16 Hours After the Towers Fell

It seems my sister and I share a tendency to retreat to the pen, metaphorically speaking, in times of grief and, to paraphrase the Bard, unpack our hearts with words. I posted my part of this in the early hours of September 12th. I e-mailed the link to Jenn, who lives near Portland with her husband. That evening she sent me her own account of the aftermath. This is what we told each other.

- Tim

It is two o'clock in the morning in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Grief and rage have knotted in my chest all day, and have made me numb. My internal dialogue will not stop; I can not sleep.

When I woke up this morning, my wife was in tears. She had just seen a jet liner crash into the second of the World Trade Center towers on the morning news. In less than an hour, the lives that were lost in New York City totaled almost a quarter of the number of American soldiers that died in the ten years of the Viet Nam war (I hope that I will turn out to be wrong about that, but I fear not).

The alarm had gone off, but Steve and I had not yet risen. We often start the weekdays curled together, talking quietly before hitting the shower. We'd barely traded a few sentences (what we were talking about will be lost to me forever) when Steve's pager went off with a vengeance.

The message was to the point. Two jet liners had crashed into the World Trade Center a few minutes previously. Get into the office pronto.

While Steve flew through his morning ablutions, I watched the television in stunned disbelief. When the first tower came crashing down, I was horrified, but - God forgive me - thought, "They'll build it back." Then the second tower fell, and I began to cry. When I lived in New York, they had been the first thing I'd see just before entering the Lincoln tunnel, when returning to the city after a visit to Mom and Dad.

Immediately following the Oklahoma City bombing, Americans of Arab descent were harassed, vilified, and assaulted across the country. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the same happened to Americans descended from any Oriental race; afterward, Americans of Japanese and German descent were interned. Our record here is not good. Arab-Americans are Americans; they are not the enemy.

I am puzzled that the terrorists who carried out this atrocity are repeatedly characterized as cowards. A man who is willing to die taking as many lives as possible with him can be characterized in many ways. Fanatic and insane leap to mind. Committed and brave, grudgingly, at least from the point of view of his fellows. Cowardice? I think not. Let us not dismiss the enemy lightly. That they are committed to their cause does not cheapen our own resolve.

I was late for work. I was not the only one; everyone was pale, silent, unsure of what to do or how to act or where to go. Little work got done. We would wander to our computers, pick half-heartedly at the keyboard a moment or two, then restlessly drift back to the TV or the radio. Finally the boss sent us home, and they closed the store early. Before they left, management hung a huge American flag down the side of the building, and a sign on the door explaining that we were closed, "out of respect for the nation's loss."

Steve showed up around 7:00 pm, looking worn. I forced him to finish a plate of dinner, then he went to bed for a few hours. I woke him at 10:30 and he returned to work.

Slightly before noon, local time, I called the blood bank in Santa Fe for an appointment. They were swamped, and wouldn't be able to take me until the next day. It is the same story all over the state. Hearing that was the very best part of my day.

I tried to give blood today, but they told me to come back in a couple of days. The lines stretched around the corner.

Following the bombing of our embassies in Africa, we destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. The story given out was that they were making chemical weapons for terrorists. We were later forced to admit that they were not. If you hadn't heard about that before, well, the story didn't get a lot of play.

There is blood in our eyes, now. Let's wipe it away so that we can see clearly. Be strong. Be patient. Our vengeance can wait, all the more certain for our patience. Above all, I've no desire to see innocents harmed in the name of "swift and sure retribution."

The newscasters talk and talk and talk. Dead air is anathema, even when there is really nothing more to be said.

I can't stay away from the news. Eventually it begins to repeat itself, and shows heartrending scene upon heartrending scene, but I am compelled to stay.

I heard it all after Oklahoma City. "America, seemingly immune for so long from the terrorism suffered in other parts of the world, has lost its innocence." Now they are saying it again, for the same reason it was said then: to fill dead air space in the news coverage with banalities masquerading as wisdom. We know we are vulnerable. We know it.

Nor have I felt fear...except for one awful moment today, when a military jet swooped low over the city. At the sound of the aircraft, those of us on the 13th floor at work gasped and cringed; I could feel myself clutch up inside. Then I recognized the sound for what it was, and was furious at myself for being afraid...after all, isn't that what the terrorists want?

Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying that "An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind." That was cleverly said, but irrelevant. Forbearance will not impress our enemies. Will violence? Perhaps not. But it is all the justice the dead and living will ever have, in this world or the next.

It's hard to know how to think. Mostly I just feel miserable. Not really anger...I suppose that will come. Just a black grief. Life feels almost pointless, and pointless on the outside, rather than on the inside (which I know will pass).

Already the pointing of fingers has begun. "We are 90% sure the attacks were planned by Osama bin Laden." 90% sure? What the hell does that mean?! How do you quantify something like that? Do you ask for a show of hands among intelligence analysts?

The pointing of fingers has begun at home, too. Congressmen say the CIA, FBI, and NSA are at fault for not detecting the plot. Those agencies say Congress is at fault for tieing their hands all these years. Others see in this future assaults on civil liberties. Screw all that. The dead are not impressed. Neither am I.

To the men and women in the aforementioned agencies: I know you are doing the best jobs you can, within the law. Regroup, and try to figure out what needs to be done. Some of what you want, you will not get. You will feel that you are being asked to do an unappreciated job with your hands tied. Speaking for myself, I appreciate the work you are doing, and the courage you display in doing it. I don't blame you for missing this attack. I won't support all of the broad powers you might like to have that could make your investigations more effective, but I won't blame you either for not being able to stop every assault.

I wish it had not happened. A futile sentiment, and bootless. As Omar Khayyam said, "The moving finger writes, and, having writ, moves on; nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash out a word of it." But I wish it had not happened.

It is 2:45 am. I'm going back to bed now, to lie on my back and stare at the shadows.

You're having trouble sleeping. All I want to do is sleep. I slept deeply last night. For a moment - one glorious moment - when I woke this morning, I thought it all had been a nightmare. Then I rolled over and saw that Steve was still gone, and I knew it was still true.

Tim & Jenn
September 12, 2001