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September 11, 2014

On September 11th, Two Americas

This is a reprise of a post I wrote on September 11th, 2010.

I spent Wednesday afternoon at Nationals Park watching my home town team play baseball.

It was one of those impossibly idyllic days you only get in September. Here in DC we look forward to them all year; look forward to a break from the heat and humidity, to warm days punctuated by cool breezes that lift our hair along with our spirits; to golden moments perfectly suspended between endless summer and the gloom of approaching winter. My firm was having a Team Building event and so - though I have little in common with the sales staff besides working for the same company - I gamely joined them in the pursuit of something that seems to hover just out of our reach these days: unity of identity and purpose.

The home team lost, but somehow even that didn't matter. It was a beautiful September day and we were full to the brim with hot dogs and beer and happiness; united for a moment by the glorious feeling of playing hooky from the responsibilities that awaited us back at the office.

Perfection, ephemeral as an Indian summer afternoon.

On the way back reality, held at bay by those ballpark gates and the tantalizing possibility of extra innings, began its relentless assault on our senses. Route 66 might as well have been a parking lot. Jokes gradually gave way to silence as we pulled out our cellphones, checked messages and email and mentally braced ourselves for the shock of re-entry.

That's when it happened. Someone said, "I can't believe it will be nine years this week since 9/11". And one by one we began to remember where we were, what we were doing, how it felt. It was this generation's "Where were you when they shot JFK?" moment and for a brief shining moment the shared memory pulled us back from the brink and made us one again.

But like everything that seems impossibly perfect, that moment wasn't meant to last.

Remind any group of Americans about 9/11 and for a moment we'll put aside our differences, put aside our disparate values and priorities. For a moment - but only for a moment - everything else is burned away by the searing memory of the mutual shock and loss and disbelief that gripped us: Republicans, small L libertarians and Democrats alike. For an instant all of that will be forgotten as we remember what's important: that somehow, despite the thousand threats to our security and peace of mind; despite madmen who strap bombs to their chests, zealots with box cutters, and idiots who burn Korans, we are alive.

This week, on the ninth anniversary of that awful day John Edwards' Two Americas stand side by side, an eerie memorial to those vanished Twin Towers. They have long since crumbled into dust, their twisted girders repurposed and reforged into an enduring symbol of American strength and resolve.

Or at least that is how one of the two Americas sees it. That America sees the last flickers of the defiant spirit, the resourcefulness and ingenuity that built this country. It is reassured and reaffirmed by the visible reminder that we still produce leaders who make hard decisions and accept the consequences. This America attributes our current security to our willingness to defend ourselves; to men and women who have given up that most precious of commodities - time with loved ones, or even their very lives - to ensure that no more brilliant autumn mornings will be rocked by unexpected bolts from the blue.

The other America sees hate, paranoia, a foolish overreaction to a minor threat. That America wants to move on already. It is weary of war and its discontents and suspicious of American exceptionalism. It only wants to be left in peace, citing the absence of a follow on attack as proof that (had we only possessed the surety that comes with 20/20 hindsight) we could have reacted differently but achieved essentially the same results. Bin Laden would not have tried again. He would have slunk back to the far reaches of Pakistan to lick his non-existent wounds, or been captured. Somehow they know this. Saddam would not, as he did during the 1990s, once again send an invading army over the border to attack his neighbors. He would not use chemical weapons on his own people. He would give up his nuclear aspirations and cease funding acts of terrorism. He would bow to the will of the global community and meekly allow arms inspectors full access. The leopard would change his spots.

Which of these two Americas is right? Who are we, really? The truth is that we cannot know what future would have followed the path not taken. Nine years after 9/11 we would like clarity. We would like closure. But we will not have either of these things. Certainty is a dream - as much a dream as the illusion of invulnerability that united us until 8:46 a.m. Eastern time nine years ago.

We cannot rewrite the past; cannot shape a happier ending for the story that began nearly a decade ago. What we can do, is remember:

In St. Augustine, Dan Hill was laying tile in his upstairs bathroom when his wife called, "Dan, get down here! An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center. It's a terrible accident." Hill hurried downstairs, and then the phone rang. It was Rescorla, calling from his cell phone.

