Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11: Eight Years Later

I remember where I was when I found out about 9/11. Right where I am now, at work. A colleague reported that she'd read on that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. A more bizarre occurrence was hard at that time to fathom. My initial thought was that it was a Greenpeace protest stunt gone awry. There was not a great deal of reliable information to be found on the Web, and we didn't have a television in the office. It just seemed like another strange thing going on in New York City, something that needn't interfere with my work day or my life.

Then the second plane hit.

Obviously, this was no stunt. Something was going on. I didn't articulate it at the time, but it seemed clear that we were under attack. And then my phone rang. It was my wife.

"Have you seen the news?"
"Yeah, sort of. Pretty bizarre."
"Lisa was on that plane."
"Lisa who? Which plane?"

Lisa was the sister of a friend of ours. She was on American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to hit the tower. My response, irrationally, was one of anger.

"What the hell was she doing on that plane?"

Lisa was a buyer for TJX. She and a few of her colleagues were going to Los Angeles on business. She left her husband and two daughters that morning as she often did on business trips, probably thinking of when the first time would be that she would be free to call and say she was fine and missed them.

My wife brought me back to rational action.

"I need you to come home now. I want us to pick up Hannah from day care and I want us together today."

Hannah was a month shy of five years old then. Later, I would reflect that this was the day I realized I could not protect my daughter. That despite any precaution I might take, I could not control the world or the other people in it, and so to some extent she and all of us are always vulnerable to some unthinkable catastrophe. That realization, to me, is among the more lasting tragedies of 9/11. The end of innocence. The end of thinking that America is invincible, that our boundaries are impenetrable to attack. We were exposed, and I was afraid.

I gathered my stuff and walked from my office to the subway station. Along the way, I passed a popular lunch place with televisions on the wall and large windows that allowed pedestrians on the sidewalk to see inside. A crowd had gathered to watch live news footage of the tragedy. It was there I first saw the burning buildings in real time.

As I continued to the subway station, I kept the images of the smoke and lapping flames in my mind. It reminded me that I have always been terrified of fires. When I was very young, five or six years old, I witnessed a house fire in my neighborhood. I saw the homeowners crying as the firefighters put out the blaze. I walked home and my house was empty. I became very afraid. Eventually, my mother came home and I began to cry. I was in luck, though, because she happened to have brought me a surprise: a small, plastic treasure chest bank filled with candy.

The next day, I walked back to the house that had had the fire. Windows were broken and the stench of smoke was still strong. I remember looking in the kitchen and seeing the white refrigerator painted with black streaks of soot. The fear returned. In school, the incident prompted our teacher to discuss fire safety and how to look for fire hazards in our own homes. I obsessively scoured our house and garage, becoming nearly hysterical to find paint cans in the garage. It was some time before I stopped having nightmares about fires.

Now I was in the subway station, which was eerily quiet. Every trash can looked suspicious. I looked around to see how best I could escape this underground station in the event of an emergency. It would not be easy. I looked at the other people in the station and on the train. What exactly does a terrorist look like? Some teenagers were laughing with false bravado, saying they'd kick any Arab's ass. I prayed just to make it home to see Hannah again.

The next days and weeks were filled with funerals and shivas, condolence calls, making and delivering food, and obsessively reading as much as possible about what had happened and why. Alas, the latter question may never adequately be answered.

The world changed forever that day, not just because America had been attacked, but because depravity took on a new definition. Humans not only were the targets but also the missile. Can it be the sickest minds are also the most creative? How do rational people protect themselves from irrational people? How can laws control ideologies? And why the hell did we focus on Iraq? It was all wrong, all inconceivable, all inexplicable.

And we were called upon to explain it, by Hannah. We tried to guard her from the news but she found out that the reason Lisa was gone was because someone flew a plane into a building. How did that happen? Can it happen again? We tried to explain that it was done on purpose by a very angry person who made a bad decision. And we don't understand it either. And we can only hope it doesn't happen again. And all we could do was hug and kiss our daughter and tell her that we love her, because we can only control how we feel and how we act, and though it may not be enough to ward off danger, it's all we can do, and it's all I want to do today.

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