My mother’s flight was scheduled to leave early that morning. She was flying to New York City to visit my sister, who was due to give birth to her first child that day.
I was dropping her off at the airport on my way to the office. She had come over the night before and was flying to NYC for a couple of weeks to help my sister with the newest addition to our family. As we entered the car, the stereo crackled to the sounds of talk radio, it was Howard Stern and the discussion initially served as nothing more than nondescript background noise.
Halfway to the airport, I could hear the discussion in the background suddenly turn to another topic…evidently a plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At first, we thought nothing of it other than commenting on the bizarre nature of the event. Out of curiosity, I turned the volume up slightly to hear Stern and his co-hosts speculate about the possibility that a small Cessna aircraft had veered off-course and hit the iconic structure. At this point, there was no indication that what was occurring was…intentional. In fact, I specifically recall the discussion being more about how difficult it would be to put a fire out at that height (including their notions of how it could be done) and whether the pilot might have been drunk.
As we arrived at the airport, I wished my mom a safe trip and asked her to call me as soon as she landed, in addition to the moment that my sister went into labor. I got back into my car to make my way to the office and rejoined the conversation on the radio. Something had changed in between the time that I had gotten out of the car and re-entered…the tone over the speakers was different.
Gary, Howard Stern’s producer, interrupted the conversation with the news that a second plane had just hit…this time, at the South Tower. Silence filled the airwaves for what appeared to be 30 seconds…then all at once it became immediately clear to me and the radio program that the first plane crash was not an accident and that something entirely different was occuring that we could not yet wrap our heads around.
As I continued my 30 minute drive from the airport to my office, the car stereo was now turned up and I was transfixed on every piece of information that was coming in at this point, trying to process everything and come up with suitable conclusions that didn’t support what I secretly feared was actually occuring. I specifically recall the monumental confusion coming through the speakers, as callers to the program began to provide first, second and third-hand information. Everything was very…disjointed:
“A third plane was spotted flying over the city”
“I heard the Capitol building just got hit!”
“My cousin in DC just said they saw a plane heading towards the White House”
“The Pentagon has been hit” – This last one turning out to be true, but initially lost in the frenzy of reports and speculation coming in, further adding to the intense confusion and fear beginning to develop.
…my mind wildly racing as each “report” came in and desperately wanting to get in front of a television.
When I finally arrived at work, I bolted into my office to turn on the television I had mounted on the wall…only to find my colleagues shocked and silently gathered around it. The first image to hit my eyes was burned into my memory forever:
It was at this time that I began to see more of the images that had previously only been described to me on the radio and therefore, left to my own imagination…what I saw on television was far worse: The footage of the second plane hitting the South Tower and violently exploding. The close-up images of the WTC as they intensely burned. Live video of people jumping to their deaths to escape the fire and smoke. More video of the towers getting hit. More fire. More smoke. More death.
I called my sister in NYC and specifically recall feeling immensely fortunate and relieved that I was still able to reach her. She was standing on the rooftop of her building, watching the smoke rise from the towers. While expressing my relief that she was OK, it was also coupled with the realization that she was due to go into labor that day and the knowledge that the hospitals would be overrun. As she was telling me that she felt OK and had not experienced any contractions, she suddenly fell silent and the phone line erupted with an avalanche of sound…the South Tower was collapsing.
My entire body went numb as I looked towards the television to see what I was hearing over the phone line. I thought that I was going to be sick and no words came.
It was just then that my other line began to beep, the sound of call-waiting essentially knocking me out of my daze. It was my mother, calling to tell me that she was on the runway readying to taxi away, when they grounded all flights and were returning back to the terminal. I told my office that I was leaving for the airport and would not be returning.
For some reason, I instinctively decided to stop at my house on the way back to the airport. I know that part of the reason was not wanting to be away from the television as the events of the day were transpiring in real-time, but also the realization of the historical nature of the day. When I arrived home the first thing I did was to throw a VHS tape in the VCR and hit ‘record.’ In retrospect, I know my actions were for the sake of posterity. I still have those tapes today, as a testament to the confusion and horror of the day as it occurred.
While at home, the North Tower collapsed before my eyes. I recall the feeling of shock and adrenaline, the day’s events seeming to occur so quickly, as not to have a moment to reflect on anything but the immediate. I still don’t know how long I sat there staring at the television before I got back up.
Finally, I left my house to pick up my mother. On the ride back home, I filled her in on everything that I knew up until that point, as we continued to listen to the radio for more information, any information. We arrived home to find the television still on, displaying the macabre sights and sounds of the day. As we sat down, knowing my mother and sister were safe, I finally felt a rush of emotion as my mind was able to stop for a moment and fully process what I had been hearing and seeing all morning.
As I sat there in front of the television, my senses being incessantly bombarded with replay after replay of the planes hitting the two towers, the fires and collapse at the Pentagon, the almost waterfall effect of the Twin Towers collapsing, people covered in dust, frantic reporters, wild speculation and injured New Yorkers running to and from danger…I began to cry.
