Monday, September 11, 2006
I know, I know – what can be said about 9-11 that hasn't been said already? Usually, I skip all the national scab-picking that goes on this time of year and choose to remember the day sans media. Personally, the most appropriate anniversary of 9-11 was the first one in 2002, spent driving peacefully through North Dakota farmland while noting each field combine quietly flew an American flag. It seemed fitting – respectful, stoic and subdued, yet plowing on ahead.
This year, however, I awoke much too early and flipped on the TV, something I never do before 7:00 p.m. All the tributes, all the 'I-was-here-when-I-heard' stories and the all moments of silence marked this sad day of remembrance. Feeling myself getting sucked in by the vortex of pain, I forced myself to shut it off.
But, being that media monitoring is a large chunk of my job, I found myself on CNN.com throughout the work day. I noticed they were playing the coverage tape from that fateful Tuesday morning in 2001, exactly as it happened in real time. I couldn't resist.
I realize now why I had to see it. Being on the West Coast, by the time I had heard about the events, both towers were gone, the Pentagon was on fire and a soft, green meadow in Pennsylvania was already becoming famous. I'd never experienced the gradual dawning process of our national psyche that fateful day.
The images, of course, I'd seen a thousand times before but watching it 'live' with the anchors, reporters and witnesses describing, horrified, what they see before them – it shook me up. I had to admire the media – pretty much all of them – they tried best they could not to jump to conclusions lest they make dangerously false assumptions. There were several genuine blocks of silence as we all tried to process what we were seeing. At one point, an anchor blurted, "Look at that. Just look at it. You will never see a more frightening sight in your entire life."
As the north tower burned and we watched a second plane hit the south tower, an anchor sounded downright naïve when he asked the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) if there was a chance that faulty navigational instruments played a role. The NTSB guy, Ira something, was incredulous and forced to spell it out: "It's a perfectly clear day. No pilot needs to depend on their navigational equipment on a day like today, let alone two pilots. This was an intentional act."
It wasn't until 9:18 a.m., 16 minutes after the second plane hit, I note the first time I hear the word "terrorist" uttered – two minutes later our nation's air traffic was completely grounded for the first time in history. Just like that, we became a different country.
That is what sticks with me tonight. Our initial denial that something like this could really be happening, that there has to be some mistake, some mechanical breakdown somewhere, right? Surely, no humans could have a hand in such an epic slaughter? If so, who? And why? Watching that day's replay, I could tangibly sense the mass back-pedaling of denial and feel us rejecting this ugly new world in vain, "No! No! No! No!" We wanted no part of it.
From that point on, we learned handy words and phrases to explain the bleak new landscape based on fear and paranoia. Words like "homeland security" and "WMDs," "Mission Accomplished!" and "suicide bombers" suddenly became part of our daily vocabulary. Previously comforting autumn hues such as yellow, orange and red abruptly became raw, hyper, angry – the government's tool to keep the national fear on tap.
Air travel, once a luxury treat that one dressed up for, soon became a tedious invasive slog that one laboriously un-dressed for. What was right became wrong, what was up was now down. Nothing made sense, least of all, our leaders. We were advised to go shopping and buy duct tape – despite the fact that the hijackers brought the mighty America to its knees with a few box-cutters.
Tonight, I am saddened that we used to be so innocent, so recently. Mentally and emotionally, as a nation, we were raped – four times in one day. That kind of violence leaves a mark. I notice with the ease the word 'terrorist' falls off our tongues in daily conversation and when I hear Osama bin Laden being discussed by little old church ladies. I know it when I see a child being padded down at the airport or when I see a SWAT team on the evening news nervously blowing up an abandoned bag of burritos.
I realize that the world is now offically caught up in a holy war and that this conflict will not end tidily like the wars of our parents. This war will not have a formal surrender ceremony aboard a battleship and there will be no gruff handshakes or re-drawing of borders. This war will be something we have not yet imagined and, I fear, we will lose our innocence all over again.