Ten years ago an unthinkable evil unleashed its horror upon America.
Ten years is a long time, yet at times it seems so recent, the wound still fresh. Four hijacked planes changed the nature of the country, in some ways for the better but mostly for the worse.
For a brief period, we retreated from the increasingly rancorous public discourse about how we should live our lives or be told how to live our lives. For a short time we were united as Americans in our grief and the world was (mostly) united in its support for a deeply wounded nation.
But then fear and anger and even greed took over. Our government imposed ever-more intrusive measures to protect our “freedom” in the name of “safety” and “security.” We were on Orange Alert with an Islamofascist terrorist cell lurking on every town corner and mosques packed full of terrorists chanting “Death to America” and Saddam Hussein was leading the charge. Or something like that. So we went to war in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, then started another war in Iraq with that known al-Qaida collaborator, Saddam Hussein. That, we now know, was utter crap. Yet we are still being groped, subjected to peep-show X-rays and made to remove our shoes at airports. We are spied on. We are still stuck in hostile areas in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan).
A bright, sunny day
I had just started my new job as day slot editor at the Akron Beacon Journal a week prior. It was Tuesday morning and I saw what seemed to be a small hole in the side of one of the World Trade Center towers. It was a bright, clear late summer day. Cloudless in Akron and New York. I thought, how on earth does a Cessna get lost in broad daylight? Instrument screw-up? I had no idea that it was actually a jetliner that had struck the tower. That soon changed. Then the second jet struck, and we knew something was seriously, horribly wrong.
A quick look into Google showed the World Trade Center could have as many as 50,000 people in those buildings or more. That number made me fear for the worst as smoke billowed from the towers.
Soon we were thrust into terms like Tower One and Tower Two, Boeing 767 and Flight 93. When the AP Newsalert came about an “explosion at the Pentagon,” there were audible gasps in the newsroom. This unknown enemy had struck at the heart of our military might.
I was aware of al-Qaida and pretty well acquainted with Osama bin Laden, but at this point we didn’t really have an idea of who could be behind this attack. It just seemed so brazen. Shocking.
People were jumping out of the buildings. And then one tower collapsed. And then another collapsed. I remember images of ash-covered people running for their lives as clouds of ash and rubble bore down upon them.
In the ensuing hours the news broke fast and furious and was often inaccurate or incomplete. Such is the nature of big, breaking news events.
We quickly decided to produce an extra edition, the first (and only) that I had directly played a part in. Columnist Bob Dyer stitched together an account of the events including some erroneous reports (See: “nature of big, breaking news events.”) Terry Pluto wrote a column, “Creation groans. Again, and again.” Rich Heldenfels wrote about what we were seeing on TV, and other hastily assembled staff and wire reports described the chaos of the day. The main headline, by committee, was “OH, MY GOD.” My subhed, cranked out in about 20 seconds (it fit on first try): “Unprecedented attack strikes U.S.”
A photograph on the back page of the wrap-around Extra edition showed the look of shock and horror on the faces of New Yorkers. Looking at it now gives me chills. It still shakes me.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Journalists live a strange dichotomy: Our finest hour, our best work, often comes on the very worst of days. Think about Pearl Harbor, or JFK’s assassination: Those moments are frozen in time with iconic images and headlines. In my career I have been on hand for Hurricane Hugo on the South Carolina coast, both the Desert Storm and Iraq War (Son of Desert Storm, I sometimes call it), the recent murderous spree in Copley Township (I covered this at the scene) and of course 9/11 – an event so awful that it got its own date.
A strange quiet fell over us in the days and weeks that followed 9/11. The skies were empty. No vapor trails. Utterly empty. Bruce Springsteen wrote Empty Sky, a haunting song in his 2002 album The Rising, his response to 9/11.
The blame turned to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Military forces massed. Security measures were beefed up. Commissions were formed. And so forth.
No doubt there will be tons of other bloggers, columnists, pundits and know-it-alls putting in their 2 cents’ worth. But sometimes I just want to join the cacophony. Because I can. They haven’t taken away that freedom yet.
I grew up in the height of the Cold War, with the specter of nuclear annihilation always looming. Then the Berlin Wall fell and a New World Order came to be. My kids are growing up in a post-9/11 world. My son was 6 when it happened. Not long after, while playing with a toy jet, he blurted out, “Plane attack!” and swooped down with his plane and crashed it into an imaginary building.
He was imagining something that had been almost unimaginable days before.