"Are you watching TV?" he asked. "What do you think?"

"Hard to tell. It could have been an accident, but I can't see a commercial airliner getting that far off."

"I'm evacuating right now," Rescorla said.

Hill could hear Rescorla issuing orders through the bullhorn. He was calm and collected, never raising his voice. Then Hill heard him break into song:

Men of Cornwall stop your dreaming;
Can't you see their spearpoints gleaming?
See their warriors' pennants streaming
To this battlefield.
Men of Cornwall stand ye steady;
It cannot be ever said ye
for the battle were not ready;
Stand and never yield!

Rescorla came back on the phone. "Pack a bag and get up here," he said. "You can be my consultant again." He added that the Port Authority was telling him not to evacuate and to order people to stay at their desks.

"What'd you say?" Hill asked.

"I said, 'Piss off, you son of a bitch,' " Rescorla replied. "Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it's going to take the whole building with it. I'm getting my people the fuck out of here." Then he said, "I got to go. Get your shit in one basket and get ready to come up."

Hill turned back to the TV and, within minutes, saw the second plane execute a sharp left turn and plunge into the south tower. Susan saw it, too, and frantically phoned her husband's office. No one answered.

About fifteen minutes later, the phone rang. It was Rick. She burst into tears and couldn't talk.

"Stop crying," he told her. "I have to get these people out safely. If something should happen to me, I want you to know I've never been happier. You made my life."

If we are to remember on this day then we should remember all of it, without flinching and without prettying up the messy parts.

Nine years into this war on Islamic extremism we hear a lot about lives destroyed by war. We hear of shattered limbs and broken minds; of suicides, despair, and shadowy figures living under bridges because they can't ever, truly, return from war. The America they left no longer exists for them.

And the hell of it is that all of this is true. Every painful, stinking bit. But it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that the horrors of war rend and tear at our spirits but they also stiffen our spines and harden our resolve. War gives us back broken children, husbands, wives but also survivors who emerge stronger than ever from the crucible of war. Heroes like Rick Rescorla - a man who, for over a decade, kept watch over the workers at the World Trade Center against an enemy no one else took seriously.

And without men like Rick - without men hardened by horrors most of us cannot imagine even in our worst nightmares - a lot more than 3000 people would have died. Up to 2600 more, by some counts.

Sitting there in that van on Route 66, it wasn't the morning of September 11th that I remembered.

It was a moment that occurred at dusk several weeks later. I've forgotten the exact date now. I was alone - living at my mother in law's empty house in Arlington as I waited for our retirement home to be completed in western Maryland. My husband, a Marine Lieutenant Colonel at the time, was on duty at the Pentagon; one of a skeleton staff still manning its silent halls filled with the acrid scent of smoke. I smelled it on him every dawn when he slipped into bed beside me, moments before my alarm went off.

I got home from work late (as usual) and hurried around the unfamiliar house searching for candles, matches, a sweater to protect me from the autumn chill. And precisely at sunset I gathered these things and went out onto the flagstone patio. Although I could not see them, nearly every door on the silent suburban street was filled with mothers, fathers, children crowding into cramped doorframes. I couldn't see them, but I felt their presence.

And as the sun slipped slowly out of sight on the horizon, tiny flames lit up the autumn dusk like fireflies. For a moment - one, golden moment - the two Americas were united in grief and loss and anger. And the world grieved with us.

It didn't last, but then such moments aren't meant to last. With the dawn the two Americas parted again, standing side by side like those Twin Towers. We desperately want there to be only one, but that is not the America we know. America was born in revolution and dissent and baptized by years of bitter war and violent enmity. America is the product of a clash of ideas - rich, landed gentry who distrusted the passions of the common people and firebrands who envisioned a people whose ardent love of liberty would no more countenance the tyranny of home grown despots than they would the rule of a foreign power.

America embodies the tension between liberty and responsibility and the truth is that we need both if we are to remain a free and prosperous people. In a way, those Twin Towers were a more apt symbol than we knew.