What happened next, I remember vividly. As I began to cry, my mother (who grew up in Philippines, became a U.S. citizen in her 20’s and has traveled the world many times over) turned to me and said, “Why are you crying? This happens in other countries all the time.”
I remember being exceptionally angry with her at the time. To seem so cavalier about the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent people incensed me. I don’t recall exactly what I said to her, but I know it was raw, emotional and reflexive. However, in hindsight, I realized that she was not being insensitive, but rather pragmatic…and I know it’s a trait that I inherited from her. For as the initial shock of what occurred set in as days passed (I stayed in front of the television for what seemed like 72 hours straight, hardly sleeping, trying to absorb information), my desire to determine **why we were attacked became an all-encompassing endeavor. My mother was not justifying the actions of extremists, nor was she trivializing it, but rather providing the perspective of someone who has lived and traveled extensively outside of the United States and trying to provide me with the context that the U.S. was not alone in having to endure through acts of terrorism…and would now be more aware and attune to what some other nations experience on an almost daily basis…granted, certainly not on the scale approaching 9-11.
Side Note: For those wondering, fortunately my sister did not go into labor that day and my new niece (Uma) instead waited until my mother was able to fly again before she came into the world.
**Although the topic of why we were attacked has been discussed many times over the years on the Stimulated Boredom podcast, it was most recently discussed in full detail during a segment I recently recorded upon hearing the news of Osama bin Laden’s death.
You can listen to that segment here: “Head Like a Hole.“
A tragic event like 9-11 can have a galvanizing effect on a nation, its people and their pride…and it did…sometimes for the better (Pearl Harbor) and other times for the worse (End of WWI & the Versailles Treaty). As a student of history, I strive to learn and understand what certain events have to teach us and the rest of this piece will strive to achieve that goal. For those hoping for a sentimental ‘flag-waving’ conclusion to this article, you may be disappointed, as the pragmatism that I inherited from my mother has taught me to provide an honest and informed assessment and opinion of our reaction to 9-11 and the ensuing years, as opposed to one of blind Nationalism in which the U.S. can do no wrong or that, “They hate our freedom” is acceptable reasoning for wanting to kill 3000 innocent people.
In the months following 9-11, I was united behind our President and shared in the national pride that it meant to be an American. I, too, was angry and wanted revenge for the loss of so many innocent lives. We were unified, determined and unwavering in our desire to bring justice to those who perpetrated such a heinous crime against humanity. However, my first sense of the dangerous waters we were navigating came in the form of the reactions that I initially saw and heard from people around me. Otherwise reasonable people (i.e. friends, family, acquaintances), began to advocate the use of nuclear weapons as an acceptable response, without any thought to actual and real-world ramifications of such a reaction. Comments were made about the need to “round up” members of the Muslim community living in this country and to put them in “camps” (a lesson evidently lost on those who don’t recall Japanese internment camps during WWII). Violence began to break out against Muslim businesses, mosques and individuals. An entire ethnic group and normally peaceful religion was irresponsibly lumped into the same category as the very small extremist sectors of their faith. And, over time, politicians cynically began to use this fear, uncertainty and distrust to their advantage.
We became very reactionary in this country…a response understandably bred by the overwhelming sense of helplessness, confusion, fear and misunderstanding about what had just occurred to us. We accepted an oversimplified explanation from our leaders of why we were attacked (“They hated our freedom“) and relegated our breadth of knowledge on the subject to slogans that fit on bumper stickers and $0.99 magnets affixed to a soccer mom’s mini-van. There appeared to be no concerted effort by our leadership to help us to understand perhaps the (albeit, unpopular to discuss) unintended consequences of our foreign policy in the Middle East over the last five decades.
Before I continue further: For those who are expecting to hear me bash the United States and its policies, you will also be sorely disappointed. I consider myself to be a devoted patriot who loves his country very much. As such, and like an adult, I also know that our country is not perfect and that I have the protected right to offer criticism in an effort and hope to help my country be perfect, maintain its place atop the world’s great nations and meet the standard of its incredible principles. However, as I said in a recent status update / tweet:
Nearly 10 years ago, 3000 people tragically lost their lives…while the rest of us in the ensuing decade tragically lost our fucking minds.
For more on my personal politics, READ MY OP-ED ON THE SUBJECT
After 9-11, we were a unified country. We had the world on our side and could have done great things with the shared goodwill, national pride and sympathy that was felt around the globe. Regardless of how you feel about the previous Administration, the wars that we engaged in or the subsequent change in political tone that erupted…the fact of the matter is that within a very short period of time, we went from: “Proud to be an American” and “Unified” to accusing our neighbors of being “Un-American” based upon who they voted for / who’s politics they agreed with and what bumper sticker they had on their car. We measured the patriotism of Presidential candidates (people devoting themselves to public service, unlike the rest of us) by the appearance of a $0.99 flag pin on a lapel and made the assertion that some people were from “real America”, while others were not…a far departure from where we stood on September 12, 2001. It was asserted that some loved our soldiers, while others did not…depending upon what side of the political isle you aligned yourself and whether you agreed with our presence in Iraq or Afghanistan (For me: ‘No’ to the former and ‘Yes’ to the latter).
