It's one of those occasions where you take the time to think back on what you were doing that moment the world changed.
I was at work, no access to computers or a substantial television set. The details are a bit fuzzy now. Someone called in, perhaps, to mention that a plane had hit one of the towers at the WTC. Somehow, we got that news secondhand.
Me, I was instantly suspicious. Not because I have this exceptional grasp of the world around us. It just happened that my addiction to edumacational documentaries gave me particular reason to be ill at ease. See, I'd recently watched a documentary about NYC airports, something that detailed the delicate dance air traffic controllers orchestrate every day as they move incredibly heavy commercial air traffic around the city.
Around. Not through. That's what immediately popped into my head. The graphic I'd casually glanced at that showed how all air traffic was always directed around an imaginary bubble over the city. By this time, it wasn't a question of it perhaps being some errant single engine airplane. It was something bigger. We didn't know the size, but we knew it was something of a bit more substance.
All that was going through my head upon that initial word was this: There's no way someone can just putter into NYC airspace. No way. Something is off.
Not long after, word was phoned in that a second plane hit the second tower. No doubt about it: We were under attack. I had enough of a grasp on things to allow this instant thought to formulate: He came back to finish the job.
The moment we heard that second plane hit, my brain jumped back in time to that first attack on the WTC. The bomb-laden van parked underground that did some damage, but not quite enough. I knew OBL was back to finish the job he'd started.
The fuzziness of memories kicks in again because I don't recall the timeline. Maybe it was before the plane hit the Pentagon, maybe it was after. At this point, we had an off duty manager phoning updates in, and someone was digging up a portable black and white television that was buried in one of the offices, or maybe someone thought to bring it in to keep us informed.
But I recall this: As a Pennsylvania resident, we had a unique position on this sudden war brought to our soil: We knew there was a plane overhead somewhere. We knew it was up there in the sky, somewhere over our state. We didn't know if it had failed to check in, if the report of a possibly hijacked plane was just a piece of inaccurate reporting in the midst of pandemonium, or if we were at risk.
All we knew was the off duty manager called and said they thought there might be a hijacked plane over our state somewhere.
I lived in York County, which means nothing to most of you who will read. But I lived uncomfortably close to Three Mile Island.
You remember TMI, don't you? Long before it was an abbreviation for Too Much Information, TMI meant, to us locals, the troublesome nuclear power plant that tried really hard to go China Syndrome back in 1979.
I was a little girl when THAT happened. I have fuzzy memories at best. I think I remember my brothers sending me outside to look for nuclear clouds, in yet another of their devious schemes to scare the crapola out of me. I remember my sister sunbathing, despite the threat of instant nuclear winter.
That's about it. At any rate, despite the fact that life went on, there was always this wee nugget of discomfort ingrained in those of us who lived in the area. Something that causes you a moment of pause when you hear the required testing of the alarm sirens in the distance on Saturday mornings. For the most part, it's ignored, but every once in a while you wonder what if?
Well, that's what popped into my head when we got word of that unaccounted for plane. What if it's heading for TMI?
Nobody was in fear of exploding nuclear power plants, per se. It was just this tiny fear, this tiny seed of wonder. Can a plane make a nuclear power plant the next Chernobyl?
Until we received word that a plane went down in a field somewhere outside Pittsburgh, our eyes were on the skies. We kept going about our day, but damn, our eyes often were pulled up.
I took a long lunch, went to see the parents. I remember walking in the door and greeting my father with, "Welcome to the New World Order, I guess."
Boy, was that an understatement.
By lunchtime, the towers were rubble. By lunchtime, we were at war. By lunchtime, everything was different. By lunchtime, our innocence was lost.
We'd lived in an impressive bubble of naivete, didn't we? Sure, America has been at war before. America has long suffered the cost of either poking its nose into the business of other countries, or trying to lend aid to a friend. We knew the heavy toll. We've seen the flag-draped coffins of lost soldiers. We've seen the torment those who came back carried with them long after the treaties were signed.
But most of us didn't have a clue about how to react to a direct attack on our country. Pearl Harbor is little more than a chapter in a history book for most of us. We were so damn naive, taking that Not In My Back Yard approach.
Never has an event so thoroughly gripped me, and for so long. Anger, fear, grief. Hope. Hopelessness.
I wept for people I never knew. I demanded retribution. I cheered when we finally had the rotting corpse of that son of a bitch who orchestrated the events of that day. I evolved from somebody 200% in support of a war to somebody watching in shock as it all went insanely off course and morphed into something so very different than what it should have been.
