My September 11 Story
September 11, 2003
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to meet a new client for a breakfast meeting at a restaurant about ten minutes from my home. I had gotten up, showered and dressed, all without turning on a television or radio. At the time, I was driving a ridiculous rented Ford Escort, having already donated my own car to charity while I waited for delivery of a new Toyota Prius. The Escort was parked on the street, and when I started it up that morning I finally turned on the radio and got my first taste, through NPR, of what had been going on for the preceding few hours on the other side of the country.
The impression in the first few moments was hazy: there were still inaccurate reports coming in about a “small plane” having struck one tower of the World Trade Center. I rolled my eyes and grimaced over that news -- thinking that the towers had already taken enough abuse in the earlier bombing -- and then heard about the plane that had struck the Pentagon. A few more moments and I was out of the car and back into the house. My wife was still in bed, about to get up but still not quite fully awake. I told her, as I recall, that I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been struck by planes and it sounded like “all hell was breaking loose on the East Coast.” We went downstairs, turned on the television, and got our first look at What Exactly Was Going On.
I had that meeting to get to, so I didn’t stay much longer at the house. I drove down the hill, listening in disbelief and mounting unease to the radio reports. Somewhat surprisingly, my client actually made it to the meeting. We talked about what needed to be talked about on the legal side, neither of us quite comfortable with any head on remarks about events in D.C. or New York. By the time we finished, the towers had fallen.
To make my own day trivial and absurd, I discovered that fate had arranged that I should have locked the keys inside my rented car when I went in for my meeting. I stood around for most of an hour waiting for a tow truck to open the car up, with no access to any news. My office was in downtown Los Angeles at the time, and I drove there after I was let back into the car. The news continued to be very bad, and now more information was coming in about the fourth plane.
Downtown Los Angeles was nearly empty of people when I got there. Most buildings, including my own, had been evacuated and largely closed down. Security measures had not been completely tightened yet, so I was allowed to get to my office on the 31st floor, where I grabbed a little work and called home to tell my wife I was on my way back. My office then was a block away from the Library Tower, the tallest building in downtown Los Angeles, and for a long time after September 11 most of us in that neighborhood thought about what a clear target it would be if anything like the September 11 attacks was tried on the West Coast. When I reached home, the networks were well into the repetition of their footage of all that had taken place that day. The towers fell, then fell again, then fell again, and kept falling until we couldn’t watch it any longer.
I had started reading blogs -- Andrew Sullivan, Mickey Kaus, that new guy Glenn Reynolds -- in the handful of months leading to September 11. After that day, I read a lot more of them and much more widely. Matt Welch has captured the change in the online world nicely in his recent CJR article:
Like just about everything else, blogging changed forever on September 11, 2001. The destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon created a huge appetite on the part of the public to be part of The Conversation, to vent and analyze and publicly ponder or mourn. Many, too, were unsatisfied with what they read and saw in the mainstream media. Glenn Reynolds, proprietor of the wildly popular InstaPundit.com blog, thought the mainstream analysis was terrible. 'All the talking heads . . . kept saying that “we're gonna have to grow up, we're gonna have to give up a lot of our freedoms,''’ he says. 'Or it was the “Why do they hate us” sort of teeth-gnashing. And I think there was a deep dissatisfaction with that.' The daily op-ed diet of Column Left and Column Right often fell way off the mark. 'It's time for the United Nations to get the hell out of town. And take with it CNN war-slut Christiane Amanpour,' the New York Post's Andrea Peyser seethed on September 21. 'We forgive you; we reject vengeance,' Colman McCarthy whimpered to the terrorists in the Los Angeles Times September 17. September 11 was the impetus for my own blog (mattwelch. com/warblog. html). Jeff Jarvis, who was trapped in the WTC dust cloud on September 11, started his a few days later. 'I had a personal story I needed to tell,' said Jarvis, a former San Francisco Examiner columnist, founding editor of Entertainment Weekly, and current president and creative director of Advance.net, which is the Internet wing of the Condé Nast empire. 'Then lo and behold! I discovered people were linking to me and talking about my story, so I joined this great conversation.'There has been so much writing online about September 11 -- how to respond, what it all meant, should we be sorrowful, should we be angry, should we just wish it would go away -- and that conversation will and must continue, unless we surprise ourselves by waking up one morning to the realization that humankind has progressed to a point where such acts against the innocent are literally unthinkable for the entire human race. That day won’t come soon, or perhaps ever.
On September 5, 2002, just before the first anniversary, James Lileks posted an item in which he explained, again, why he nurtured a deep and abiding anger over the attacks and all they conveyed. He rejected the idea that his anger was simplistic, jingoistic, gauche or what have you, and focused on the little girl, Christine, about the age of his own daughter Gnat, and how Christine had died with her parents on one of the planes when all they had meant to do that morning was to leave on a vacation.
Little Christine was Gnat’s age, give or take a month; bin Laden’s lackeys killed her - and did so to ensure that other fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters died as well, preferably by the tens of thousands. This little girl’s death wasn’t even a comma in the manifesto they hoped to write. They made sure that her last moments alive were filled with horror and blood, screams and fear; they made sure that the last thing she saw was the desperate faces of her parents, insisting that everything was okay, we’re going to see Mickey, holding out a favorite toy with numb hands, making up a happy lie. And then she was fire and then she was ash.Grief, for Christine and for every other victim of that day, is still appropriate, and a large part of what living human beings should do for themselves, for those who are gone and for those still to come. A slow, firm anger and a focus on changing the world, ourselves and our fellows for the better is appropriate as well. That need, that obligation to continue forward in spite of all, in the face of despair and in defiance of those for whom the lives of others count for nothing, falls to us not as Americans, but as human beings. Reflect. Love. Act. Live.