To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Day One in the 'Long War': Remembering 9/11

One of the most lasting memories I have of my old rooftop in Brooklyn Heights is sitting up there on a crystalline late-summer morning reading the Starr Report in the New York Times in September 1998, the lower Manhattan skyline glistening across the East River.  I recall laughing out loud at the absurdities of the report---both the absurd details of Bill Clinton’s sexual misbehavior in the Oval office as well as the absurdity that the government had given Kenneth Starr so much money to investigate them.

Another enduring memory, of course, is sitting up there a few years later in exactly the same spot watching the Twin Towers fall down in September, 2001. Still particularly vivid is my recollection of the second Tower's collapse, especially the lag between the sight of the structure falling and the sound that accompanied it. As the Tower dropped downward, shards of falling window glass shot crazed glints of sunlight across the river. There was a pause before the audio portion kicked in, the speed of sound slower than the speed of light, even though the scene was no more than a mile away. What I heard a beat or two after was something like a giant security gate being pulled down in front of a store late at night. There was an airy clatter---the floors of the structure cascading down one atop the other---but it was heavier, with more bass, before a low rumble took over.  

The event certainly wrenched us into a new, more sober era, as a nation caught up in prosperity and trivia turned around to confront the terrorist threat---as well the jihadist ideology underpinning it--- which has kept us at war now for a full twelve years.

As the old Chinese curse would have it: “May you live in interesting times. “

Here’s a memoir of that day I wrote for Newsweek on the fifth anniversary of the attack in 2006, along with the pictures that accompanied it, though the visuals seem to have been separated from the text in the Newsweek-Daily Beast merger. As I explain in the piece, I didn’t walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to Ground Zero as a journalist looking to cover the story but as a medical volunteer trying to help people caught in the attack. I did bring my notebook, however, as well as a disposable camera I picked up on the run, cell phone cameras not being the order of the day. The lack of technological sophistication seems to have served the visual record well, emphasizing the starkness of the scene and the emotional rawness I recall so vividly. 

I still feel privileged to have been there, and I still feel haunted by what I saw.  It’s a privilege I hope never to experience again.  I can only wince and shudder when I think of the conditions in which people perished that morning---the desperate leaping from a thousand feet in the air, others pulverized or incinerated, with no remains ever found.  And when I think of the victims’ families and friends, I really wish I could believe that time heals all wounds.   

The wars that followed 9/11 are still the focus of great contention, their shadows looming over the ongoing debate on military intervention in Syria, as they will—and should--- over any future American military undertaking. I’ll say as a journalist who originally agreed with the rationales for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, at least as they were presented to the public at the time, it is sad to see how much these efforts have failed, especially given the nobility and patriotism of those who fought in them. They should be remembered today too, as well as the lost innocence of times that were certainly easier, even if in hindsight they appear kind of trivial and absurd.        

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