September 11, 2001

I was at work at HarperCollins on 53rd Street that morning, a crisp, cloudless early-autumn day – perfect weather for flying. Our company was about to publish a new cookbook by TV chef Emeril Lagasse, and the publicity department had scored a coup for Emeril, the highly-sought cover of the next issue of Newsweek. But they’re always able to dissolve such an agreement for important breaking news. When the phones starting ringing with the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, we thought it was a freak accident, like the B-25 bomber that struck the 78th floor of the Empire State Building on foggy July 28, 1945, killing 14 people. My first thought was, well, there goes Emeril’s cover. Then we turned on the TVs and saw the second plane live.

To say we were shocked is an understatement. Shock happens and then goes away. This didn’t. We were disturbed because we didn’t know how many more planes were in the air, and we were in a pretty tall building ourselves. (Reports tell us that people in Chicago’s Sears Tower just knew they were next.) We were dumbfounded at the savagery of the attack against thousands of innocent victims, and confused about any possible motive. And we were heartbroken when the buildings finally collapsed. Previously, you could see them out of the corner of your eye when you stepped out to Fifth Avenue. Now, just a plume of smoke.

You didn’t see everything, trust me. A literary agent from England was staying downtown not far from the Twin Towers. He saw people jump to their deaths before his eyes. He told me he’ll never be able to forget it – even though he wants to.

All vehicular traffic stopped in Manhattan, and nobody could drive anything onto or off of the island. The phone lines were irretrievably jammed as desperate friends and relatives tried to check on us; the telephone silence at Harper was eerie. Those who could, walked home in the early afternoon: the bridges were open only to pedestrians. I trudged up Madison Avenue along with hundreds of shellshocked others. Nobody said much. Suddenly we heard an airplane engine high above us. Everybody stopped and looked up: all planes were supposed to be grounded! Then we could see it was a scrambled U.S. military jet, and we quit holding our breath. Only those who’ve lived through that paranoia can fully appreciate the recent prodigious idiocy of allowing an airplane to fly low over the city just to take photographs, and without warning the authorities. Whoever approved that boondoggle clearly hadn’t been in New York on 9/11.

Business in New York is fairly insular. There wasn’t much publishing or advertising located in the Twin Towers: those offices were mainly for financial firms and international trade. So neither Linda nor I personally knew anyone who perished on 9/11. With one degree of separation, though, plenty, and the carnage spreads remarkably fast when you start counting up friends of friends.

We were scared and shook up, and for a brief moment, the rest of the country had our backs. What we didn’t know was that in Washington, some neoconservatives had been waiting for a spectacular, motivating national trauma, “like Pearl Harbor,” as an excuse to unilaterally change the map in the Middle East – and this was it! Most people don’t remember that the president’s job approval ratings were already cratering that summer. In a political sense, 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened to George W. Bush. It’s almost certainly responsible for his narrow “re-election” three years later. It allowed him to prosecute a war without end entirely on credit (Osama bin Laden bragged that 9/11 had been an economic attack, a way to “bleed” the West, and the Bush administration eagerly took the bait), usurp “wartime” powers from a pliant nation as cleanly as any Orwellian villain, and obtain enough timid Congressional support for his ham-handed invasion of Iraq, which will go down in history as one of America’s most colossal blunders. Without the tragedy of 9/11, none of these other tragedies would have been possible, and our world would be very different today. Remember budget surpluses?

We also remember those thousands of innocent people who were brutally murdered on this day, as well as the heroic responders who tried to save as many as they could. However meekly it may tend some wounds, bin Laden has finally paid for his crime, thanks to the daring of some brave Americans and their Commander in Chief. Have we learned anything? It was eight and a half years between the first Trade Center bombing and 9/11. Are we due for another attack on the homeland? All we can do is contemplate, commemorate, and mourn – for so many, many reasons.

9/11/11: It’s only an arbitrary round number, but it feels different today. A little nip in the air, first of the season, some clouds but otherwise pretty much the same weather I remember. A friend of mine was disturbed by some joking he overheard from some very young people. It’s different for them. When I was a kid they still remembered Pearl Harbor. At my school (in Norfolk, VA, a Navy town), one of our history teachers was a USN-Ret. commander who was there on 12/7. Every year the Upper School (the kids old enough to take it) trudged into his room, class by class, and heard the grisly details in a colored-chalk talk: kind of like Glenn Beck, only this one was true. All these many years later, we might as well be remembering the Maine. This too shall pass, just like Pearl Harbor agita, though I admit I have been dreading this particular anniv because it’s the first nice zeroed number, and I hope people can keep their ideological cool and nothing bad happens. At Pearl Harbor the enemy were wearing uniforms, but still the Greatest Generation “detained” Japanese-American civilians for no reason other than an epicanthal fold. It can get nasty when otherwise decent people become angry and frightened at the same time.

9/11/12: I’m not the only one walking around NYC today who remembers that the weather, and the sky, were almost exactly like this on the fateful day. By nightfall, though, we were all back in the warmth of our homes. We’re very fortunate.

9/16/16: I read today that the students who have just entered high school will be the first group to have 9/11 taught to them as a piece of history, because it happened before they were born. That’s how things start to fade. Pearl Harbor occurred eight years before I did, and by high school it was far more viscerally important to our elders than to me and my classmates. This too shall pass.

One Response to September 11, 2001

  1. Elizabeth Thomas says:

    Excellent post — felt like I was there with you and gave me many things to ponder, thanks.

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