Thursday, September 11, 2008
The Other Side of the Cyclone Fence
Have you forgotten? Do you tell yourself there's no danger?
MRS. IP REMEMBERS. A few days ago, I mentioned this memory.
On September 11, 2001, I was at a meeting in a closed conference room on a Navy base. Suddenly, the door opened and we were all informed of what was happening. The base was being shut down and all civilians were ordered to leave. As we left, we drove out on the road alongside the base to get back to our highway. I was immediately struck by how little protection there was. A relatively short cyclone fence, just like what you would have in your backyard, was all that closed the perimeter. Anyone with a pickup truck could have driven right through it.
Today, I would like to recount the events of 9/11 as I experienced them and as the people with me experienced them.
I have been working in industry on Department of Defense contracts for more than 20 years. My work requires coordination and collaboration with members of my own organization, other corporations, and our end military customer. So it was that four of us (three with a different company) left New Jersey on September 10 to attend a meeting at a base in Virginia scheduled for the morning of September 11. We left early in the afternoon in two cars because one of our group was staying over a second night to attend a meeting in Washington, DC, the next day. I took my cell phone with me primarily so we could communicate between cars during the drive.
We checked into our hotel and went out to dinner. Several others who had also traveled in for the meeting decided to go with us, so about ten of us caravanned to the Olive Garden. We had all worked together for a long time, and our table was full of lively spirit, conversation, and camaraderie. Like all such occasions, we were our own island of shared experiences and comfortable laughter. After dinner, our group of four returned to the hotel and decided to meet in the lobby at eight-thirty am to drive to our meeting in one car.
Every one of us still remembers that amazingly clear and beautiful morning – the brilliant blue sky, the shining sun, the crisp air – as we made the brief journey to the base, passing through the gate staffed by what looked to be a rent-a-cop.
Everything went as usual. Until shortly after ten o’clock. The woman who broke into our meeting was terse and stiff. She told us the Twin Towers had been struck, the Pentagon had been struck, and the White House was on fire. Everyone was stunned to whispers. You just couldn’t absorb it. I felt as if I had entered an alternate universe and was suffering from transporter shock. One of the staffers operating the computers in the conference room said he would acquire the satellite so we could see what was being broadcast. That proved impossible. Imagine it – U.S. military personnel on their own base unable to link a satellite. Within minutes we were hustled out of the building. As we exited the base, we saw that the rent-a-cop was gone, but the armed squad of soldiers at the gate looked like nothing more than empty bluff. Nothing they could do about miles of undefended cyclone fence if war was coming their way. Once past them, we talked dully among ourselves about what to do next. No cell phones were operating. We were completely isolated and far from home.
Three of us had checked out of the hotel that morning, but one still had a reservation for that night. So we figured out, slowly, eventually, that we needed to head back to the hotel. Still no cell phones. We turned on the car radio and learned that the towers had collapsed, the Pentagon had been struck by a plane, and the White House was not on fire but a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. Washington, DC, was closed to all traffic. Reporters inside the beltway were talking to people parked in their cars on the highways. I heard one man interviewed who’d been approaching the Pentagon at the moment of impact and had actually seen and heard the plane which crashed there. Still no cell phones. We felt adrift, lost in surroundings that used to be familiar and utterly ordinary.
When we got to the hotel, we decided to try for home. It was the only emotion we could actually recognize and so it trumped all others. We couldn’t contact anyone. They were probably all where they belonged, safe and sound, but who knew? We didn’t. Couldn’t. While we waited for our last person to check out, we saw the broadcast of the Twin Towers collapsing on the lobby televisions. It was an impossible sight that crushed us with its inevitability.You couldn’t pull your eyes away from it. And it ran over and over and over.We needed the constant repetition to make us believe it. The neutral background of a franchise hotel is a surreal place to be at such a time. It feels like a nightmare, but everything around you is too ordinary to let you suspend your disbelief. It’s happening. It’s not that last dream before waking.
When we were finally ready to leave, we solemnly decided where to stop for lunch, as if it were important, hoping the restaurant would be open. The radio kept flooding us with more chaos -- announcements that all planes had been grounded, bridges were being closed, and the Coast Guard was being sent to protect river mouths and bridges. Still no cell phones. We were 25 miles from Washington and almost 200 miles from our families and homes. We looked at each other, talked with each other, nodded, and acted as if we were together. But everyone was inside his own bubble of confusion, dread, that bright light of unreality which dimmed our own voices when we spoke, and we were only bumping against one another without touching.
In the car, we continued trying to call spouses, children, co-workers. No dice. We couldn't even communicate with our colleagues in the other car. Conversation in ours was strained. We all wanted others to relieve our bafflement, knowing none of us could. “Change the station.” “Go back to the last one, I thought I heard something.” The skies were eerily empty of airplanes. The radio reports kept coming, but everything was a rehash of still unconfirmed speculations.. No one knew how many people had died in the towers. 20,000? 40,000? Was the president safe? We didn’t know for sure. We crossed a bridge over the Potomac River (thankfully not closed) – no boats navigating there either. Hardly any traffic on the highway. It was like a scene from the The Road Warrior, empty roadways as far as the eye could see. We didn’t know where everyone had gone.
