It's twenty years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, with the Shanksville, PA crash probably representing a thwarted attack on the Capitol, or perhaps White House. I pretty much covered my experience of that day and its aftermath ten years ago, and my opinions and observations about the day haven't changed in any appreciable fashion.
The day itself, like today, was one of those flawless late-summer days in the New York metropolitan area, after the heat of August has broken. The sky was cloudless, the temperature comfortable. I don't know why I was lollygagging that morning, but I left home too late to ride my bicycle to the office. Soon after I arrived, horror struck, and the initial incredulousness was followed by shock that such an accident had occurred, and the dawning realization that we were at war when the second plane hit.
I lost friends in the towers, and the one thing that struck me was that they were roughly my age, and the sort of individuals who were up-and-coming in lucrative careers. Also, the victims that day were responsible, punctual people... if they had played hooky or lollygagged on the way to work, perhaps they would have survived. I remember the memorial services in the weeks that followed, remembered the grief-stricken faces of friends who were mourning brothers or husbands.
One particular friend of mine, the athletic director of the program I volunteer for (a tough guy with a heart-of-gold from Queens, a boxer in his heyday), got everybody in his office out alive. Ignoring the shelter-in-place order from building management, he entered the men's bathroom and yelled, "Get out now. Don't wash your hands, don't even stop to wipe your ass!" He then barged into the women's bathroom and bellowed the same admonition. Everybody got out, but he definitely suffered from PTSD in the aftermath, and once the memorials were over, it was years before he set foot in Manhattan.
A couple of weeks after the attacks, I visited the rubble pile with a friend who lived downtown. It was a four-story tall nightmare that stank unbearably and still emitted smoke. Even at home in Yonkers, the evil, unforgettable smell was apparent every time the wind blew from the south.
I remember learning early on that the burgeoning Security State was a sham. When the Saturday morning athletic program began the first week in October, I got on the 1 Train at 238th Street in the Bronx, lugging a large gym bag packed with a double-weight judo gi and a pair of size 12 flip flops, unchallenged by any law enforcement officer or MTA employee. When I exited the train at 42nd St Times Square, the station was swarming with NYPD officers in SWAT gear and NY National Guard toting automatic rifles. I proceeded to the nearest exit, only to find it closed off with a metal gate- the next exit was similarly blocked, and I was finally able to egress from the station through one of the main entrances, all the while carrying a bag which could have contained anything. The entire security apparatus did nothing to keep anyone with nefarious plans out of this heavily trafficked station, but it did a damn good job of trapping everyone inside if there were an attack. This pretty much told me that much of the security response was bullshit.
In 2001, I was too young and too male to be familiar with the term 'gaslighting', but I realize that that was what was happening to the nation. There was the ellision of Saudi complicity in the attacks, the strange drumbeat of war against Iraq (at the time, the most secular Muslim country in the Middle East), the lionization of the nincompoop who failed to keep the country safe that day, and the insistence that the country was unified when fundamentalist evangelical preachers were blaming the attack on lesbians and atheists, law-abiding Muslim-Americans were demonized, and anyone doubtful about the drumbeat for war was branded a traitor. Perhaps the most grotesque thing about the aftermath was the praise of first responders, and the use of them as propaganda props for a global war while the very politicians vociferously calling to avenge them held up funding for those stricken with debilitating or terminal illnesses... now, THAT is a betrayal!
I avoided the anniversary coverage today. In the COVID era, we moved up our Saturday classes to September, and we moved them outside. Today was the first day, a perfect late summer day, like the one twenty years ago that turned into a horror. It was a morning spent with fellow coaches who lived through that day, a morning of reminiscence. In particular, I was coaching a socially-distanced simulacrum of judo with one of my closest Muslim friends, the man I have for years jokingly described as 'Morocco's George Clooney'. Thank goodness (the goodness of New Yorkers in general, though NYPD behaved badly at times) he never was hassled in those days. It's good to have friends, even though having connections means inevitable losses along the way... the men I knew who were killed were guys I met through the program. Today, I took great comfort in being with old friends, friends with whom I shared the grief of twenty years ago.