They are gone. Only we remain. We, the people of the United States of America with all our differences, arguments and competing visions. It is the from clash between these visions, and not from some illusive dream of unity, that we will form that more perfect union our forebears envisioned.

The land of the free, made possible by the brave.

Posted by Cassandra at September 11, 2014 08:32 AM

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Comments

13 years now. I remember how I felt that day, and how I feel now. This morning when I came to work, I lowered the flag in front of the office to half-staff. It seemed like the right thing to do.

Courage and valor.

Tragedy and loss.

Foolishness and cowardice.

Lydia Estelle Bravo, Nick Washalanta, Mike Stokely and so many more. Lost to us, like tears in the rain.

It's all here, it's America. One nation under God...

It's been 13 years, and the world has turned. My sons were little boys then. Now they are both nearly men and of draft age. One wonders what the future will hold.

13 years out...and the rest of our lives to go.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 11, 2014 11:15 AM

Thank you, Cassandra.

If I may, I'd like to link to the poem that brings 9/11 home to me over and over:

For the Children of the World Trade Center Victims by BJ Ward

Posted by: Elise at September 11, 2014 11:53 AM

Wow, Elise.

That is powerful, and I had not seen it before. Thank you for the link.

Don, I feel for you. My boys were draft-age when 911 happened and it definitely changes the way you think about things. The world has always been a dangerous place, and it never seems more so than just before you let your children venture forth into it.

Posted by: Cassandra at September 11, 2014 12:49 PM

Cassandra

It's not that my sons are anything special to the world (they are of course, special to me and my wife). But it's the waste. Your husband, a legion of brave men and women, all the lost lives....for what? Now we go back and do it...again? Did we learn NOTHING from the last 13 years?
I would be proud if they chose to serve. I would support them if they were drafted. But I recall once you wrote about how it pained a certain Marine Colonel to stand up in front of his men, wondering if this time the Top Command Authority really meant it, or was it another....meh.

I think this is another....meh. Where is victory? What is victory? Is that now a forbidden word?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at September 11, 2014 05:45 PM

Your sons *are* special to you, though. And even though I know you appreciated what military families go through, even for us it's different when you have a loved one involved. I don't really know how to describe it, but I do know it's true. It's even different having a son or daughter over there from having a spouse. Hard to explain.

About victory, I don't know what to think anymore. It does seem that we're ashamed of the idea of defeating our enemies - that sounds so... inegalitarian :p

I supported the war on terriers because I really hoped that dealing with the problem while it was still relatively small was preferable to letting things get out of hand and escalate into another world war. But we can't take our eye off the ball and just hope the bad guys get bored and lose interest. I heard some jackass this morning on the radio talking about how "all IS/ISIS want to do is establish a caliphate" (which poses NO - I repeat, NO - threat to America). They even tied it back to Al Qaeda's plan for a caliphate, said the dream had been around for decades...

...and then inexplicably "forgot" that whole part about destroying the West.

These were intellectuals, and they have no idea - or are lying about - what the caliphate entails. Pay no attention to that man in the turban who claims to speak for the jihadis. Pay no attention to what their leaders say. They can't possibly know as much about their plans as some overbred, whitebread, toffee nosed academician on public radio.

Posted by: Cass at September 11, 2014 06:22 PM

Some days I wonder if we've been free too long or something, we (well, a majority of the USAians) don't seem to appreciate it at all. Like children who'd never gone to bed hungry not being able to imagine real hunger.

Posted by: htom at September 11, 2014 07:49 PM

I'm going to call attention to -- or remind some of you -- of the best damned political essayist of this century so far: Bill Whittle.

These point to the wayback machine copy of three of his essays from his erstwhile website, "Eject! Eject! Eject!" The last one is, I think, his best one. But the first one is most topical, and the second one is particularly so.

Rafts

Tribes

Seeing The Unseen, Part 1

And if reading these makes you want to read more, over on the right hand side of this link, under Silent America (the title of his book, probably still available via Amazon, a collection of his essays) are links to more of his essays.

Posted by: IGotBupkis, "Si tacuisses, philosophus mansisses." at September 12, 2014 01:22 AM