I was just getting in my car as the first tower fell.
I didn’t see it happen, I only heard it described by Elliott in The Morning, the morning show on the radio station DC101. The only voice I remember hearing at that moment wasn’t the person actually describing what they saw. It was Elliott’s usually jovial sidekick – I think his name was Flounder – summarizing the moment better than anyone actually supplying narrative ever could.
“Oh my God.”
I was in a gravel lot outside of a nondescript office building in Silver Spring, Maryland. Having spent much of the morning watching TV and trying to contact my wife of two months who worked across the street from the U.S. Capitol, we as an office had given up on the day. I was excused to go and try to pick her up in the heart of a city in complete panic mode.
As the only one going into the belly of the city, the roads were empty save two cabbies cruising along nonchalantly, blocking both lanes, chatting through their open windows. I yelled, cursed and honked but they continued as if it was just any other beautiful last summer morning in Washington.
Finally past the cabbies and having been able to talk to Jenn. We realized we were on opposite ends of Massachusetts Avenue – one of the diagonal ‘state’ streets that visitors to D.C. should avoid at all costs. She started walking and I started crawling along the suddenly jam-packed corridor, cluttered with everyone leaving their offices and heading out of town to their suburban homes. I started on 16th, she started on 2nd and we ended up meeting at 9th.
Knowing the direct route west to our apartment in Arlington was blocked by the security ringing the national mall, we worked our way north and then west across Rock Creek Park. We ended up in northern Georgetown. Coming back south through Georgetown on Wisconsin toward M Street, one is typically met with bustling streets filled with students, shoppers and tourists. This morning it was completely empty, like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.
Crossing the Key Bridge, we looked south and saw the long, pillar of black smoke streaming across the Potomac from the Pentagon as it caught the slight eastern blowing breeze.
Finally back at our tiny apartment a full three hours after I first got in my car, we spent the remainder of the day as the rest of America did. Watching horrific image after horrific image flicker across our television.
At some point that day, sometime after my dad’s voicemail finally came through three hours after he called; after the adrenaline wore off and we both collapsed into mid-afternoon naps; after we talked about wishing our cat could have told us what she had heard that morning as a plane flew by at an unnatural height; I had the thought that life in the United States as we had both known it for 26 comfortable years was over; our world was irrevocably different.
For a period of time, especially living in D.C., this was undoubtedly true. But gradually it faded. Remarkably quickly for the vast majority of Americans, daily life appeared no different than it had on September 10th. Sure there was news of wars in far-off places if you cared to seek it out. There were these abstract scares of ‘another imminent attack’ but little came of them. There were attacks in places like Spain and England but they still felt distant.
The following spring, one of my old college track team teammates was killed in Afghanistan. He was in the Special Forces and was one of the earliest casualties of the war; he and his fallen comrades garnering the cover of Newsweek in the time before casualties were relegated to cold numbers and the back pages.
At the time, when I learned of the news, I remember the feeling of overwhelming guilt. I was so wrapped up in my daily existence I didn’t have time to spend contemplating the sacrifices being made on the other side of the world in my name. Until it directly affected me. For three days, I spent every possible moment trying to find as much information as I could about what had happened – seeking to understand how a guy I hadn’t thought of in 5 years had lost his life.
Marc Anderson’s death was a shock but once again a few days later the war faded to the back of my priority list. Like most of us, I went back to leading my life. And maybe that is how it should be. Become too consumed by the unknowable and uncontrollable dangers in the world and you could cease to live your life.
Except for one day a year.
It has now been twelve years since that morning. Amidst heart-felt remembrances and mis-guided attempts at sensitivity,
another new phenomenon has started to emerge: reminders of how long it truly has been since that day. Peter King today noted that Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was in the 6th grade at the time.
But any attempt to draw a line at how much time has elapsed since that day, misses the point completely. Like no other day in my life, there is no distance from 9/11. It doesn’t impact my day to day life but I can still lay out a minute by minute account of that morning. Get my wife and I together and ask us to describe that morning and we can bounce back and forth off each other like a Vaudeville act, almost breathlessly finishing each others’ sentences. I expect this will be true for years to come.
I in no way pretend my experience that day was unique or remarkable. Had those brave passengers on United flight 93 not taken the plane down in Pennsylvania and if it were truly destined for the U.S. Capitol as has been surmised, I might have a tragic story to tell about a lost loved one. But I don’t. My story is no different than the millions of others living in the D.C. metro area.
One of the most surprising things for me coming out of 9/11 was how personal it was for everyone I have ever discussed it with. Regardless of where people lived, it seems that everyone was convinced that their home town was the next target that morning. To those of us in the heart of D.C. it sounds ridiculous to hear someone argue Jacksonville or Colorado Springs or even Chicago was the next logical destination but it doesn’t matter; the people there believed it. I guess that is truly the definition of terrorism. It isn’t the act itself but the widespread fear and doubt that it spreads.
So, save your fun stats about all of the things that have happened in the intervening years since that morning. For one day every year, there is no distance from 9/11. And there never will be.