My nephew was born on the day we invaded Iraq in 2003. Remember Shock and Awe? I was sitting in a maternity waiting room, watching television reports about the invasion begin to trickle in as a new life was delivered into this crazy, fucked up world. I remember offering a silent apology to the kid for the crap we've created for him and his generation.
It's sad, how so many of us live with this before-and-after mentality about 9/11. I vaguely recall that one plane trip I took long before we ever had to worry about belts and shoes and which tray to put our laptops in so they can be properly scanned to ensure they aren't cleverly disguised bombs. It's a distant memory, the idea of not having to worry about typing choice keywords into the computer and wondering if that word will put you on some government list for monitoring. Racism, always ugly, used to be simpler. More cut and dry. It was about stupid people being stupid. Now we shake down old ladies at terminals in the pointless attempt to say See? No profiling here. Those of us who try very hard to not lump every Middle Easterner and Muslim into the crazed-let's-kill-the-infidel-Americans group struggle with trying to figure out this religion vs. religion mentality without sounding like a KKK member.
Ten years later, we wonder if we're safe. If we're still the naive sitting ducks we were on September 10, 2001. I find myself thinking we're just as clueless. We carry the specter of 9/11 every day, but we still don't get it. We still don't want to accept that the world has teeth. Big scary, pointy teeth, aimed right at the jugular, waiting for chance to get a juicy bite.
My mom came for a visit, recently. She got on the wrong train for the short ride to Philly. Not a big deal. Only an earlier train. But should that be possible? In a world of full-body scans and pat downs and Nikes with explosives in the soles, should someone be able to board the wrong train?
Guns still get on planes. People show up at airports with machetes, and act very offended when told they can't take their sharp pointy things on the plane. People who shouldn't have weapons get licenses, or head to a street corner to buy an unregistered gun. Shady characters with shady backgrounds make it across our borders. Vehicles end up parked in Times Square with smoke billowing out of it. Senators get shot at rallies.
The Department of Homeland Security. Does it make us more secure, or does it just give us a security blanket to hold while we fall asleep at night, assuring ourselves that we are safe-ish?
So much is out of our control. When I saw my mother's return trip was on September 11th, I cringed. And then all the warnings about credible threats started to fly. But what could we do? Stay home and hide all day until the threat waned? I kept my ears to the ground and worried when she boarded that train. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard she'd made it home. Is it foolish to go about life as normal, or a spit in the face to terrorists to send a personal message that you won't be cowed?
But what if something did happen? Did we just dodge a bullet, or did we just go through the motions of pretending we are safe?
Such is life in the New World Order.
Today, however many the questions and fears we carry are, is a day to put that aside. Today is reserved for mourning the dead, comforting the survivors, and striving for a better world. So much good came out of that bleak day.
Normal people, faced with the unthinkable on what should have been a normal flight became heroes. They showed us the power of people working together to fight a common enemy. They showed us that anybody can rise to the occasion. Regular people banded together and STOPPED THEM.
There's no joy in that, though. We mourn the lives of those lost on Flight 93, but as a country, we honor the bravery of that final stand. We wish they didn't have to make the choices they did, but I think we'll always be in awe over the courage shown after those last words of "Let's roll," were uttered by Todd Beamer.
We grieve for those lost on Flights 11, 175, and 77 as we can claim the luxury of not having faced the fear they must have felt as they realized their fates. But we carry them in our hearts because it could have been any of us.
People went to work at the Pentagon, at the WTC, just trying to earn a paycheck. They never made it home. But we know these people, because their families, year after year, grant us access to their stories. They let us check in on the progress of the babies not-yet or soon-to-be born who are growing up without their parent. We care, after all. They're family.
It doesn't really stop there, though, does it? I have to wonder about the long-term effects. The people standing below, safe from the horrors contained within the burning walls of the towers, suddenly swept up into the story when the buildings came down. Residents. Tourists there that day. I worry about their lungs. Weird of me, huh? I wonder how many of them might have their lives shortened because of what must have been in that dust. Contaminants. Asbestos. Will we have an epidemic of emphysema and other lung disorders as they age?
So many far-reaching implications. It boggles the brain. Or at least mine.
All I know is this: Today I'll remember the people affected by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The victims. The survivors. The families and friends left behind. And, as always, I'll remember the privilege of bearing witness, in the midst of all the darkness, to what this country can accomplish when we come together.
And hopefully, we can figure out how to do it more often, without the cloud of tragedy hanging over us to spur us into action.