Posts about 911

15 years later

Fifteen years later, the one odd vestige of that day that still affects me is that my emotions are left vulnerable. It reveals itself in the most ridiculous moments: an obvious tear-jerking moment in a movie, a TV show, someone talking. In these manipulative moments, my emotions are too easily manipulated. I can’t help but feel it well up. I realize what is happening and why and I tamp it back down. But this is how I am reminded when I least expect to be.

And then there are the photos I cannot bear to look at. The worst for me — I can barely type the words — is the falling man photo. It brings back the images I wrote about once in my news report of the events and never speak of again.

I haven’t yet been able to bear the idea of going to the 9/11 museum. I don’t much like going to the memorial, which is beautiful, yes, but it is a hole in our city and souls.

On this morning at this moment, as I type this, hearing the bell that marks the minute when the second plane hit the south tower brings back the feeling of the heat I felt on the other side of the impact and then I cry.

We said we would never forget. It is not easy to remember.

* * *

Here is the story I wrote for the Star-Ledger the afternoon of the attacks.

Here is my oral history of my experience on 9/11, recorded (badly) a few days after the event.

Here is a meditation I delivered on the jahreszeit of 9/11 in my church, when I read the Kaddish.

Here are the tweets I posted remembering each moment as it passed ten years later.

A sullied date


This 9/11, not the first, is the one when I feel most hopeless about our nation. 

On that day a dozen years ago — after washing the debris of the day off me — I held hope that the tragedy would unite Americans to stand against tyranny and for democracy and freedom.

Today I see a nation that is not upholding the principles of freedom but is instead still using 9/11 as an excuse to threaten speech and assembly, to isolate ourselves from the world, and to build closed fortresses rather than the open square.

That’s not to say I didn’t find 9/11 leading me down wrong paths. I supported the Iraq war, not because Saddam Hussein had a thing to do with the attack on us, of course, but because I bought the rationale that we should stand up for his oppressed people and free them for democracy — and the promise that we could succeed. I was wrong.

But as we debate Syria now, I am troubled that we are not willing to place a red line at tyranny or to decide where that line is. I’m not saying we should attack Syria — I have learned that lesson. But I do wish we would first discuss what our obligation is to these people and then discuss means. Instead, I hear a debate only about degrees of isolation.

I am disgusted at every revelation from Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and the Guardian about the massive violation of essential rights committed by the NSA. I worry greatly about the chill this puts on speech, on assembly, and on the advancement of technology. I don’t blame the spies. Cats must kill, spies must spy. I blame our leaders for not doing their single most important job: protecting freedom.

This morning, I went back to the World Trade Center. I used to go there faithfully on this date. Today, I decided to visit at the last minute. Now that the 9/11 Memorial is complete, every activity of the day is being held there, closed behind wire and walls. I could barely hear the bagpipes in the air.

That the 9/11 Memorial and today’s remembrances are held in a fortress is emblematic of the wrong path we have taken these 12 years: not toward openness but toward isolation, not toward generosity but toward defense, not toward principles but toward expediency. We should be closer to freedom. We are farther away.

But I must search for hope in the day. I want to find hope in the bravery of a few whistleblowers and journalists who are fighting for our right to know what our government is doing to us and the world. I want to find hope in the fact that we are not blindly entering another war and are at least debating it first. I want to find hope in going to the World Trade Center and seeing the hole in our soul finally filled in. I want to.

A media attack

The attack on the Boston Marathon was designed to maximize media coverage: a popular event with cameras everywhere and a narrative that will be sure to follow about innocent enjoyment henceforth ruined by danger.

For years, we’ve been told to fear this: an attack on a football game or at Disneyland or in a mall, someplace without fear before. Instead, it happened at the marathon. No matter who committed this crime, a precedent is now set for those that unfortunately will follow. Now every time there is a popular event with many cameras that is open — not easily contained like a stadium — we will be taught to worry.

