This is a piece I wrote two years ago, shortly before we marked 15 years since the terrorist attacks on America that changed our nation and our world:
“I SEE WATER, I SEE BUILDINGS”*
*the words of American Airlines flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeney, moments before Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
The 15-year anniversary of 9/11 is just two months away. It sounds strange, inappropriate, to use the word “anniversary” in context with that terrible day in not just American history but human history. An anniversary typically celebrates joyous occasions, like weddings or dedicated service to an employer. Some chroniclers employ the word “commemoration” instead of “anniversary,” but that doesn’t sound quite right, either.
How to characterize the marking of the 15 years that, unbelievably, have passed since Sept. 11, 2001, is less troubling to me than is the complexity of my own emotions. Like most people, I responded to 9/11 at the time on both a collective and personal level. I imagine my response will be just as complicated as Sept. 11, 2016 approaches. On the one hand, I remain deeply moved by not only the tragedy that cost so many their lives, but the sacrifice of all the men and women who tried to preserve life: the police officers, firefighters and volunteers at Ground Zero, the passengers and crew aboard United Flight 93, the survivors, the widowed, the motherless or fatherless. Yet the disturbing truth is that politicians with agendas, the idealogues and the blow-dried cable-TV talking heads will surely exploit the recognition of the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks to fan the flames of jingoism, racism and aggression. I gird myself even now for confrontational dialogues while striving to remain respectful of those who actually deserve my respect.
Sometimes I see in my dreams the World Trade Center towers, never edifices of great beauty but nevertheless impressive sentinels that rose high above New York Harbor and became part of the multifaceted personality of America’s largest city. In my dreams the towers are always standing, impregnable, as they should be today. I only see them fall and crumble into dust in “day-mares,” moments when my thoughts drift darkly and I recall the Tuesday morning a decade and a half ago when it felt like the world was coming to an end.
I was not in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. Nor did I lose a loved one in any of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But I was far from removed from the day’s horrific events. I was working as an editor for a newspaper in San Diego, and when the towers were struck, all pursuit and reporting of other matters ceased. The job for everyone in the newsroom, regardless of beat, became monitoring and disseminating details from New York, Washington, D.C. and the open fields of Pennsylvania. Just as important, I discovered, was providing emotional support to the dozens who phoned the newspaper and wanted to know what most of the time we couldn’t answer, or the youngest, wide-eyed members of the staff who moved numbly through their duties and wondered aloud if this might be the first day of a war to end all wars.
“Be calm. Keep calm. Focus. Do what you have to do.” My words to those around me, and my words to myself.
A year or so later, after reading one of several Sept. 11-related columns I’d written in the newspaper, a friend accused me – there’s no other way to characterize it than an accusation – of being “obsessed with 9/11.” She was laughing as she said this, but I don’t believe she thought it was funny. Without saying so, I believe she thought I was sick. Without saying so, I believe she was suggesting: “You’re being morbid.” “You weren’t even there.” “It’s in the past. Move on!” Move on? To where? The Land of Denial? Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make Believe? Never Never Land? Anywhere you can drive or take a train to, but avoid a jetliner?
Sometimes I think of water bottles. About five years after 9/11, I found myself in the audience at a one-woman show by New York-based performance artist Karen Finley. At the climax of a work she called “The Distribution of Empathy,” Finley placed two same-sized water bottles side by side on a table, then covered them with stark burlap wine bottle bags. As the lights lowered, she abandoned the stage while singing an echoey, ironic “Leaving On A Jet Plane.” The lines that cut through me the sharpest were: “The dawn is breakin’, it’s early morn. The taxi’s waitin’, he’s blowin’ his horn. Already I’m so lonesome I could die.” I sat there, trembling, in the dark theater and thought of how bright and blue the skies were the morning jetliners were crashed into the Twin Towers. I remembered how it was when you walked down a major street in New York City and saw the sea of taxicabs jockeying for position in traffic. I tried not to think of lonesomeness, and loneliness and death.
I remember how the character Richard Dreyfus played in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” couldn’t get out of his mind the stark image of that Devil’s Rock monolith. Sometimes, and as I write this now, this is one of those times, the Twin Towers are my Devil’s Rock monolith. They haunt and enchant at the same time, and for me they are just as elusive as Devil’s Rock seemed to Dreyfus’ cinematic everyman.
As the anniversary – there, I said it – of Sept. 11, 2001 approaches, I expect the image to crystallize and linger and perhaps travel from “day-mares” to my dreams. I’ll take my chances. What I won’t risk is succumbing to the urge to pay any attention at all to the vitriol sure to fly during all the televised run-up to the anniversary date – there, I said it again – or to the drivel that passes for intelligence or, heaven forbid “citizen journalism” in the blogosphere. This can only lead to anger, and if I embrace any anger 15 years to the day after 9/11, I want it to be directed at those responsible.
My gamut of emotions no doubt will mirror those of many friends, neighbors and people I don’t even know: pain, sorrow, regret. The president and the clergy and the mainstream media will urge us to remember the heroes as well as the victims of 9/11 and, without saying so, to “buck up.” “Heroes,” sadly, has become a cliché, and buck rhymes with a word that would seem a suitable response to hollow encouragement. But those who genuinely seek to comfort can only do so much, and they will speak words that we have heard thousands of times before. To accept or reject them is our choice.
I believe on the morning of Sept. 11, 2016, if I can, I will drive to the seaside, stand in the ocean air, cup headphones over my ears, listen to Peter Paul and Mary singing “Leaving On A Jet Plane” and remain very still until the song is over. Then, to borrow from Prince Hamlet, the rest is silence.