I was going to post something different today. But then I realized that September 11 couldn’t be allowed to pass without commemoration. Anything else would be petty and self-indulgent on such a day.
Twelve years ago, I was living in Boston. I’d just been hired to work as an admin on the Big Dig, and I was attending orientation for new hires when word came down that some kind of emergency was taking place. Anyone with a position of responsibility hurried off, leaving the rest of us to sit tight. I moseyed out into the main floor of the office, where they hadn’t yet realized the full extent of what was happening. When I asked, someone told me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. At the time, I thought that just meant that some damn fool amateur pilot had crashed a single-engine into the upper floors. Plenty of damage, sure, and probably some people killed. The pilot at the very least. Definitely news, but I didn’t see the reason for an office in Massachusetts to go on emergency footing.
I soon learned better.
It didn’t really hit me emotionally that day. Not for some time after, really. Part of it was shock, part of it was that my fiance-at-the-time was upset – her mother’s job sometimes took her to downtown, and it was a little while before we heard from her – but I think the biggest part was that it didn’t seem real. It was too far away and too big to process, like the 2004 Christmas Tsunami. It’s when you start hearing the individual stories that you start crying.
Since then, I’ve met people who were there that day. People who watched dust-covered victims running past the windows of their offices. One person found herself in Times Square, covered with cement dust, with no real idea how she got there. Another was there to see the towers fall and has since switched to a radically different career.
Me? I’ve seen that picture at the top in real life, sometimes as far away as Astoria. I’ve watched old movies and noticed how, for twenty-odd years, the Towers were visual shorthand for New York. Just show that skyline, and everyone knew where you were. And in even the most pessimistic of sci-fi dystopias, the Towers were still standing. I’ve spent a few years working in that area, riding past the Cortlandt Street subway stop on the way to Whitehall Street, during the years it stood closed and ruined. I’ve visited the ruins and the memorials and watched the Freedom Tower go up in its place, to fill the hole in the sky.
And I’ve gotten angry.
Because it’s not supposed to be this way.
Three thousand people shouldn’t be dead and the Towers shouldn’t be down, of course. That was a given. There’s the grief and anger for that, and always will be. But it’s what happened after.
I remember immediately after 9/11. The world rallied to our side. Americans stood united in a way we haven’t since Pearl Harbor. Something good could have come of that. Something better. I remember many hopeful, naive pieces of art predicting…promising…that we would.
Instead, we went mad. We spent years berserk with rage and fear, lashing out in all directions, hoping that if we blew enough things up, we would finally feel safe again, screaming “with us or against us!” at countries that used to be our allies. Thousands of our own people killed and wounded, tens or even hundreds of thousands in a country that had nothing to do with anything. Our national treasure squandered until a stock-market crash nearly broke us. And the fear still isn’t gone.
Americans would have done anything to help out in the aftermath of 9/11. We could have been the Greatest Generation come again, joining together and volunteering in common cause, all in it together for once instead of continuing on the polarizing path of the Nineties.
Instead, the stupid man in the White House and the evil men who acted as his puppet masters told us to go shopping and tried to use that spirit of unity to silence dissent and create a permanent majority for their own party, helping to create our current near-Civil War situation.
It’s good that Osama bin Laden is dead, along with almost all of the leaders of Al-Qaeda from his day. If evil men must triumph in this world, it’s at least a little better if they aren’t around to enjoy it.
So here we are, twelve years after the worst attack ever to strike American soil. Poorer. More frightened. More isolated. Divided. Diminished. And all of this grandeur was built on a foundation of bones and ash and bodies.
It’s better than it was, it’s true. No better symbol of that than the Freedom Tower, almost finished and apparently opening next spring.
Still. As I do every year at this time, I see all the tributes and rememberances, and my heart breaks a little. And then I get angry.
Because it’s not supposed to be this way.