Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11th, 2001: Eight Years Later, What Have We Learned?

The morning of September 11th, 2001 was a bright, sunny, crystal clear one. I was living in Fresh Meadows, NY about 17 miles from the World Trade Center in the Borough of Queens. I was working from home at the time, I got up and went to my desk, turned on the TV to Fox News with the sound off as I usually did and started to check my email. Not long after I sat down, I noticed that on the television was the World Trade Center with smoke billowing from the North Tower. The caption said something to the affect of “small plane hits WTC”. I turned the sound up and the anchor repeated that early reports were that a small plane had struck the tower. My initial reaction was that the damage to the building was too severe, and the amount of smoke and fire too great, for it to be just a Cessna or other small plane. At the same time, I wondered how any plane could have accidentally hit the WTC on such a clear day. Soon the news indicated that a commercial jet had struck the tower. This only made me wonder more how this could have occurred. After all, a commercial plane has two pilots and collision avoidance systems. As I and the TV anchor were pondering the same question, our answer came in the form of a silver jetliner which appeared from the right of the screen, disappeared behind the towers, then reappeared to the left, turning and crashing headlong into the South Tower bursting into a fireball, leaving the building scarred and burning. At that moment it became apparent that this was a terrorist attack.

Part of me was waiting for the anchor to say that what were watching wasn’t real, that it was part of some simulation or a scene out of some apocalyptic Hollywood movie. Even sitting there watching it unfold it was difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that someone would use commercial planes, loaded with passengers, as guided missiles and crash them into buildings filled with even more innocent people.

Soon my thoughts turned to my brother-in-law, Eric, who worked at the World Trade Center. I knew he worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, but I wasn’t sure which tower or what floor. I called my sister to see if she was watching and if she’d heard from Eric. She told me she was watching but hadn’t heard from him and that she wanted to leave the line clear, in case he called. I told her I loved her and hung up, hoping she’d soon be calling to tell me that Eric was okay. Unfortunately, that was a call that never came.

As I turned my attention back to the news the next thought that occurred to me was, were there more planes? I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. Soon I was learning of the attack on the Pentagon and of a plane going down in a little town called Schnecksville, PA. Only later did we all learn of the heroics of the passengers of United Flight 93 and how they’d stormed the cockpit, forcing the plane down in an empty field, rather than allow it to be used as a weapon.

I continued to watch the unbelievable and horrific sights unfold before my eyes. People jumping from the towers, making the decision that it was better to make a leap of faith than to burn or suffocate in the heat and choking smoke of the uncontrolled fires that burned in both the North and South Towers. Those are images that will be with me always. As will the first of two sounds I’ll never forget. One intrepid cameraman had made his way to the courtyard between the two towers. As he moved along, I could periodically hear what could only be described as sickening thuds. These were the sounds of the people that had jumped impacting the ground at terminal velocity.

I began to wonder as I looked at the fire and the physical damage to the buildings, how long could the damaged areas of the towers support the weight of the floors above them? Again my unspoken question was answered with the unimaginable. The South Tower, which had been struck second, collapsed in a shower of steel and concrete, creating a cloud of dust and debris that seemed to chase the people in the streets forever. When the dust finally cleared and some of the reporters nearest the scene came back on the air with pictures of crushed vehicles and people covered in grey dust, looking like stunned zombies, the second sound I’ll never forget could be heard. It was a chorus of electronic chirping sounds. The sounds of hundreds of FDNY distress beacons chirping in unison. After that, it seemed inevitable that the North Tower would soon collapse too. And yet, when it did, I was still taken by surprise. Once again the same scene that had played out with the previous tower did so again, there was a loud rumble, a shower of debris, a dust cloud, then the silence and the chirping.

I can remember all these things vividly even today 8 years later. I can remember the anguish, the numbness, the helplessness, the anger and the disbelief. All these feelings stayed with all of us for the days and weeks that followed. Even as we held a memorial service for my brother-in-law, whose body was recovered only a few days later, all these feelings, especially the anguish, numbness and anger seemed to be all I could feel. There was no humor, no laughter, it seemed that we would never smile or laugh again. It wasn’t just the loss of Eric and the nearly 3,000 others; it was the pain for my sister, who had lost her husband and my nephew, who wasn’t even 2 years old yet, who had lost a father he’d never know. It was for all the families whose fathers; mothers, sisters and brothers would never be coming home.

It’s been eight short years since that day that changed everything. My sister and nephew moved to Florida shortly after to be close to my parents. My wife and I followed a year later and we’ve all done our best to move on with our lives. But the truth is, 9/11 is with my family and me everyday. We don’t dwell on it or weep everyday. We don’t watch the towers fall on video endlessly. But there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t remember it. My sister and my nephew live with the consequences of it everyday. My politics and attitudes about many things have been shaped by the events of 9/11. I find that I’m much more patriotic and more politically active than I was before we were attacked. I’ve found a new respect for firefighters, police officers, our military and the members of our intelligence community. All these people put their lives on the line everyday to try to ensure our safety. They run towards danger when ordinary citizens are running away.
The thing that angers me now isn’t that we haven’t captured or killed Osama Bin Laden, though I wish we had. No, what gets me angry nowadays is the fact that so many in the public and the government have become apathetic again so soon. Many that didn’t lose someone on 9/11 seem to think the War on Terrorism isn’t that important and worry more about Enhanced Interrogation Techniques causing Kalid Sheikh Mohammed some discomfort, than the safety of the CIA agents that used those techniques to prevent another terrorist attack on our nation. Many in the government seem more interested in prosecuting our soldiers and intelligence officers than in keeping the American People safe. There is this notion that we need to use gentler methods, so that our enemies won’t hate us, or so that our soldiers will be treated properly if they’re captured, as though Al-Qaeda won’t behead an American soldier if we follow the Army Field Manual. I don’t understand that mentality. It seems to defy logic. In just the last few days a picture of a very healthy looking Kalid Sheikh Mohammed, taken by the Red Cross, has found it’s way onto Al-Qaeda websites, where it’s being used for recruitment purposes. He doesn’t look like he’s been tortured or mistreated. He looks ready to kill again. At the same time a group calling itself the John Adams Project has been taking pictures of CIA agents and showing them to terrorist detainees, endangering the lives of the agents that are trying to protect us. I keep waiting for our president to denounce these actions, but he remains silent. I’m afraid that our leaders haven’t learned a thing and I’m afraid we’re doomed to be taught the lesson of September 11th, 2001 all over again.

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