the west wall of the Pentagon, claiming 184 victims.

In history books, documentaries and news accounts and across popular culture, the shift toward an almost exclusive focus on the New York part of the 9/11 story has been steady and relentless. Amid hundreds of hours of programming in this week’s many television tributes, there are only nominal mentions of the Pentagon attack.

Today, the streets of New York will be cordoned off near the place known as "Ground Zero" to allow for the usual tributes by the usual suspects. Among them will be those who, for any other occasion, might be accused of loving the sound of their own voices. On the other hand, missing from the center of attention, will be the heroes of that day. The police officers and firefighters of the City of New York will not be in mass attendance. The city claims there was no room for them, so they were not invited. Nor were they invited on this day ten years ago, but they came. And those who are still with us remember nearly four hundred of their comrades who died, while trying to save the lives of thousands trapped in the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Throughout the blogosphere today, thousands will go to the pages of their favorite would-be pundits, who will post tributes of their own. They will no doubt be sincere in so doing. But most of them can only give secondhand accounts. They were not there. I was in Washington on that day. This is my story.

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Another Tuesday Morning

It started out much like any other day, in an office just two blocks west of the White House. About nine or nine-thirty in the morning, I got a call from an old friend in New Jersey. Go turn on the TV, she said with urgency. There was one tuned to CNN in a conference room nearby. That was when I learned what happened to the World Trade Center in New York City. My friend ended the call by begging me to "please, please, get the hell out of town!" But it would be a while.

I was on the top floor of the building, near the balcony in the north-east corner. From that vantage point, we could look down and see the people evacuating from the White House and related buildings. Over at the corner, I could see other associates at the other balcony on the southern side of our building, looking out over the Potomac. There was smoke coming from the Pentagon, where most offices of the Defense Department are located. A jetliner had just crashed into that as well.

Events were unfolding quickly, and rumors along with them. There was a report of a car bomb just up the street, near the World Bank. People described panic in the streets, although it looked more to me like the usual late rush hour traffic. In fact, most of it was less panic than pandemonium. Our boss was the deputy communications director. While he was awaiting an official order to dismiss us, other supervisors were already telling employees to get out of town post haste. Just down the street, the State Department was evacuating. Then a colleague came down from the front office. It's official, he said, everybody go home. By the time our press office could even find anyone to get a decision worth announcing, the building was nearly emptied.

My apartment at the time was just three miles from the office, across the Potomac into Arlington, Virginia. It would be an hour's walk. I could have taken the subway, but with the expected crowds, and some prior experience with just how Metro might respond in an emergency (which is to say, badly), I figured walking would get me home much sooner.

There was a university campus right there in the city. I stopped by the Newman Center, where I sometimes went to daily Mass, to see students huddled in front of a TV, and girls crying, consoling one another. I left after awhile to make my way home. Hundreds of others were doing the same. In the distance, and on television monitors and car radios, it was as a scene from a disaster movie. A plane crashing into a skyscraper. That same building collapsing. Smoke and flames bellowing from the nerve center of our nation's defense.

There was yet another rumor spreading along the sidewalks. The bridge into Virginia was being blocked. As ridiculous as it sounded, the unreality of the scene made it seem plausible. We were accustomed to roadblocks being erected on special occasions without apparent rhyme or reason. Why should a city under attack be any different?. But arriving at the bridge, the news turned out to be false. We ventured across the bridge, looking south to the Pentagon, to the reality of that which otherwise seemed unreal.

I made it to the Virginia side easily enough, certainly easier than most of the cars. I passed a high-rise apartment complex. A frantic woman was throwing furniture and belongings from seven or eight stories up. She was out of control. Someone said she was carrying a sign. I didn't see one. There was a videographer trying to get footage, while shouting questions to her about her motives. Anything for a Pulitzer, I thought.

I finally got home, and called my mother in Ohio. My siblings were calling in from elsewhere in and around Cincinnati, asking her if they had heard from me. I told them I was home safely; indeed, that I was never in any real danger. Meanwhile, my fifteen-year-old son called my house and left a message. I called the school to relay the same message to him. I learned later that his aunt, one of my former sisters-in-law, was stationed in the affected portion of the Pentagon. A doctor's appointment that day saved her life. My son had learned of this, and had taken it upon himself to alert other family members, including a frail maternal grandmother in Cleveland, that all was well, at least among their own.

