Friday, September 9, 2011

9/11 In the Cape

Wow, can it really be 10 years later already? This decade has flown in the blink of an eye. Many people mistakenly think of the start of a decade or century as the year ending in zeroes - 1800, 1900, 2000, etc. In fact, these blocks of ten and one hundred years begin on January 1st of the 'x1 years, meaning that the 21st century officially began on January 1st, 2001.

But the reality for Americans who witnessed the events of 9/11 is that our 21st century began on September 11th, 2001. It's the day everything changed for this country and for much of the world. It's hard to overstate the impact of that late summer day. Most of us recall the event down to the minute that we first learned of the inconceivable - that the heart of our country's economic, military, and political centers had been viciously and devastatingly attacked during peacetime by a foreign enemy for the first time ever using our own domestic jetliners.

The only thing even close to the scale and surprise of this attack in the history of our country was Pearl Harbor, and frankly, even it pales in comparison. On that infamous day, we lost the better part of the US Pacific fleet and a similarly terrible number of lives as 9/11. However, it was a naval base on a distant island that was not yet even a state, as opposed to major population centers at the heart of the Manhattan financial district and the capital of the United States in Washington DC. The attack on Pearl Harbor was directed at our military by squadrons of enemy military fighter planes. Of the 2403 people who were killed, only 68 were civilians. In contrast, the attacks of 9/11 were carried out by a dozen guys in business casual attire inconspicuously boarding domestic flights with box cutters to terrorize primarily civilians.

The scope and daring of the plan still leave me in awe. I can watch footage of the planes flying into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon today and still not wrap my head around the mad audacity of it. I know we Americans don't like to think of anyone getting the best of us, but these guys seriously did. They saw how to hit us where it would hurt, both materially and psychologically, and they executed it with deadly and heinous effectiveness. To make matters worse, we were left with no tangible target for retaliation with the exception of Osama bin Laden, and it took the better part of this decade to find him.

While the damaged New York and Washington DC landscapes have been largely rebuilt, as a nation, we are still in many ways reeling. We are fighting two terribly expensive wars (both in dollars and lives) and as a result have lost more Americans than we did on 9/11. It doesn't seem entirely clear what our goals are or that we have made a long term difference in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Our military can't stay forever, especially in times when we are talking about the need to cut our defense budget. We can arm and finance those we consider to be the good guys, but that's what we did with Osama bin Laden once upon a time, and look where that got us.

Certainly the seeds of our current economic crisis were already planted well before 9/11, but the dubious choices made since then in the name of national and homeland security have escalated the debt problem and left us much less prepared fiscally to deal with the mess. As individuals, we were told that the best way to help our country post 9/11 was to go out and spend - fight dastardly terrorism with glorious consumerism. Many of us did just that and are now as crippled with debt as our country.

You would hope an event like 9/11 would unite a country - bring us together in our shared desire to rise above it. Instead though, politicians and the media have taken advantage of the climate of fear and uncertainty to press their own agendas instead of putting country first. A vacuum of sound, conscientious leadership has allowed opportunistic fear-mongers to encourage anger and polarization and grab what they can for themselves in the ensuing distraction. I worry that before we all wise up and snap out of it - stop being told what to think - the damage will be permanently done - may have already.

Sorry. I don't mean to be so fatalistic, but I see very little to suggest that we are a better country for having been through 9/11 together. We are bursting with potential and even wealth despite the massive national debt, but paralyzed by the inability to seek out common ground. Ideology and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude rule the day.

Maybe my grim mood is just due to the endless rain. If only the sun would come out. Then I might be able to drum up some enthusiasm for writing my congressman and asking him to pass the American Jobs Act, but oh yeah, he's a Republican (and a schmuck to boot) so he's contractually obligated to reject anything sponsored by a Democratic president.

Whoa... again my apologies. I realize those are not helpful or constructive comments. I'm just proving my own point about anger and distraction. I'm serious though, the rain, economy, politics, and 9/11 media bombardment have me in a major funk.

I set out this gray morning simply to blog about my personal 9/11 experience here in the Cape. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was a 35-year old Cape mother of two young kids, ages two and almost four. My husband was in Florida at the Kennedy Space Center working on a proposal for his fledgling aerospace engineering company. I was headed to the Cape dance studio for my daughter's Tuesday morning ballet class. This is the last picture I took on the morning of 9/11 before leaving for the dance studio.

My Kids In Our Last Few Pre-9/11 Moments

I heard about the plane that flew into the first tower on the radio as I drove down to the shopping center. As us moms sat in the waiting area with our younger children, we learned about the second plane and began to get a sense of the bigger scope of the attacks. When news came in on the studio radio about the Pentagon and the possibility of another hijacked plane in the air, we all started to come a little bit unhinged. New York was bad enough, but DC? Way too close for comfort.

I was in a mild panic by the time class was over, and I hustled the kids into the minivan taking just enough time to strap them into their car seats with jittery hands. I called my husband in Florida (it wasn't illegal yet to drive and talk on a cell phone - just stupid) and had barely enough signal to tell him to turn on the TV in his secluded Cape Canaveral conference room. By the time I got home, the first tower had collapsed and as I watched, shaking in disbelief and horror, the second soon followed.

Once the haze of shock began to clear a little, I realized that I desperately needed my husband to come home. I'm not a needy type, but I was fearful for the safety of me and my kids like I had never been before. The brilliant blue skies were eerily devoid of the typical commercial air traffic but buzzing with the sound of fighter jets patrolling for god knows what might still be up there.

My parents called, and also fearing for us in the DC area, suggested I drive to South Carolina with the kids. A big part of me was tempted to run to mom and dad, but the grown up part of me knew I needed to stay here until I better understood what was happening and my family was reunited. It was clear flying home from Florida was not an option for my husband, so he and a couple of his coworkers drove their rental car as far as my parents' house in SC, overnighted there with them, and then drove the rest of the way home the day after.

I can't even describe my relief at having my family together again. I hadn't slept the night of 9/11 with my kids and Great Dane tucked in my bed around me. Without my glasses on, I imagined every blurry star out my window was a commercial jet that I knew was not supposed to be in the sky. I curled up with my husband the night after that when he had returned home and cried myself to sleep - a combination of fear and sadness and the relief of not having to bear it alone.

I know we all have our own personal stories about 9/11. It was simply horrendous for each and every one of us, both as individuals and as a nation. I can't even begin to imagine the agony of those who experienced it first hand and lost their lives or the life of a loved one.

Mayor Giuliani nailed it when he gravely stated that the losses would be "more than any of us can bear". As I watch the replays on TV ramping up to the 10th anniversary, I still can't bear it. I still feel a sob catch in my throat every time I see those soaring towers burning, the wound in the mighty Pentagon, and the scar in that lonely Pennsylvania field, all connected by violence and tragedy.

The hope for my country that I clung to ten years ago is still my hope today. I hoped that she would be strong, wise, rational, and possessed of enough grace to overcome the losses of that day. I hoped for leadership that would make responsible and constructive choices for our country and her people that would honor the principles of fairness that make this country great. And I hoped for a better understanding of those who felt such anger at us that they would envision and execute such horror. They say hope springs eternal. Perhaps, but mine is wearing thin...

Wishing us all blue skies free of fear. Actually, I think I see the sun peeking out even as I write...

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