Some Reflections on Sept. 11

For me, the most visceral images of that day weren’t from NYC, but from DC. I remember seeing the footage of ambulances lined up, waiting to get into Arlington Hospital–a hospital I not only drove by regularly, but have been in multiple times.

When I returned to DC three days later (by train, there were no flights available), I remember going to the Smithsonian (what was I supposed to do? Cower in fear in my family’s house?)*, I remember seeing surface-to-air missile batteries at the foot of the Washington Monument. The whole city had turned into an armed camp, and everything was surrounded by concrete jersey barriers.
Even then, something struck as odd: not only were people afraid**, but too many people wanted to be afraid. They liked having something to fear. Having lived previously in a country where terrorism was not a unique event, this was disturbing: at some point, you have to decide whether you will live, or simply survive.
One more random point related to those days. While there were those who clearly wanted to use Sept. 11 for political purposes (including the infamous GOP memo calling for precisely that), there was a lot of genuine fear in the city–which, like it or not, obviously affects our national politics. The Very Serious People were Very Seriously crapping their pants.
Fast forward four years. At the old site, I wrote a post about Sept. 11, and some of the responses demonstrated that some people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what happened that day (although I think that post was tagged by a couple of conservatrolls). I hope at this point, these two claims are not controversial:

1) Terrorism is, well, terrifying in large part because of its randomness. Most of the people in the World Trade Center who died, died there because they didn’t work in the Chrysler Building. We all heard the stories about those who survived because they were sick that day, or because they were late to work. I think this horrifying absurdity (had some more people overslept, they would have been alive today) was sublimated by too many people not into grief, but rage.
2) A lot of the rescue workers (i.e., the firemen) died because of banal politics and bureaucracy (led by Rudy Giuliani): the fire and police departments couldn’t communicate with each other. No fireman goes into a building in order to die. Had they known that the building was about to collapse, they would have grabbed whomever they could, and left the building.

I’m not sure, as a nation, we’ve figured out these things (or most of us, anyway). This has some serious consequences when we create soothing, but false narratives:

On close review, those accounts give a bleaker version of events than either Mayor Bloomberg or former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani presented to the 9/11 Commission. Both had said that many of the firefighters who perished in the north tower realized the terrible danger of the moment but chose to stay in the building to rescue civilians.

They made no mention of what one oral history after another starkly relates: that firefighters in the building said they were “clueless” and knew “absolutely nothing” about the reality of the gathering crisis…

Although no official summary specifies where the 343 firefighters died in the rescue effort, a review by The New York Times of eyewitness accounts, dispatch records and federal reports suggests that about 200 perished in the north tower or at its foot.

Of 58 firefighters who escaped the building and gave oral histories, only four said they knew the south tower had already fallen. Just three said they had heard radio warnings that the north tower was also in danger of collapse. And some who had heard orders to evacuate debated whether they were meant for civilians or firefighters…

In blunt speech, free of the mythic glaze that varnished much 9/11 discourse, some firefighters wondered why an endless line of rescuers had been sent to an unquenchable fire that raged 1,000 feet up.

“I think if this building had collapsed an hour later, we would have had a thousand firemen in there,” said Firefighter Timothy Marmion of Engine 16, who carried a woman on a stretcher from the staircase to an ambulance.

“If it would have collapsed three hours later,” he said, “we would have had 10,000 firemen in those buildings.”

Had the buildings not fallen, the gear-laden firefighters would have needed about four hours – almost as long as it takes to fly across the country – to reach workers trapped on the high floors.

“We were just as much victims as everybody that was in the building,” Firefighter Derek Brogan of Engine 5 said.

We didn’t have a chance to do anything,” he added. “We didn’t have a chance to put the fire out, which was really all we were trying to do.

A truly awful day. Your thoughts and recollections?
*Because it was so empty, and I had arrived before the museums had opened, I wound up talking to the security guards. They were very upset that people had cancelled their visits. One guard (and I can’t remember her exact words) basically said that if terrorists scare us away from science and art, then they’ve already won.
**What was even more bizarre is that, in suburban Long Island (where I was living at the time), some parents were demanding that school trips to other places in Long Island (e.g., orchestra performances for small children) be canceled because they were afraid of terrorist attacks. This was a month after Sept. 11. Some people get off on fear, I guess.

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3 Responses to Some Reflections on Sept. 11

  1. Scorpio says:

    I went back today and read old posts from a mailing list that went up 9/11-13 of 2001. The most thoughtful worried that wiretapping would become almost casual, and that Habeas Coorpus might be endangered.
    Smart people, weren’t they? All that and worse has come to pass because our legislators roll over the minute “Terra! OMG 9-11” comes up as an argument by the destroyers.

  2. Chromosome Crawl says:

    “if terrorists scare us away from science and art, then they’ve already won”
    wow – that statement works for the republicans’ view on school curriculi, doesn’t it?

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