It was a good thing I called home when I did. The lines were jammed for hours most of the day. That evening, a state of emergency was declared in the District, Maryland, and Virigina. No one allowed out on the streets or on the highway.


I listened to the pundits on television, one after another. They were all quite sure of ourselves, and what must be done. They went on for weeks about it, as if to say: "We interrupt our normal programming for this special report..." and then never stopping. One of them, a former Secretary of State, reminded us that this will not be over in a couple of weeks; the American people should be prepared for a long haul.

The Proverbs tell us: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to the people.” How righteous is this nation, this land that I love? Do we as a people see anything worth fighting for, worth dying for? Do I witness Rome before the fall, or Israel after she repents? The answer that day was found in the acts of bravery, accounts of which have been shared with us over the past decade. Some can only be imagined, as in a fiery crash in a Pennsylvania countryside. Then there are the rescue workers who marched into hell in Manhattan. Many have yet to be adequately compensated for their efforts, even those who will be scarred for life.

My own scars came much later.

Shifting Sands

Soldiers returning from war would usually put the horrors behind them, finding solace amidst family, friends, and community. I had no real family in the area, but after twenty years of living five hundred miles from them, I was finally putting down roots of my own, as if out of resignation that I would be here for awhile.

"Betty" was like some the girls I had grown up with in the Midwest; blond, of Irish-German stock, with that combined Doris Day and Marlo Thomas thing going on for herself. We met at a dance about a year earlier. I taught her to dance to zydeco, she laughed at my jokes, and in time, one thing led to another, and we were as thick as fleas. But after keeping company for at least a year, when I needed her most, she was beginning to have her doubts. It was never anything specific, and it was never anything resolute. She would go back and forth over the course of a weekend, insisting on "having more space," flirting with other men at parties, while taking me to task for even looking at a woman myself. It was a pattern that repeated itself ad nauseum. Betty couldn't just end it, and I couldn't just let go of it. This dance with the devil's handmaiden went on for months. Her friends begged her just to get it over with, to quit stringing the poor guy along. She didn't listen to them, and I didn't listen to common sense.

One day, about a month after the tragedy, they found me at my desk, sobbing profusely. I was sent home, and placed on medical leave for several weeks. Eventually, Betty would tire even of her own charade, and ended it once and for all. By then, there wasn't much left of the man that I was, and when our mutual circle of fair-weather friends chose sides, they chose the one who could keep the party going.

It was nearly two years before the effects of 9-11 really wore off. It is true that I did not face death. But the memorial in Pennsylvania field marks a spot that might just as easily have been at or near the Capitol dome, or even the White House.* For those who have never seen it, the latter is not a very big target. A jet plane flown by amateur pilots on a suicide mission, might just as easily have landed on my desk nearby. Just knowing that, and remembering today the events of back then, are a chilling reminder of the fragility of life, and the need to live every moment as though it would be the last. It was also a wake up call, to surround myself with a better class of people -- specifically, people who would make it easier, not harder, to get into Heaven.

And so, if only for me, today will be like any given Sunday. It is difficult to imagine any other way.

A Parting Thought

Meanwhile, I wonder what would happen, if the entire body of the police and fire departments of the City of New York were to drop what they were doing, and proceed on foot, en masse, to the ceremony at Ground Zero? What if they ignored the blockades, were let by with the silent approval of their appointed colleagues, and surrounded the festivities? What if those charged with security issued no warnings, made no arrests? What if the city fathers, and the nation's leaders, were to pause from their pontificating, and were left to gaze out in wonder, at the silent faces of those who refused to be forgotten?

Who could turn them away? They are the true memorials, the living testament to the best and most virtuous that humanity has to offer the world. At the very least, they had faced more dangerous adversaries than well-heeled dignitaries. At the most, they would refuse to be dismissed. Nor shall they be here.

I am reminded of the words of a psalm, the one an outfit of the British Army would carry with them before going into war. I was told they never lost a man:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High,
who abides in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust ...’”
-- Psalm 90(91):1

And so, with God as our witness, we remember.

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* Suspicions at the time notwithstanding, in a September 2002 interview, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who are believed to have organized the attacks, said Flight 93's intended target was the United States Capitol, not the White House.

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