Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Post 9/11: The Day After & Five Years After

The DF&C and I were at her mountain hideaway about 75 miles from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001. It was a beautiful morning, brilliantly sunny with a cloudless, deep blue sky. I was dropping off an order for a client at a printshop and the DF&C was back at the shack listening to National Public Radio while she did some chores when the first jetliner hit the World Trade Center. There was and still is no TV at the cottage, so while we understood that the homeland was under attack, it was difficult to believe radio reports that first one tower and then the second had collapsed.

On 9/12/01, we traveled to the DF&C's childhood home in North Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City. The fires from Ground Zero still burned and there was the faint but unmistakable smell of death and destruction in the air over the Bergen County suburbs. My brother and our friend Phil had called to say that they were okay, but we still hadn't accounted for everyone we knew who worked in the Financial District. I had managed to reach my son in suburban Washington. He was watching the pillars of smoke from the Pentagon from the roof of his university dormitory.

We were sick with feelings of grief and anger, but mostly helplessness.

The sights and sounds of Air Force interceptors criss-crossing a sky empty of the usual passenger jets heading to and from metro airports were deeply unsettling, as was Phil's account of stumbling from his Wall Street office into the smoke and dust from Ground Zero. Unable to see more than a few feet in front of him, Phil followed the sounds of the foghorns of the ferry boats evacuating people from the Hudson River docks. Once he reached the river, he turned uptown and walked the hundred or so blocks to the safety of his apartment in Morningside Heights.

But my most vivid memory concerns a fleeting incident on 9/15/01 as the DF&C and I drove to her family's ancestral farm in Minnesota.

The roads were empty, as still were the skies. Everywhere we looked, American flags flew from overpasses, farmhouses and trailer parks.

We were westbound on a turnpike in Ohio or Indiana, I don't remember exactly where, and came abreast of a small rental car. In the front seat were two young men of Middle Eastern extraction. Both wore dark sunglasses even though they were driving away from the morning sun. They briefly glanced at us and then quickly looked away as we passed. Fear blazed in their eyes.

Were these men terrorists from a sleeper cell heading for a safe house in the wake of the attacks? Or merely college students frightened by the outpouring of anger from the attacks? Should we have called the authorities to say that we'd seen suspicious looking people? I've often wondered since.

On a bitter winter morning on 1/11/02, we went over to the New Jersey Palisades for a walk along the Hudson. We stopped to chat with a detachment of bored National Guard troops sitting in their Humvee at the base of the George Washington Bridge. It was impossible to see downtown Manhattan from that vantage point. Just as well. We weren't ready to see what was no longer there.

It took us months to work up the courage to travel into the city and our hearts broke all over again as we crossed the GW and looked down the majestic Manhattan skyline. The World Trade Center wasn't there. The place where I had taken my young children and the DF&C had taken family and friends from England and Australia wasn't there anymore. We knew the WTC was gone, but it still was a shock. It wasn't there!

If prodded by my brother and sister and I when we were youngsters, my parents would talk about the sacrifices that Americans made in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My mother would pull out a photo album with faded sepia snapshots and she and my father would talk about what it was like to live through a time of war.

The most shocking thing about post-9/11 America is that we haven't been asked to sacrifice, only suspend belief about another war that had nothing to do with the terror attacks and already was being planned as President Bush stood in the ruins of the WTC and beseeched us to return to our daily routines.

Well, he more or less got his wish and many Americans were back shopping at the mall in less than a fortnight.

Fittingly, Kiko's House was shrouded in mist as 9/11/06 dawned. But over the last five years, there has not been a late summer day brilliantly sunny with a cloudless, deep blue sky -- and we have been blessed with many -- that we do not think back to the victims of 9/11/01. And remember that we have a president who never asked us to sacrifice, took us into a war we didn't need, has engaged in post-apocalyptic fearmongering as political theater and relentlessly attacked anyone who dares question his monarchy.

Many Americans forgot the horrors of 9/11/01 long ago or never cared much about them in the first place, but not us. Nor has that feeling of helplessness gone away.

-- Love and Peace, SHAUN

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