Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Legacy of 9-11

I know this has been said before — in many, many ways — but it really is hard to comprehend that it has been 10 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

I learned long ago that it isn't necessary to mention the year. All you need to say is "September 11" — or, in the shorthand form of which modern Americans are so fond, "9–11" — and the listener knows precisely what you're talking about.

My memories of that day are bound to be considerably different than the ones most people have, though. At the time, I was working in an office that had no television, and we had to get whatever information we could from the radios at our desks, phone calls from friends and relatives who did have access to television coverage and the internet.

The thing I remember most about that morning is how pleasant the weather was. It was unusually mild for Dallas, Texas, that early in September — the kind of weather, really, that one expects around mid–October at the earliest. Temperatures dropped to the mid–60s the night before, and I remember thinking briefly about wearing a jacket to work that morning.

(It's been a little spooky around here lately. We've endured one of the hottest summers ever, but, a few days ago, a cool front came through and our lows have been in the 60s while our highs have been in the 80s — just in time for the 10th anniversary.)

I remember thinking to myself that it really felt like football season — and that pleased me. You see, when I talk about football weather, I mean the kind of weather I remember from my childhood and college days in Arkansas — cool, crisp, a few clouds in the sky, maybe a slight breeze.

In fact, football season had begun, and that truly is a sacred time in Texas. Not every Texan believes in God, but most do believe in football. I do, anyway, and the knowledge that football season had begun put a spring in my step as I left my apartment that morning.

I was driving to work when I heard reports on the radio of the first airplane crash into the World Trade Center. The radio guys in Dallas were treating it like it was an accident, an isolated event, and I assumed it was. Apparently, they had a television in the radio studio, and they described the sight of one of the tall towers billowing smoke into a clear blue sky.

I have tried — many times — to remember if there were any clouds in the sky over north Texas that morning, and I just can't remember. There may have been some, and I just didn't notice.

I do remember that the sun was shining so, if there were any clouds, there couldn't have been many.

Airports shouldn't be so close to tall buildings, one of the guys on the radio said, as if he knew anything about New York geography. Most listeners probably assumed that he did — but, in fact, JFK Airport is about 12 miles southeast of Lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center stood.

That alone should have been a tipoff that something was seriously amiss.

But I was driving in rush hour traffic and gave little more thought to the morning radio banter than I usually did, and I recall thinking that having airports a good distance from commercial districts was just common sense.

Terrorism wasn't on my mind yet — and, for whatever reason, it didn't occur to me that a plane crashing into the World Trade Center would be the lead story on the evening news. I made a mental note to mention it to my co–workers — and hoped it wouldn't slip my mind.

Well, it didn't slip my mind. Turned out, it was the only story on the news for several evenings.

I parked my car a few minutes before 8 a.m. Dallas time and entered my building.

In my office, we worked in two–person teams, and I remember walking to my workstation and starting to tell my partner, "I just heard the wildest thing on the radio ..." but she put one finger to her lips to silence me and turned up the volume on the radio on her desk. They were talking about a second plane that had crashed into the WTC.

My office processed auto loans for dealerships around the country, and our work flow depended on the morning and afternoon shipments of paperwork from UPS and FedEx. When air travel was grounded that day, work came to a screeching halt — and remained slow for weeks.

For the rest of that day, we heard about all the things that most people were seeing — the destruction at the Pentagon, the people who jumped to their deaths from the towering infernos that the twin towers had become, the apparently heroic acts of the passengers on Flight 93 that may have prevented the White House or the Capitol from being destroyed.

It was shocking enough to hear about. I remember my departmental manager, Carrie, walking around in a kind of daze. She kept talking about the people who were trapped on those doomed airplanes.

By mid–afternoon, the overall managers of my office decided to close up early (there wasn't any work to do, anyway), and, when I got home, I finally got to see what everyone else had witnessed live.

I haven't had to live with the trauma that seeing all of that as it happened surely must have caused for many. I have seen footage from that day, of course — I saw a lot of it that very day — so I know what millions saw. The difference was that I knew what was coming.

It was like seeing a shocking movie ending that someone told you about before you saw the movie.

Imagine if, 50 years ago, you were standing in line to see "Psycho," and someone walked by and casually said to his/her companion, "I saw it the other day. What a finish! Anthony Perkins is his own mother, and he kills Janet Leigh while she's taking a shower!"

If you stayed to see the movie, the ending would be tarnished for you — to say the least.

Unfortunately, what happened 10 years ago was no movie, and even though I knew what was going to happen, I felt compelled to watch it — maybe out of respect for all the innocent lives that were lost, perhaps out of a sense of duty as an aggrieved American.

Maybe I felt like one does when a car accident or train wreck is unfolding before one's eyes.

Thousands of people died that day, and, as a result, thousands more have died on Middle Eastern soil, and billions of American dollars have been spent there.

I know people who are convinced that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed heavily to America's current economic problems, and perhaps they are right. I'm certainly no economist, but even those people who studied it in college and practice economics professionally don't know everything there is to know. If they did, it seems to me, there would be more of a consensus on what economic policy should be.

There can be little doubt that America's wars in the last decade have taken much of this country's resources, human and financial. But they weren't the sole contributors.

It would be foolish to blame what happened 10 years ago for the troubles facing America in 2011.

And yet ...

I remember, at the time, how so many of the people around me spoke in awe of the brilliant intellects that conceived such a plot. Much of their logic was rooted in the Middle Ages, most people agreed, but they were smart enough to anticipate any roadblocks they might encounter because of modern policies.

They did their research. They were familiar with routine procedures. They made sure the box cutters that were used as knives met existing standards. No detail was too small.

As the plan was taking shape, of course, the roadblocks they wished to avoid were the ones that could stand in their way to achieving a short–term — albeit dramatic — goal.

And they achieved it, perhaps in more spectacular fashion than any dared hope in those days in the late 1990s. From what I have heard, few, if any, thought the Twin Towers actually could be brought down.

But what if one — or more — not only thought the Twin Towers could be reduced to rubble but had the prescience to anticipate a more long–term consequence: how the financial weight of waging two wars simultaneously, combined with the unchecked greed of the seamy underside of capitalism, could bring America to its knees?

It almost seems like one of those bizarre conspiracy theories in which everything must happen just so. What are the odds?

And yet ...

Many of the upper–level operatives for Al Qaeda are either deceased or in custody now.

But if any who are still alive and at large had the foresight to anticipate how hijacking and crashing four airplanes would reverberate in American life and continue to have a corrosive influence on both American economics and American politics a decade later, I can only guess that this must be a satisfying moment.

If so, they must be the only ones who feel satisfied on this occasion.

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