I just went outside and looked up. The sky is the same cerulean blue it was on that fateful Tuesday morning. I’m in a different state now, half a continent away, and 3000 miles from the site of the attacks. But the sky is reminding me that while the death and destruction were limited to New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, the effect was felt across the entirety of the US. As an added reminder, looking up, I saw no contrails this morning, reminiscent of the eerie absence of air traffic in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
I was working at the Chicago Board Options Exchange. As most mornings, my carpool and I arrived early, and had a cup of coffee and cigarettes in the member lounge above the trading floor, and then took the escalator down to the floor to get ready to take orders for the opening. Already American Airlines Flight 11 had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The news shows were just starting to show the pillar of smoke gushing from the wounded tower. Our small team gathered at our desk, not quite grasping just how catastrophic the damage was. We quickly heard that a plane had struck the building, but didn’t realize it was a jet airliner. I immediately thought of the incident where a B-25 had accidentally struck the Empire State Building many years ago. But that was in bad weather. The skies of New York City were as pretty as anyone could ask for.
As we watched, and struggled to understand, at 9:03am, United Airlines Flight 175, live on television, slammed into the South Tower, erupting into an enormous fireball, and snuffing out the lives of hundreds of innocents. At first, I could not grasp it. Did I see what I plainly had? Of course not. Such a think cannot happen, who would do such a thing? But within seconds, I understood. I knew what had happened. And I knew, in my bones, who had done it. Oh, I don’t think I figured it was Osama bin Laden and his al Qeada lackeys. But I knew it was Islamic terrorism.
Despite this clarity, this understanding of the enemy, confusion reigned. There were reports of more hijackings, and some said as many as 14 jetliners were streaking towards targets across the US. I wasn’t the only one in Chicago that figured the Sears Tower was on the hit list. And given that the other half of our team worked a block from there, we called and suggested they might want to leave their office, and link up with us. It also quickly became apparent that there would be no trading that day, and thus, no point in staying. So we began to leave. And just as I stepped on the escalator to the lobby, I took one last look at the television screens. It was 9:59am. At that instant, the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed into a stupendous cloud of dust. Again, I couldn’t quite pr0cess what I had seen. Indeed, I hadn’t really seen the whole thing. I didn’t know, didn’t quite grasp, that the entire column had crumbled, a cascading failure all the way to the bottom. And my friends couldn’t understand when I tried to tell them the tower had collapsed. Buildings just don’t do that.
My friends and I quickly reached our carpool, and hastened to head home. We were hardly alone. The outbound lanes of the highway were as crowded as rush hour. The inbound lanes were virtually deserted. Of course, we listened to the radio, trying to glean every last bit of information. And of course, there were conflicting reports. Reports of the crash of American Airlines Flight 77 slamming into the western side of the Pentagon at 9:37am eventually came in. And eventually news of the collapse of the North Tower, at 10:28 reached us, though we were confused, and didn’t realize it wasn’t just a repeat report of the collapse of the South Tower. It wasn’t until we were safely ensconced back in Indiana that we learned of the fate of United Airlines Flight 93, crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And of course, it would be days before we learned how the passengers, realizing their fate, took what steps they could to prevent an even greater tragedy.
We all have certain images from that day seared into our memories. The gigantic fireball, the falling man, police and firefighters rushing to their doom as civilians worked their way down the stairwells, the dust covered zombies on the streets of Manhattan, the grey pall of dust flowing over the harbor.
These images and more steeled a resolve in the heart of the American people, a terrible anger. And yet, almost instantly, there were those who, beneficiaries of the opportunity of America, having done little to earn their way, ashamed of themselves, cloak themselves not in accomplishment, but assumed moral superiority. They assume it must be that America is somehow unfair, and thus at fault. The first few to denounce the US were greeted with scorn and contempt. But again and again, they spoke, and like a river wearing down a rock, they persisted, until today, not a small number at least wonder if maybe they have a point.
Our resolve, our determination to roll back the campaign of terror, to secure our own interests, has collapsed, as surely as the twin towers on the Hudson.
It is to weep.