Thoughts On 9/11 From Someone Who Saw It Live On Television
In September of 2001 I was just starting 7th grade in middle school. I really hated school by that point, and I looked for any reason not to go. September 11th 2001 was quite a Tuesday. I did not attend school that day, not because I was sick, but because I hated it. When I awoke that day, the first plane had already struck the first tower. I came downstairs to watch TV, and my mom was sitting on the couch watching it. I looked at the TV to see what she was watching. The first tower had a huge hole in it that was on fire. I turned to her. “What movie is this?” I said. I thought it might be a sequel to “Die Hard” that I had not seen yet. “This is live. This is the news.” she told me. I could not believe what I was seeing. We decided to watch something else. But when we tried to change the channels all the other channels were blank. They were either blue screens or those color bars like you see when the channel is not working right. Then we decided to change back to the news, because it was literally the only thing on. That is when I saw the second plane hit, live. Even as a child I knew I was witnessing terrorism. I knew immediately in that moment that we were under attack. Gradually as I listened to the news, reports of the other plane crashes at the Pentagon and the one that happened in Pennsylvania rolled in. Meanwhile, there was footage of debris falling from the buildings. 8x11 papers fell like confetti. People were waving their jackets out the windows near the top of the building to let rescuers know they were alive. Then in a short passage of time there were body-like shapes falling from the highest floors of the World Trade Towers. I do not recall seeing anyone actually leap out of the windows. But I watched as people fell to their deaths, and in the midst of the footage you could hear loud crashing sounds as well. I wondered if what I was hearing was the impact of bodies as they hit the street. I knew it was a possibility. The buildings were burning very badly now, and I wondered how the hell the fire department was going to be able to put those fires out so high up in the buildings. Then the first tower collapsed suddenly. It was surprising when it happened. I knew that many people must have been killed. My thoughts turned to the second tower. “They better hurry up and rescue those people.” I thought. If the first tower could come tumbling down like that, the second one surely could as well… Then it did.
Smoke and dust and dirt and… what ever was in the towers hung over the city. It was a very ominous looking scene. The news showed the Pentagon with a huge hole in one side of it. “How could this happen?” I thought. The whole thing was unbelievable. The newscasters mentioned that the planes that had crashed had come from Logan Airport. Boston. “Where I am from,” I thought. Immediately I felt a sense of guilt, or anger, or both, that the security was so terrible at Logan that this could happen in the first place. But it was too late for anyone to be blamed. The damage was done, and thousands of people had died prematurely. It was not yet apparent to everyone that the world would be changed forever. Although some newscasters guessed at this as footage of the smoke cloud over Manhattan was fixed on the screen. They would turn out to be right.
That afternoon I walked outside with my dad, and the air was quiet. This was strange because my street is in the flight path to Logan airport, and usually the quiet would be interrupted by the sounds of jet engines overhead. But there was nothing. I do not recall even hearing birds. There was just stillness and quiet. The FAA had given the order that they did not want a single plane in the air over the United States, so there were not any. When they gave the concert for the first responders in New York, Mariah Carey sang for the firefighters, police, and paramedics. It was the only time I ever saw my father, a New Yorker, cry. That surprised me too.
After the events of that day 9/11 was in everything people did. It suddenly became very fashionable to have the stars and stripes flying from one’s house. One could walk down their street and see a sea of flags. People were patriotic. They were friendlier too. But they were still afraid. After all, if an event like that could happen once on that scale, it could definitely happen again. Halloween that year was the last time I ever went trick or treating. I remember my street just being a bunch of dark houses. There were no kids out besides me and my sister, and nobody was giving out candy. It was as if Halloween was cancelled that year, and we had not gotten the memo.
The next summer my family vacationed on Long Island where we visited my uncle. It was nice. But then we planned to spend a few days in Manhattan. The hotel my dad had booked was just a stone’s throw away from where the towers once stood, on Vesey Street. It was August of 2002, and the area where the towers had stood was cleaned up. As we drove past the area I looked, and it was just a concrete hole in the ground. We got to the hotel, and there we met the first people we saw on the Island. The hotel had a burly door man standing in front of it wearing a long coat when we pulled up. He helped us with our bags, and he talked with my father a bit. Somehow it came up that the door man had been a New York City detective on 9/11. But now he was a door man. We did not need to ask him why. My mom wanted to buy some candy at the hotel gift shop, so we went in there and gathered some stuff. The total came to $9.11. This surprised the store clerk, who let slip a melancholy kind of half laugh-half sigh. It was an awkward moment, and it really happened.
In August of 2002 New York City was not at all like what you see in the movies. It was practically deserted, and the people who were there were very somber or depressed. I only recall seeing one policeman in Manhattan the entire time I was there, and he was on a horse…like the sheriff in a ghost town… A city so vibrant in the movies was the total opposite now. There were a lot of empty sidewalks. One could only visit the gift shop at the Statue of Liberty because they were afraid that someone might try to destroy the statue itself. Overall, New York City in 2002 was the saddest vacation I’ve ever had. It was as if people there wanted to talk about 9/11. But at the same time they didn’t or couldn’t.
In the years since, 9/11 has shaped our world like no other event has. I personally have wondered every year on the anniversary if we would be attacked on that scale again. It is a scary feeling, because again, if you know it happened once, you know history can repeat itself. Thankfully it has not happened. But I am not satisfied with how the United States responded to 9/11. The security measures they placed in airports all over the country don’t really do what they’re designed for. The Patriot Act, a knee-jerk reaction to the event, gave the government what it needed to have the NSA spy on all of us. The government declared a war on terrorism, invading Afghanistan in order to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. A goal which while it sounded good on paper, was bungled on so many occasions that I wondered if he would die of old age before we ever got to him. Then we invaded Iraq, and created a massive quagmire in the Middle East that we’re still dealing with.
The legacy of 9/11 has become the wars on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. Many of the terrible decisions the government has made are a direct result of the events of that day. Their judgment clouded by an idea for revenge, the Bush administration saddled us with a war against an idea. Terrorism is not a country. It is a pervasive, invasive idea. Instead of just thinking about 9/11 as a terrible tragedy that happened 14 years ago, which it is, I also look at it as the event that created either directly or indirectly many of the awful things that happened after. So for me, like so many other Americans, the 9/11 anniversary is a very sad day, not just because of the original tragedy itself. But because I can pinpoint the day that everything started going to shit. People in the media always refer back to 9/11 when talking about why things are the way they are now. That is a tragedy of sorts too.
It is my sincerest hope that we will be victorious over ISIS in the Middle East before they can copy the events of 9/11 or do worse. If we achieve that, I am sure we will have to establish a permanent counter-terrorism agency just to stop future threats. But that actually would be worthwhile, because then we could change the focus from “9/11: The cause of the way things are” to “9/11: A day for remembering the worst attack on American soil ever”. 9/11 should be a national holiday, not so people can shop or give gifts, but so that they can remember, be among family, and be mindful that one awful day can change everything.