Alan Zendell, September 12, 2021
We all have them. Like the day JFK was assassinated, we all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when it happened. The former was fifty-eight years ago, but the moment is etched in my memory. I was doing laundry in the basement of my New York apartment building listening to a transistor radio. The gasp I heard when ABC News interrupted the music with that horrific bulletin came from my beautiful, blonde neighbor, who was terrified. I’d have liked to console her, but at nineteen, I was too shaken to console myself.
On nine-eleven, I was in a government conference room in Baltimore. Waiting for a video conference to begin, someone had turned the television to the local Fox news station, and the roughly twenty people who watched the initial bulletin seconds after the first plane hit the tower barely breathed. Oddly, I was the only one in the room who instantly realized it was a terrorist attack – everyone else thought it was just a horrible accident. But that was impossible. No matter how much distress a plane is in, any pilot would have been able to avoid hitting the tower. It had to be deliberate.
A native New Yorker, I took the attack personally. How dare anyone attack the city I had loved growing up? I’d been awed by its canyons of glass and steel. As a kid, nothing thrilled me more the looking up at those edifices and thinking, “People built all this.” And other people, sick with hate and corrupted religious fervor were trying to knock it all down. When the immediate terror subsided, my only thought was, when they catch the bastards behind this, I want to be the one that loops the nooses around their necks. As soon as the authorities allowed, I drove to New York to stand by the fence around Ground Zero. It wasn’t enough to see it on television. I had to be there and feel it.
I spent the day of the attack worried about my wife, who worked downtown in Washington and was caught inside the capital security zone when the cell towers were turned off. That actually helped my outlook, as a total stranger saw her among the stranded crowds, and offered to drive her home, thirty miles away. That act of kindness and generosity tempered my own anxiety and convinced me that we would come through it all strong and united.
Of all the remembrances that filled our TV screens, yesterday, we chose to watch the Canadian musical play Come From Away, which played to record crowds in theaters all over North America before becoming a smash hit on Broadway in 2017, and was just released on Apple TV. The play, which recounted how the wonderful townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland cared for 7,000 people whose flights were diverted when the FAA shut down American airspace after the attack, “has been received by audiences and critics as a cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest of times and the triumph of humanity over hate.” There were no dry eyes in my living room watching it last night.
Twenty years later, it’s clear that the nine-eleven attacks changed the world as much as the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which brings me back to an ironic memory of another horror, thirty years earlier. I avoided the jungles of Vietnam by spending most of three years working for a defense contractor in the Pentagon. For me, seeing how things really worked inside the National Military Command was a terrifying eye opener. Most shocking of all were some of the things I and my fellow computer nerds heard at briefings by senior military officers. One marine general regularly scared the hell out of us, constantly warning about preparedness against threats most people never even thought about. We thought he was a lunatic, especially the day he talked about his experience on an aircraft carrier in the final months of World War II when two Japanese kamikaze pilots crashed their planes into the carrier.
The story was a lead-in to one of his worst nightmares. In 1969, red-faced, but sober as a judge, he railed at his audience about all the ways we were vulnerable. He stunned us all when he shouted that one day someone was going to “crash a damn plane into the Pentagon,” and we’ll be helpless to stop it. Turns out he wasn’t a lunatic after all.