A few weeks ago in New Delhi, I stayed in a hotel that happened to be owned by the same company that suffered the terrorist attack in Mumbai. Every car coming in was searched; every guest went through a metal detector; every guest’s bag went through an X-ray. We’re accustomed to such circumstantial security in America: If a shoe is used to make a bomb, all shoes are dangerous. In India, hotels are dangerous. In America, not just office buildings and airports but now public events are threatened.

But the new factor this time — versus 9/11 or London’s bombings or Mumbai’s attacks or even the Atlanta Olympics’ — is the assured presence of media cameras at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. This was the media-centered attack.

But here’s a touch of irony: On prime-time TV, the three major networks didn’t alter their programming to continue covering this event.* That tells us that terrorism is worth wall-to-wall coverage somewhere between two and 3,000 deaths. Boston, apparently, wasn’t big enough.

But at least on cable news, there is plenty of video of the blast and its immediate aftermath to loop over and over and over again.

* Correction: I should have complained that the broadcast networks did not preempt primetime. When I wrote this, I turned to all three networks and each had entertainment programming. As fans of an NBC show pointed out to me, their show was indeed preempted later in the night.

The 11th 11th

This year, for the first time, I feel nothing drawing me to go to the World Trade Center on the anniversary of the attacks. Perhaps that’s because, after last year’s anniversary, I went to the finally opened 9/11 memorial, and that was enough for a hundred anniversaries. I feel no need to return to it because it is so big, too big.

Yes, we must remember. That is why I had insisted on returning in years past: so I could remember and give thanks for surviving that day. But the memorial does more than just remember. It closes up the open wound on the city but leaves the scar there. It refuses to let life return to the place where death occurred. Worse, it creates a new fortress of fear with security and scanners around it. Worse yet, one exits that fortress and returns to life through the gift shop.

Since when did we insist that the place where someone died is sacred? We see that idea reflected in the makeshift memorials on highways’ sides or on stoops where someone is gunned down. I understand that reflex. But eventually, the flowers and pictures and candles are swept away and life returns. Memorials are elsewhere: on gravestones and statues and in museums. We build those things for memories.

As far as I am concerned, personally, the flowers and pictures and candles are gone from the World Trade Center. Life is returning. Memories live elsewhere.

9/11, in the mirror

To ask how 9/11 changed me is to assume that I could imagine life without that day. 9/11 became a line in my definition of myself, alongside father, husband, journalist, teacher, writer, blogger, child of the ’60s, tall klutz, odd liberal, and now middle-aged man.

I was reluctant to join in the alarm-clark nostalgia and self-examination coming with the 10th anniversary of the event. But I just decided that I’d best look in my own mirror before my landsmen in media try to define us for ourselves.

9/11 helped make me who I am; then again, it didn’t. That is, a life is not defined solely by its sameness and banality. Life is also defined by its exceptions and how one absorbs the impact of their blows. War, disease, loss: so many people suffer trauma worse than we did on that day–just look to the Middle East today–and have no choice but to carry on.

9/11 happens to be mine. I catch myself assuming that people know this about me because it was once what described this blog and thus me. I forget sometimes that it has been a long time.

My story in brief: I came into the north tower of the World Trade Center on the last PATH train from New Jersey just as the first jet hit above.

The scenes I remember vividly include empty women’s shoes on the silent, just-smokey concourse; their owners ran out of them that fast … the woman cop who shouted at us–“RUN! RUN!”–as we came out from under WTC5 … standing across the street when the second jet hit, feeling the heat and pressure of its explosion from the other side … running away … the first responders’ faces as they ran into the buildings … mundane paperwork everywhere on the ground … listening to the news of the Pentagon around a manhole cover, on a utility worker’s radio … talking to a woman there, dazed, who’d just escaped the towers, her blouse dotted by the fire sprinklers there … the tourist who wanted me to take his picture in front of the burning towers (I refused) … the top of the south tower tilting slightly to the left … running away … being overrun by the dust and debris … utter blackness … banging into cement and glass while around me things fell and people screamed … finding refuge in a building, covered in that dust, which also filled my mouth and ears … when it began to clear, back outside, I saw a black woman passing, all white except for the dark trails of tears on her face … emergency workers asking me how it was as they, too, ran in … walking uptown, people looking at me with some fright … Times Square shut up, practically abandoned … waiting for hours by the Lincoln Tunnel until it reopened and a kind stranger from Staten Island drove me to my car … opening the door to home. There are worse scenes I refuse to recount.

