Friday, September 09, 2011

911 September Eleventh at Ten

911 September Eleventh at Ten

Veterans of the Vietnam war have a saying: If you weren't there, you don't get it. The same can be said of September eleventh, 2001.  Now, ten years later, it’s truer than ever.  

There were three "grounds zero," not one. The main one was the World Trade Center in New York. There also was the Pentagon and a lonely field in Pennsylvania.

As your distance increases from these points, the impact on you tends to decrease. "It wasn't such a big deal" is heard throughout the land, especially with the intervening death of Osama Bin Laden.

The pint size intellectual then in the White House didn't get it when it happened and didn't get it for the rest of his presidency and doesn't get it now. And if you weren't there, neither do you, even if you think you do.

Time fuzzes out the day and the days that followed. We look at the events and the circumstances with gauze over the lens. Or not. It's like when Kennedy was shot. Everyone remembers clearly where they were that day, that hour. And everyone in greater New York lost someone when the Trade Center came down. Everyone knew someone who was trapped in that hell. If not that, then a cop or a firefighter who plunged into the wreckage and died or who live on with godawful afflictions acquired in the line of duty and sometimes without compensation.

And now, here we are, a decade past, and the World Trade Center remains an architectural rendering and a fence and some rental contracts, many unsigned.

The mind, gauze on the lens or none, doesn't grasp three thousand deaths in an attack on American soil. The number is overwhelming. But we grasp the death of a loved one or a neighbor or a friend or a guy who worked at the next desk and went to his reward without you because you were running late that morning.

And the mind, gauze on the lens or none, doesn't totally cloud the unity we all felt in the aftermath, a unity that lives in our minds and hearts but eventually evaporated, like the poisoned smoke the Environmental Ministry told us it wasn't.

Friend and former-colleague Don Mathisen went on the air with me a couple of years ago, and talked about the lessons of the day. Don said he had hoped that the event taught us that the military is needed to protect New York, and that local police and intelligence should be expanded. Don is right, of course. But what would have happened if a flight of Navy F-14s had brought down a civilian airliner? You know the answer.

The stink of this thing took about a week to float its way to the Upper East Side, and it's the kind of stink that stays with you, both in your nose and in your heart. By Tuesday the 18th, we had pretty much the same picture we have now, ten years later. We didn't have an exact death count, but we knew the round number was 3,000. We didn't know the extent of the maladies that would later strike survivors, but that stink in the air told us SOMETHING was coming, eventually.

The feds and the city did air tests. The Environmental Protection Agency's Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor, Horsewoman, elegant, poised in a Miss Manners sort of way, assured us that everything was clean. The party line.

The subways and the commuter railroads got back to normal on the "day of..." though late, after they'd figured out that they weren't targets. In the hours before that, they stopped. Sometimes in darkened tunnels and without explanation. For hours.

There are shocks to the system -- the personal system -- that take time to sink in. This one sunk in immediately. Something like this could not be happening. Back in the newsroom on 59th, we went about our business. But what WAS our business? Reporting the truth. But what WAS the truth? The TV, our transmissions and everyone else’s had pictures of the planes hitting the towers and the fires that followed. There we were in our individual private hells and in the collective hells shared by everyone. The towers, the Pentagon, and later, the Pennsylvania field, all there for the viewing, over and over.

Noses to the grindstone. Get out the facts. Find the mayor. Find the Secretary of Defense, find the President, find the Vice President.

The first wasn't easy. There were no facts. The second WAS easy. The Mayor was on site, downtown, where he belonged. The secretary was scratching his head. The President was airborne -- somewhere. The vice president was encamped at his now-famed "undisclosed location," presumably pulling strings in his sinister way, insuring there were no more hijackings that day by grounding every civilian aircraft in America.  Dick Cheney says in his new book that one of the undisclosed locations was the Vice President’s Residence in Washington and another was his home in Wyoming.  Took ten years to find that out.

On the street, New Yorkers were doing something they always do, but in a new way. We were schmoozing. With total strangers. We were walking... no subways quite yet. We were working our way to Grand Central or to Penn Station or to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, trying to get home. Or hoofing it across the 59th Street Bridge. Or the Brooklyn Bridge. Throngs of us. Talking among ourselves quietly. We were, for the moment, a people unified in horror and brotherhood. We passed the southern entrances to Central Park and smelled horses. The Trade Center stink wouldn't block that out for a week.

We were one people determined to seek safety and to avenge. And now, here it is, all these years later. And where is that unity? It has been splintered by partisan bickering, by the fighting of useless wars, an economic near-depression and we have, in a decade, been lulled into complacency by the death of the enemy’s figurehead and remain only slightly closer to bringing the rest of villains to justice.

This is shameful and unacceptable.

Further, over the intervening decade we have become a nation sunk a Balkanizing quicksand with unprecedented and paralyzing in-fighting and factionalization, mired in depression and inability to compromise on anything.

That, too, is shameful and unacceptable.

It has become a battle of ownership.  “Who is the proprietor of this tragedy?” has become a more important question than any other, it seems.  

The White House has issued “guidelines” on how to observe the anniversary, what we should be thinking about, and who.  The White House does not own 9/11.  The strutting Rudolph Giuliani, whose flagging popularity was raised above the drowning line when the planes hit the buildings does not own 9/11.  The intellectually impotent, double-talking political hack  Rumsfeld doesn’t own 9/11.  Nor do the cable networks, the real networks, the tabloids, Life Magazine or the guy next door who’s been to ground zero and the Pentagon just to gawk.  And neither do the reporters who covered though some of them giving tenth anniversary interviews seem to think so.

Everyone wants a piece of the action after the fact.

And that is the most shameful and unacceptable of all.

I'm Wes Richards. My opinions are my own, but you're welcome to them.®
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©WJR 2009, 2011

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