It’s been seven years since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and it still seems surreal to me.
I watched it all unfold live on television in a newsroom in Midland, TX, the heart of George W. Bush country, hometown of the First Lady.
The attacks did exactly what the perpetrators wanted them to do — get our attention, cause mass casualties, scare us, disrupt everything from our markets to our psyches. It was the strange day when the terrorist movie came to life, only there was no Denzel Washington or Bruce Willis to save the day. This was reality and people jumped to their deaths rather than burn and due to miscommunication and misguidedness more than 300 firefighters bravely charged a pair of doomed buildings that buried them and more than 2,600 people in a concrete and asbestos filled grave.
It was strange because I didn’t live in New York or Washington, D.C. or Pennsylvania. Like a lot of Americas I was separate and removed from the attacks so there was both a pain and a disconnect. None of us could really know how the people in New York’s boroughs and how people in Manhattan felt as they walked, covered in dust, across a bridge in a daze, escaping the horror that they’d witnessed.
Years later, a photographer from a New York newspaper who was there that day came to my new job in a newsroom in Bakersfield, Calif. He recounted how his life was saved by a firefighter who shoved him down while kept taking pictures. His journalist instincts made him want to make sure there was a photographic record of such a surreal day. It wasn’t until others screamed for him to run that he realized he might be killed if he didn’t move his feet.
But he still tried to protect his cameras.
He talked about taking refuge in a store with others who also couldn’t believe what they’d seen and some of us cried while listening. I know I did. I cry just thinking about it. Because I can still remember watching it on TV after the first plane hit and hearing that firefighters were rushing to the scene and storming the building.
I told my editor that was crazy. They couldn’t fight that fire, not from a jet engine crashing into a building. They needed to evacuate everyone out of there. So many of those people didn’t have to die. But my editor, like a lot of people, assumed this was just some freak accident and didn’t expect the towers to fall. But I’m the daughter of a engineer. I knew the building was already lost, but everything was so surreal I knew that New Yorkers were relying on adrenaline and instinct, not thinking of the structural integrity of the building. They weren’t removed and remote from it, like me, in a newsroom in Texas, watching what felt like “The Siege.” The police and firefighters and EMTs and the Port Authority were trying to do what they were trained to do, but no one was trained for this.
When the second plane hit it was obvious this wasn’t an accident, but no one wanted to believe it. It was too horrible beyond words, yet there was a giddiness among reporters and editors in many newsrooms across the country. On one hand, something terrible had happened. On the other this was the biggest news story of our lifetime and we would all be part of it as witnesses, writing the first draft of a terrible history.
People didn’t know what to do and wanted to help the victims, so they donated money and blood and the government used some of that money to bail out the airlines who were facing possible lawsuits and bankruptcy in the wake of the attacks.
As time passed and shock turned to anger, my editor, not the most politically correct person, began to make “Muslim-equals-terrorist” barbs in the newsroom, ignoring the fact that one of our photographers was a South East Asian who was a Muslim. He finally told her he didn’t appreciate her asking him if he knew any terrorists in jest or calling Osama bin Laden and other terrorists “his people.”
For a lot of people it was easy to just lash out at the nearest person with a “funny” accent wearing a turban. People attacked Sikh followers even though they weren’t Muslim. And suddenly there was something worst than being a black person in America. It was Arab and other American citizens of Middle Eastern descent who were being targeted. It didn’t matter that they came here legally or were born here. They went from being respected business owners, professors and doctors to suspects. It was the equivalent of if after Oklahoma City was bombed the FBI began rounding up every militia man, former Operation Desert Storm veterans, racist and reader of the Anarchist Cookbook.
Or, to be safe, every white man between the ages of 25 and 45.
I guess it made sense at the time to do anything hastily rather than slow down and do it rationally. And that’s also what we lost on that day. All logic went out the window. It went out of the window of the citizenry now scared of more attacks. It went out of the window of the White House, which immediately began to tie the attacks to long-time enemy and former friend of the Reagan Administration, Saddam Hussein.
The death of rationality has lead us to where we are today, seven years later, embroiled in not one, but two wars rife with graft, abuse and impropriety, a tarnished international image, clinging to dictators and calling them democracies (see: Pakistan), a trashed economy, a violated Bill of Rights, and an overall lack of competence in dealing with domestic issues (see: Hurricane Katrina).
You can’t understand unless you’ve been in it. I don’t know what it’s like to sit on the roof of a flooded house for days waiting for rescue. I don’t know what it’s like to die of thirst in the Superdome or die in a hospital where it is flooded and there is no power. I don’t know what its like to be the doctor who has to decide who lives or dies or the police officer who has to search for sanity because help is not coming.
I don’t know what it’s like to wage battle on the streets of Fallujah and lose a friend or a limb or my mind. I don’t know what it’s like to sit in fear of a call or a visit from military officers to tell a loved one has been lost to an IED or a bullet. I don’t know what its like to be deployed over and over to dodge death again and again because there aren’t enough soldiers for the fight. I don’t know what it’s like to be kidnapped on an illegal rendition and tortured for names of people I don’t know know. I don’t know what it’s like to be targeted for believing in the Prophet Muhammad. I don’t know what it’s like to be a New York 911 operator telling people trapped that help is coming then hear all the lines go silent.
I don’t know what it’s like to walk for miles, covered in dust to cross a bridge not knowing where home is.
I don’t know what any of that is like. It’s all sad, distant and surreal for me. Like it happened in a dream because it didn’t happen to me, but knowing that in an uncertain world it could happen to anyone.
It’s been an unpleasant and surreal seven years. Here’s to hoping that the next seven, and the next presidential administration, will be a little better in an uncertain world.