We arrived at the restaurant and found other travelers like us, confused and trying to reach home. I thought briefly of the restaurant the night before, all those little islands of comfortable conviviality. This time the whole building was its own desert island, and all the castaways were immediately intimate, sharing shreds of fact and fancy as if together we could make it all add up to something. We couldn’t. What we had in aggregate was not information but alarm. And rumors. A different one on every tongue. Still no damn cell phones. I had a calling card and -- there was a pay phone. Amazingly, I got through to the office. I let them know we were trying to get home and were all okay. One of my travel companions was desperate to call his wife so I gave him my card. By the time he hung up, he was in tears. Meanwhile, everybody in the place was talking to everybody else, trying to listen but helplessly talking over everyone else anyway, because we knew they didn’t know any more than we did and expressing our own opinions was the closest we could get to control of the situation. “I’m thinking about it, therefore I am not totally helpless.” Amid the clamor, I saw something wondrous. One man was actually talking into a cell phone. The real world was still there, out there, somewhere. And as was to happen again and again in the time after the attack, he offered us use of his phone. We left while the line was still patiently waiting to take advantage of the lifeline he offered.
We traveled the many miles of near deserted highways and finally made it home to the suddenly strange familiarity of New Jersey. Somewhere along the way, our phone calls started getting through and we plugged into a stream of up-to-the-minute reports from the car radio and people at home. The news was a thudding series of blows to the stomach. Stories about the loss of firemen, policemen, thousands of civilians and WTC employees. Deaths. There were dead. In the thousands. We kept talking and talking about the events – AND WE GOT MAD. Who had done this? Why? How quickly could we retaliate? And most of all, we felt and reiterated our utter conviction that these people, whoever they were, had absolutely no idea what they had awakened. We would be swift and harsh and righteous and merciless in response. By the time we actually got back, I think all of us would happily have manned a machine gun if we knew where to aim it.
Everything we thought we knew was gone. We were more vulnerable than we could ever have imagined. Terrorists no longer wanted to kidnap airplane passengers; they were making planes into missiles. They weren’t attacking military targets; they were targeting civilians. Not just Americans, but anyone in America or participating in our way of life.
So when President Bush went to Ground Zero and announced through his bullhorn that the world would hear from us, we all cheered along with the heroes who were working there. And they did hear from us. Do none of you Bush-haters remember or take any any pride in that kept promise? I do. We have taken the fight to them, and though it’s never been reported this way, they haven’t drawn an easy breath since America decided to take their war to them.
I watched the Republican Convention (and the Democratic one) with a certain sickness at heart. I admire John McCain and believe he understands that the enemies of our country are implacable, patient, and willing to stop at nothing in their fanatic mission. But I was dismayed that even the assembled body of the most dutiful Republicans seem to regard the War on Terror as a fading artifact of the past. Otherwise, they would not have subjected their sitting president to the indignity of ignoring him almost completely, scarcely daring to speak his name aloud. They, and a huge majority of our fellow citizens, are currently in a state of profound denial. They can't bear to look again at the footage of September 11, 2001. They are not grateful for the safety they have enjoyed since then, preferring to believe that their well founded fears were overwrought and that everything which has been done, and sacrificed, in the years since to keep them safe was most likely unnecessary. Just as their president is unpopular, unwanted, and unacknowledged.
Today I am moved to remind everyone otherwise. Here's the first paragraph of an op-ed that ran a few days ago in the New York Times. Its subsequent policy analysis is one that can be debated from multiple perspectives, but his primary contention cannot. It is this:
THE next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America. Everything else — Fannie Mae, health care reform, energy independence, the budget shortfall in Wasilla, Alaska — is commentary. The nuclear destruction of Lower Manhattan, or downtown Washington, would cause the deaths of thousands, or hundreds of thousands; a catastrophic depression; the reversal of globalization; a permanent climate of fear in the West; and the comprehensive repudiation of America’s culture of civil liberties.
He's right about this if nothing else in his essay. That's why I keep thinking about what really protects America. Not a fence of any kind, but the character and resolve of our leaders in the face of a threat so immense that it's as unreal as all the emotions I experienced on September 11, 2001. And I think if that day seemed unreal even as it was happening, I can understand why the day yet to come, which will be a hundred or a thousand times worse, is unreal to my fellow citizens.
It's the same thing we experienced in our journey back home that day. It's called disbelief and denial. But we owe more to our country than to succumb to denial. We owe more to the thousands who have already died or otherwise sacrificed to keep that next terrible day at bay. And I am asking, in all humility, that each of us take time today to imagine the unimaginable. That people who are beyond the touch of reason and mercy are determined to kill our nation, our culture, and all who offend them. And I ask everyone, regardless of party, to factor that shattering vison of the unthinkable into their political decision making.
Let us all mourn the dead. Not as dusty memories of crises long past, but as vivid reminders of what we still stand to lose if we commit the one truly unforgivable sin -- forgetting the cost of forgetting the past.
UPDATE. A deeply moving remembrance in pictures of the towers and that tragic day, courtesy of IP commenter Peregrine John. Give yourselves a quiet and uninterrupted ten minutes in which to watch the whole thing.