Within a short period of time, our politics and politicians dictated who really loved their country and who “aided and abetted” the enemy. Some called for hearings into members of Congress, to ascertain who might be engaged in “un-American activities” (another reference lost, to McCarthyism). People were told to “watch what they say” (despite their First Amendment rights) and were fired from their jobs (see: Bill Maher) for offering an opinion that was not in step with the flag-waving rhetoric of the time. Within a short period of time, our unity was squandered to the point of being one of the most divided we have ever been in our nation’s history…and still are, exponentially more every day.
Instead of making real strides in security, we simply became reactive to threats:
Certainly measures had to be taken to respond to attempted attacks, but we always seemed behind the curve when it came to proactive measures. Air travel was focused on; but our borders, ports and other forms of mass travel were / are essentially ignored.
We experienced a period of (in hindsight) frightful & blind nationalism…and as a result, were willing to give up Constitutionally protected civil liberties under the guise of “security.” We didn’t care that out of every reason given for sending men & women to war, not one of them proved to be correct. We overlooked wireless wiretaps and cell phone companies providing the phone logs of American citizens. We allowed Presidential candidates to manipulate our fears of another attack to their benefit. We shrugged off torture and “waterboarding”, despite the fact that we tried, convicted and executed the Japanese as war criminals for doing the same to American POW’s in WWII…all for the sake of perceived “security.” We began to distrust one another, even hate one another and squander all semblance of national unity based upon definitions put forth by politicians looking for partisan advantage. Our allies in the world – who stood tall beside us after 9-11 – began to dislike us / our policies and made criticizing the United States and its unilateral actions a winning political platform in their elections. To prevent the collapse of the Twin Towers (a financial American icon) from devastating our economy, we began borrowing and printing money without abandon. We essentially turned a blind eye to our own transgressions at Abu Ghraib and ostensibly provided a further validation and recruitment poster for our enemies.
Basically, we began to change who we are as a country…and as a result, that is what allows the “terrorists to win.”
On the 10th Anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, we are a very different country than we were on September 10th or September 12th. Throughout the day today, I have seen a lot of people posting the standard refrain of “Never Forget“, perhaps without the slightest hint of what we are supposed to remember. I highly doubt that any American has forgotten the events of that tragic day or the tremendous and senseless loss of life. All Americans felt a sigh of relief and justice when Osama bin Laden was killed…the primary person who we wanted to send a message to, that we would never forget the crime that he perpetrated. In my opinion, I would prefer that people “never forget” the sense of solidarity and unity that we felt after such a horrific event (and want a return to it) or that we “never forget” how easily we allowed our fears to be used against us for political gain and electoral expediency…I can only hope that sentiment is what is intended by many who still use the phrase today. Or the fact that we allowed politics and partisanship to tear apart that unity for cynical reasons or that we allowed fear to change who we are as a nation and our rights as a people…those intrinsic qualities that make us American.
Countless times, history has shown what fear and uncertainty can do to a country…what its people are willing to give up, tolerate, how they react and what they are willing to accept in a vain attempt to restore a sense of security. Countless times, history has shown us that some leaders will take advantage of that fear for political aims, while the truly great ones are able to use the unity felt after a tragic event in order to transform and strengthen a country. I would prefer that people “never forget” that.
A decade after the attacks, I can say with confidence that we are a weaker nation as a result of our collective reaction to the tragedy. The ensuing years of bitter division are a testament to that. We are certainly more aware of internal & external dangers and are taking measures to prevent them, to be sure…but it is also sad that it took such a horric event and terrible loss of life to do so, as opposed to the ominous harbingers we were given in Oklahoma City or the first attempt on the WTC in 1993 (which brought Bin Laden to the forefront of our attention). We could have been stronger, but sadly that opportunity passed a long time ago in the lead up to a war and the cynical priority (to some) of winning elections, despite tearing the country apart and asking them to choose sides against their fellow Americans.
A nation’s reaction to adversity says a lot about its people and their generation. In that regard, I believe that we failed when half of the country hates the other half because of the bumper sticker on their car or who they voted for.
I say these things because I love my country dearly and know that we have a long way to go to live up to what it stands for…perhaps we should never forget that.
NOTE: For historical specifics on accurately understanding “why we were attacked” and the unfortunate & unintended consequences of foreign policy, please listen to the archived segment entitled, “Head Like a Hole.”
Please feel free to also share your, “Where were you on 9-11?” stories in the comment section.