Monday, September 11, 2006

I Remember...

I remember September 11, 2001. Oh, I've been accused many times of "forgetting" it, especially by people who think they somehow own the symbology of that day; the identity of it. But I remember it uncoupled from the lies and the wars that followed. I remember the day as it was, a day of tremendous shock and sorrow.

I was actually on the Metra when the first jet crashed into the North Tower. That would be the suburban commuter train that took us low ranking corporate functionaries from our middle class townhomes in Carol Stream or Hanover Park to the Chicago Loop. I slept the whole way to Union Station, much as I did every day. A beautiful morning walk, a stop at the Corner Bakery, a day like any other. But only for awhile.

I was working for a small real estate firm on Wacker Drive at that time and, upon arriving to work and getting settled into my office, decided to wander off to the complementary coffee break room. There I ran into our corporate accounting manager, who casually remarked how he'd heard that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I imagined a single prop airplane, some lost or drunk pilot carelessly joyriding and causing a spectacle on that beautiful morning. It was so easy to be that naive then.

But not for long. Soon other folks began to arrive at the office with terrible tales to tell. War! An attack on New York City. Several of us tuned in to Mancow (Rush Limbaugh with a sense of humor) just in time to hear of the second attack, this time claiming the south tower. Soon news reports were blaring across the airwaves, talk of terrorists and hijackings nationwide. See, no one knew in those few hours what the terrible scope of the attacks were nor if there were more to come. It was taken as an almost certainty that Chicago and maybe L.A. were in immediate danger. At the behest of Mayor Daley, many of us began trying to evacuate the Loop, glancing furtively at the skyline and wondering if we were about to see it as it was for the last time.

The most poignent moment of 9/11 for me came in that chaotic exodus. Thousands upon thousands of people streamed towards the train stations, wanting desperately to escape home, to comfort and sanity. Reports screamed out over the radio of panic and confusion at the Sears Tower and the Hancock building. As I half-walked, half-ran towards Union Station, a single, clarifying moment occurred. A low-flying jet, banking over Chicago, it's engines roaring. I watched thousands of people turn their gazes to the sky at once and then, reflexively, duck as they ran, believing, as I certainly did, that we were about to witness first-hand what we'd all been hearing about that morning. The sky was a perfect blue as that silver arrow eased lazily over the Chicago skyline and escaped north over the Miracle Mile.

And then it was over, the spell broken. We had been given a reprieve, been spared the agony of New York and Washington. Thousands of people packed the Metra and CTA, so many that the doors wouldn't close. I arrived home after being trapped standing for an hour and a half to Hanover Park. I watched on CNN the constant replay of the attacks and, later, the gut-wrenching agony of the towers' collapse. Gifted-1 and I spoke several times on the phone that morning, she from work near O'Hare and me from home, as fighter jets rumbled over head. They would be the last jets we'd hear for many days; an air-traffic silence over the greater Chicago area that was, in its way, just as unsettling as the attacks. It had the feeling of a changed America, an America under attack by an enemy many of us didn't realize we had...


In retrospect, the saddest part of 9/11 for me, beyond the death and destruction, was Al-Qaeda's success. They sought to terrify the American people, to cow us into believing that our freedom was a liability to our safety. And so many believed them; still believe them. Maybe now, this five years on, we can step back from that abyss and remember that we've always had enemies and our oceans have never protected us from them. The only existential threat we face is from within, not from the hills of Afghanistan or alleys of Baghdad. Al-Qaeda can do nothing to our nation that we don't allow, save bleed us a little. And we've always bled for our way of life; it's worth a little blood now and then.

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