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Innocence destroyed: the enduring trauma of 9/11

November 2001, Little Italy, New York City, with some of New York’s finest

It was the fall of a second millennial year. We had survived the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000 and no predicted disasters had occurred. The economy was good. My life was good. I had recently moved from the Midwest to sunny San Diego and was finding my way in a new city. I had met my fiancé earlier that year and wedding plans were consuming much of my time. I was exploring some new job options that had previously been unavailable to me, including testing and interviewing to become an FBI agent.

September in San Diego is beautiful with cloudless skies, sandy beaches, and only an occasional nip in the air.

The ringing of my cell phone woke me from a peaceful slumber as it did most mornings for my fiancé’s morning call. This morning’s call, however, contained none of the usual sweet nothings in my ear, only the urgent instruction to turn on my TV.

I rolled out of bed and stumbled to the living room and turned on CNN just in time to see video footage of a small plane accidentally colliding with a New York office building. My half asleep brain didn’t even immediately recognize the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center. Although I had visited New York as a child and been to the top of the Empire State Building, I had not had an occasion to return since completion of the twin towers. All I had seen was massive excavations where the buildings would later stand.

My brain struggled to make sense of the picture on my TV screen. You know when you are shown a picture and asked “what’s wrong with this picture?” and you are expected to find the anomalies, things that don’t fit? Maybe it’s a banana sitting on a bookshelf or a porcupine looking through the window.

This was no mere intellectual exercise, though. This was life. Some horrible accident that occurred. People had surely died. What had happened to this small plane’s pilot that caused him to veer so far off course. A heart attack? A seizure? Surely planes were not allowed to fly amongst skyscrapers — that was dangerous.

I looked closer as the video kept being replayed and realized this was not some Cessna flown by a recreational pilot. This was a commercial airline. Off duty flight perhaps, flying towards a maintenance facility? Please tell me it was not a full passenger jet, my mind begged.

The synapses of my brain were firing and connecting and processing the data, challenging the familiar pathways and assumptions of my known world and finding only dead ends. This couldn’t be a hijacking. We fixed that problem decades ago with airport security and a policy of not negotiating with terrorists. Maybe the pilot was trying to commit suicide? Don’t they screen pilots for mental health issues? And even if a pilot wanted to commit suicide, why would he take along an entire plane full of passengers?

As my brain was still trying to make sense of what I had already seen my eyes went back to the TV screen just as plane #2 hit tower #2.

In that instant, the world forever changed. The brain fog crystalized into clarity in a split second. This was no accident. For the first time in my lifetime, our beloved country was being attacked, not after a declaration of war, but like a bolt of lightning from a cloudless sky.

It was our generation’s Pearl Harbor attack, but instead of hearing the news slowly and without visuals of the carnage, millions of Americans had watched it on live TV.

Death of hundreds of people instantly. It was too much to bear.

I had seen one person die before, in a car accident when I was 18 years old. To this day, that scene haunts me. But this was no unexpected car accident, unfortunate, but deadly. This was the premediated murder of hundreds of people on the two planes and who knows how many in the two buildings.

I sat numb in front of my TV, unable to speak, unable to process the barrage of gristly images, the smoke arising from the Pentagon, and a fourth plane thankfully crashing into a field rather than a building. That fourth plane crash, on an ordinary day, would have been the top news story, but instead we were all simply grateful that the only dead were those on the plane itself.

In a stunning shift in my brain, within a few short hours I had gone from feeling horrified at the thought of a few people dying in a tragic accident to being grateful hundreds of people had died crashing an airplane into a field.

As the stories came out about that final hijacked airplane, United Airlines Flight 93, however, there was one ray of hope that I held onto, a reminder of the American spirit. While I was at home watching the day’s devastation on a TV screen, there were other Americans on Flight 93 who were having the world change beneath them. It’s hard to imagine going from the grogginess of an early morning bicoastal flight to both realizing that your plane has been hijacked and that three other planes had been similarly hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Its unfathomable to comprehend instantaneous shift from being a tourist or business person to being soldiers on the front line of a violent attack on your homeland. No training, no weapons, just harsh reality. No one would have blamed them for not doing anything other than muttering out a last prayer or try to call and leave a last message of love for those most important in your life. But some of them did more. Faced with the unthinkable, they refused to be meek victims of a fate diabolically planned by others and they refused to be used as a tool to further harm the country they loved. With the now infamous charge into battle — “let’s roll!” — these passengers stormed the cockpit and thwarted the hijackers’ plan, giving their lives for their country in the process.

As much as we don’t want to deal with the trauma we all suffered on 9/11, we need to, if we are ever to survive as a country. No one can be subjected to a trauma and not be fundamentally changed, including changing how we interact with our world thereafter.

Two months later I took a pilgrimage to Ground Zero with my friend, Sharon. I’m not a big city girl and New York City had always frightened me, in no small part due to the high crime rates at the time of my earlier visit and everything I had witnessed then. Sharon was an expert in navigating the subways and knew her way around, so together we trekked by train from her New Jersey home into Manhattan.

As we travelled along she pointed out where the Twin Towers had once been, like two steel redwoods dwarfing the neighboring high rise buildings, now reduced to piles of rubble invisible out of our train windows.

After getting off the train, we found our way on foot to Ground Zero, an area encompassing over 14 acres of unthinkable destruction and death, and we made our way slowly around the perimeter. On every fence and wall there were hundreds, thousands, of handwritten notes and signs, reminders of lost souls among the wreckage that couldn’t be hidden. “Missing” notes, often with pictures, showed loved ones unaccounted for still, written in frantic hope. Others were written after all hope had been dashed, their loved ones gone forever. Massive steel beams like the stems of wilted wild flowers, concrete, glass, and rubble forming a grisly collage.

We rounded the corner to find a small chapel. The air was heavy with the mist of vanished souls and the unanswered prayers for safety of loved ones and for answers to the eternal question “why?” Three firefighters, covered in dust and grim expressions slipped through the crowds to enter the chapel for a few sacred moments with God to give them the strength to go on in the never ending search for bodies.

Tourists and mourners moved about slowly, offering kind words and condolences, embraces, and tears between complete strangers from around the globe. Unbearable sadness uniting us in shared humanity and universal mortality.

As we continued around the perimeter there were fewer obstructions between us and the devastating scene. This is what hell on earth looks like, and smells like. The wind shifted and the putrid smell of rotting flesh of mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, grandparents, grandchildren, friends and lovers, Americans and immigrants, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddists, Hindus, united together in death as they may never have been in life.

An ambulance with flashing lights but no siren slowly drove out from the enclosures. Another body had been found and was being escorted with careful dignity to be identified and then returned to their families for final farewells.

Another couple of blocks and we reached the formal observation area for Ground Zero. We didn’t want to have a better view; we had seen enough. A nearby man commented to us “I just needed to see it from here.” Yes, we needed to see it too, needed to absorb its enormity, and its reality. Like the viewing of the departed at a funeral, we knew we would never find closure without really looking. We slowly ascended the steps to get a bird’s eye view of the devastation we had been seeing in small segments all around the site and stood mute, tears wetting our cheeks until we could bear no more.

We completed our perimeter survey with exhausted steps, the end of the world now indelible in our hearts. I yearned for a simpler time, the America of my youth.

(excerpt from upcoming book, “Reclaiming Patriotism”)