Then the aftermath began. There are many obvious changes in my life with 9/11 as the cause.

For years, my son, then 9, would not let me leave without saying he loved me and hearing that from me.

To this day, I cannot watch even the most obvious, manipulative emotional crescendo of a movie or TV show without feeling the reflex to well up. It is as if my pathos button is now exposed on my sleeve and anyone can push it.

The dust gave me pneumonia and when I was given a lung test, that triggered a heart arrhythmia that’s under treatment with drugs, though it threatens to return anytime. It’s nothing next to the diseases of first responders and others. It just happens to be my physical scar.

My politics took a detour. From a war-protesting liberal student in the ’60s, I became a hawk in this new war on — what? — terrorism. Though I certainly did not link 9/11 to Iraq, it was that hawkish turn that steered me to endorse war there, which I regret as a mistake — especially in light of the Arab Spring. Today, citizens are claiming their own nations rather than seeing others come to claim them. I have learned a lesson.

The most profound change of 9/11 for me was this very blog. Though I’d followed blogs since Nick Denton himself showed them to me, I didn’t write one because — and I say this with no irony — I thought I had nothing to say. After 9/11, I wanted to share more memories and thoughts. So I started a blog at first called Warlog: World War III (irony’s obituary had been written by then). I thought I’d use it for a few weeks. Instead, it changed my understanding of media, my worldview, my career. All that emerged from understanding the power of the simple link. The blog also led me to meet and become friends with people in Iran, Iraq, Germany, all over. This blog changed my life more than 9/11 but I have this blog because of 9/11.

There is a recitation of the obvious impact on me. To go much beyond that, I’d have to speculate about what life would have been like without 9/11 but, as I said, that’s impossible to do. Life includes 9/11.

Thinking through the impact on us as a city, a nation, a people is even more difficult. I am dubious of those who claim to examine how it changed us. How do they know? It’s a logical impossibility to catalog what we are now but would not have been without that day.

On this 9/11, I haven’t decided whether I will go to the site, as I have in all but one year since, when I was traveling. In the first year afterwards, I was among many there, listening to the names, and also listening to a one-year-later replay of Howard Stern’s show from that morning. When I hear that show still it hits my pathos button. Every year, I have retraced my path from that morning. Every year, I give thanks for surviving. No, I don’t know whom I’m thanking. I think about those who were not as fortunate as I am. My wife still wonders why I do this. I figure it is a rare privilege to be able to visit the grave one could have but have not yet inhabited.

If you’d asked me in the days after the event what I’d be feeling now, on the 10th anniversary, I think I’d have told you this would be a momentous anniversary with much introspection, many lessons learned. I’d have vowed that we must never forget and thus must revisit the scene and our memories, as I did even days later (that’s why this blog was born). I’d have been wrong.

I find it quite odd that I don’t want to watch any of the documentaries or read others’ recollections (why am I subjecting you to this then? I don’t know; it’s more feeding the blog god and therapy for me, forcing memory). I agree with friend Bill Grueskin, who was at the Wall Street Journal then and is at Columbia now and who suffered the impact of the day in many ways more directly than I. He posted on Facebook that he’s not really up to immersing himself in 9/11.

I don’t know why. It’s not that I want to forget. I can’t and won’t. It’s not that it’s too painful. It was more painful then, though I will say that all this 9/11 talk is giving me a renewed if slight sense of dread. It’s not even that I think media have been too exploitive. In fact, I’m shocked they haven’t been far more exploitive.

I guess it’s that life isn’t defined by a day, no matter how momentous.

: Here are my audio recollections of 9/11, recorded some days afterward.