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September 11: A Reflection

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We were on our way to school, my 10 year old and I. A normal, sunny morning hundreds of miles from New York City, from Washington D.C., from Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

As usual, I was listening to WGN, Chicago’s news and talk AM station while chatting with Adam, who sat in the back seat playing with his Game Boy. We were midway through a mile-long stretch of forest preserve when the radio station’s traffic announcer broke in. It was around 7:50 a.m. A small plane, she said had flown into the World Trade Center, perhaps a corporate jet that had somehow lost its way. Switching to a New York radio feed, WGN wanted to provide listeners with on-the-scene coverage. Phoning my husband, by now in his downtown office, I told him about the accident. While mildly debating whether it might have been a terrorist act, the second plane hit, and all doubt was removed. It had not been small corporate planes, but large, full commercial airliners; it had been no accident.

There have always been moments of this sort of shared national horror; news trickling out as Americans wait for information—any information to mitigate the pain, or to confirm it. I was nine years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963. It had been a rainy, chilly typically late November day in Chicago. We were at indoor lunch recess, with Bozo’s circus playing on the classroom television set. I was coloring—something—when the news presenter broke in, tears in his eyes and horror in his voice. President Kennedy had been shot. Less than two hours later—we were at library, listening to the librarian distractedly read The Phantom Tollbooth, when the school principal announced via intercom that the President of the United States was dead. We were to go home, be with our parents. We did not return to school until after the funeral.

Even now, vivid images remain, burned into our collective memory, our weeping souls. Jackie’s blood-stained pink suit, a somber Vice President Lyndon Johnson taking the oath of office in Air Force One; a funeral cortege and JFK’s flag-draped casket drawn slowly past a weeping nation; John Jr. bravely saluting. Images.

Just as then, it is the images that stay with us, that give us pause even 10 years later, as they will for decades to come. The shared disbelief, followed by dawning recognition—shock and horror: we could not tear our eyes away from the images as they played on television, as if the news would somehow get better. It didn’t. 

My, mother, eyes glued to CNN all day, phoned me every five minutes with some new report, some new threat—some of them real, some born of the chaos surrounding us. I met with great skepticism her stunned mid-morning call to tell me that the first tower had collapsed. And by the time I’d relayed the news to a colleague, the second tower was doing the same. At that point, all pretense of work vanished as every television in the entire building was turned on, as they were in every corner of the stunned nation.

The planes, flying silently, as if carried on the wind in a cloudless sky, drawing ever nearer the first tower: that’s the image—the still unnerving image—that stays with me even today, 10 years later. My eyes still, almost involuntarily scan the sky when I hear a plane that sounds too loud—too low. Is that plane off course? Is it banking weirdly? That’s not a typical flight path to O’Hare Airport is it? Will that plane flying overhead suddenly drop like a bomb out of the sky? Planes.

The smoke and fire: people trying to outrun the enormous cloud of debris after the towers fell. The impact of the planes: the bright orange as they hit; the gaping holes left in the white of the skyscraping towers. The twisted steel: more horrific than any disaster movie might have wrought. The Pentagon: a gaping hole in the most prominent symbol of our American military might. Images. Horrific images.

But then there was the heroism on that day and the days to follow: the bravery, the sense that we were for the first time in many years, a people united. First responders carried the dead and dying on their backs: firemen, policemen, just ordinary citizens who only wanted to help—acts of remarkable bravery as they entered into the maelstrom and chaos of the smoldering rubble. They became our national heroes: a symbol of the best in us, who we aspire to be.

Those images are equally compelling and, perhaps, in the end, more important, especially now when we seem once again so fractured, so petty, so mean. And perhaps those are the images to embrace and hold onto as the years pass and the other images fade into the archive of our collective memory. 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • Thank you for your kind comments, and Lightworker, for your remarks.

    Simon, I’d read about Al Hall. I’d no idea that today was the 50th anniversary. I know that Bozo was the hottest ticket in town in Chicago for years and years.

  • Simon Haddad

    Odd that you should mention Bozo’s Circus. Today ALSO marks the fiftieth anniversary of its premiere. Also, the Bozo’s Circus producer Al Hall died four days ago.

  • 2Lightworker

    The morning of September 11 2001 was marked by the bluest of blue skies, soft breezes and moderate temperatures, as I met in my office at Riverside Church NYC with a consulting physician in the Wellness Center I had founded and directed.

    We heard that a plane hit the tower, and she commented that the air routes seemed odd, while my first instinct was “sounds like a suicide mission to me.” From that moment on, the day was downcast. I phoned my daughter-in-law and told her to turn on the TV, and asked where my son was. He had left a bit late to go to work at American Express, and his subway stopped at 34th Street. He called me as soon as he returned home and then went to pick up his daughter. At that time, no one we knew personally was injured.

    People at Riverside Church who were in responsible managerial positions began to leave, and the church closed, while the Cathedral of St. John the Divine remained open and offered a 6 p.m.vigil.

    In early evening, my family and I went to a children’s park on the Hudson so my little granddaughters could play; later, when my son returned to work, one asked if he would die, and the other fantasy played that her dollhouse was on fire.

    The full impact took time to filter up to 120th Street, until the morning of September 12, when an Irish friend called to report that Father Mychal Judge had been killed. Father Mychal, a Franciscan priest, had been Chaplain to the Fire Department and accompanied the firefighters on their way.

    I had the delight of knowing Father Mychal on a peace and reconciliation journey for the North of Ireland in 2000, organized by Police Officer Steven McDonald, who had been shot in Central Park in 1986 and was left a quadriplegic on a ventilator; Steven has spent much of the ensuing time going to speak to young people about forgiveness.

    I was filled with inconsolable grief with the news of Father Mychal’s death, which was the first death reported. There was an Internet photo of firefighters carrying his body, which they took to a nearby church, placed him on the altar, and covered him with a cloth.

    At the wake, Mayor Giuliani recalled Father Mychal’s extraordinary gift for preaching, particularly at services for fallen firefighters. He remembered Father Mychal pointing to the helmet on top of the casket, and telling the firefighter’s son that he must remember how that represented who his father was.

    The service for Father Mychal was at the Franciscan church on 31st Street where he lived, and was full of mourning Irish Americans and others, with a homily from the Archbishop, although Father Mychal had taken positions that angered the archdiocese.

    At the end, everyone stood to sing “God Bless America,” which was not common in the anti-war groups in which I had participated, but represented the gratitude of generations of Irish Americans who would not forget the plight of our ancestors in the “Great Hunger” (“famine,” which does not accurately describe what occurred, since food was shipped out of Ireland), and their gratitude that although many arrived in “coffin ships” and died of disease, the majority found a country where they could make a new life.

    There were several emotionally wrenching memorial services at the church in which I participated, for those killed in Security and in American Express. My son attended the one for American Express. The senior pastor commented to me on the extraordinary oratorical gifts by persons who do not usually speak in public.

    The lingering horror at this heinous act will continue if we allow fear and anger to rile up prejudices based on race, nationality, religion, ethnicity, culture, or any other way of separating one human being from another.

    The anguish can only be healed by moving from a global culture of greed and power to one of compassion and help for those most vulnerable. That is a challenge for generations to come.

  • Every of us was doing something normal that day…, until the first tower were hit. Right after, the entire world was united, probably for the first time and only ever, condemning that horrible act and feeling the global pain.
    Great article, Barbara. Thanks

  • Beautiful, Barbara. Speaking of images, the one that still haunts me: the firefighters going up the stairs as the workers in Tower Two were running down them. The stoic expressions on their faces, the determined looks, overcoming fear and everything else -I will be forever haunted by that one.