Yes, 9/11 affected me.
Arriving on the last PATH train into the World Trade Center as the first jet hit, I witnessed the second jet’s impact and stayed to report. I still cannot bring myself to speak of some of what I saw. A block from the South Tower as it tilted, I ran, debris smashing the ground all around me, in the utter darkness of a man-made midnight. I emerged covered in the detritus of destruction, a gray statue in pulverized stone.
In the immediate aftermath, I was afflicted with a heart condition, atrial fibrillation, which I live with still. In the longer aftermath, I have had two cancers, a respiratory condition, and PTSD certified by the World Trade Center Health Program as related to 9/11. It affected my family in ways I leave to them to discuss or not; they are not public, like me.
Yes, 9/11 affected us, though we are fortunate next to our neighbors who lost loved ones and to the victims of the two wars that resulted.
As this twentieth anniversary approached — a number that seems distant yet immediate — I have been struggling to understand my emotions and their meaning. And I find myself thinking not of 9/11 but of the other tragedies in America that are not accorded the somber remembrance and reflection of that single September day, but instead become political pawns and media spectacles exploited according to the benefit of others.
I think first of the 667,528 deaths due to COVID-19, thus far. On March 31, 2020, I suffered my worst breakdown since 9/11 as the toll of the disease passed that of the attack — 2,977 — for we could see the terror and tragedy yet to come. Where will we build the memorial to the — God save us — million we may lose in this country alone, almost all gone needlessly? I am permitted my anger still at the perpetrators of 9/11, but we are told not to scold the politicians, the Fox faces, and the everyday people who perpetuate COVID’s murders through their reckless, careless, self-centered, illogical, ignorant, callous, evil disregard and contempt for the lives and well-being of those around them, refusing even to get a shot and wear a damned mask. Instead of somber reflection, I see the disease and its impact treated as an asset to be spent as governors’ tributes to the Trump era, as content traded for attention to commentators, as a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of politicians and media barons around the world.
I think next of the victims and soldiers who fought and died in the two wars that my country justified from 9/11. The day after, I was angry. I wanted retribution. I am permitted that emotion still. But I am also deeply ashamed of believing George W. Bush and The New York Times not just about weapons of mass destruction but about the hubris of America’s belief in its virtue and its manifest destiny to build democracies. I am sorry.
I think then of George Floyd and Black Americans waiting 400 years for a global movement behind the simple, self-evident cause that Black lives matter. Where are our memorials in every city and town to the victims of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, and injustice? Germany has memorials to its crimes, sins, and shame, one in the center of Berlin. Where are ours? Where is our somber reflection of our worst sin?
I think of January 6, another day in infamy, but this terror came from within. I am shocked that we could have commissions, legislation, government reorganizations, years of contemplation, and wars of revenge over the perpetrators of 9/11, yet we cannot bring those who inspired and caused the insurrection on our Capitol to justice.
I think of women in Texas who are having their rights to their own bodies ripped away from them by men in power and a Supreme Court put in power by those who for all these years exploited 9/11 for their political gain. I think of the trans and LGBTQ people who suffer discrimination and abuse. I think of children and other innocents still dying because of this country’s insane love of guns as a sick symbol of freedom. I think of the children of Flint who do not have safe water to drink. I think of the incarcerated, especially Black men, still in prison for selling a commodity that is now legal in many places and of the countless other injustices there. I think of the victims of fires and storms, of climate change, the anthropocene disaster we refuse to take responsibility for. I think of the victims of opioids, victims of malpractice, victims of greed.
I think of the old, white men — and I am an old, white man — who hold onto power and who would rather destroy the institutions of democracy than share their fruits with those who follow.
Yes, on this day, I think about how 9/11 affected me all these years. But I also think of our profound inability to prioritize our concern about other tragedies in our nation, of our inability to be self-reflective regarding our own responsibilities and sins, of the other causes of justice and equity around us that are too easily lost by my colleagues in journalism in the breaking news of the moment. Now 9/11 brings all those failures of ours — and mine — into sharp relief.
Yes, on this day, I always recall the lives lost. I thank the first responders whose faces I still remember as some guided us to safety and some ran toward danger. I reflect on the blessing I have to have survived. But the day would be lost were there not larger lessons to learn. I regret that we have learned too few.