I posted these memories a year ago, near the nineteenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001. It was called “Nineteen Years” then. I’m updating it for today, the twentieth anniversary of that terrible day.
I was five months pregnant and in bed that morning nineteen years ago, thinking about getting up to pack to begin a twelve-hour drive to a conference in Indianapolis that day. The phone rang, and my mother urged, “Turn on the TV!” We watched together while the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center and the towers fell.
Downstairs a few minutes afterward, I called my husband, Bob, who was at work on Capitol Hill. The internet wasn’t working at his agency, and nobody knew why. I told him what had happened in New York, and he got off the phone to figure out what he and his coworkers should do.
A few minutes later I was watching the coverage from NYC when the local news broke in with a special news report. I couldn’t imagine what local story could be more important than a terrorist attack in NYC. Then the local story came on: a channel 4 reporter was on her way to the airport for the obligatory story interviewing travelers at the airport. As the news van drove by the Pentagon, she saw the plane hit. She was the first reporter on the scene.
I kept running to the front door, nodding, wide-eyed, to all the neighbors who were doing the same. We kept scanning the sky, expecting to see smoke. We’re less than four miles from the Pentagon; there should have been smoke. But the wind was blowing the other way. From my doorstep, it looked like a perfect, sunny September morning. A few minutes later, the ground shook, like an earthquake. Some neighbors thought it was a sonic boom. But aI later learned that much of the Pentagon wall gave way and collapsed at exactly that time.
As the morning wore on, I gathered in pairs or small groups with other neighbors who worked at home, sharing what we’d heard. Mostly we stayed alone at our own doors. Eerily, the sky was empty of planes, except for fighter jets — and one large, unmarked airliner that a neighbor who was a former CIA agent identified as the Doomsday Plane, the one that is equipped so that the president can run the country from the air.
Bob was stuck on Capitol Hill; our Metro line runs directly under the Pentagon and was closed for much of the day. He and some other employees there were contemplating walking home, or at least to a Metro stop on a different line. It would have taken hours. The police were asking us to stay home, off the roads, to keep them clear for ambulances heading to and from the Pentagon. I decided to postpone my drive to Indianapolis until I knew my husband was home safely, and until emergency vehicles no longer needed I-395 and other main routes in and out of the city. Much later I heard that several people I knew had been at the Pentagon that morning. One had left just a few minutes before the crash; the office she was visiting was destroyed when the plane slammed into it. Another was just one room away from the damaged part of the building at the time of impact, and had PTSD, as well as some health problems later due to inhaling fumes.
Rumors and unsubstantiated reports were all over the news that day. For example, one television station kept talking about an unconfirmed report of a bomb at the Commerce Department. That one was untrue.
I also heard of another hijacked plane headed for the White House. Or the Capitol. Or both. That one, of course, turned out to be true. As we eventually learned, the passengers on United Flight 93 intervened, attacking the hijackers and bringing the plane down in a field in Pennsylvania, rather than allowing it to continue to the densely populated Washington, D.C., area. Years later, visiting the site, I was in tears, acknowledging once again that if not for their courage and decisiveness, the plane could have hit the U.S. Capitol complex, where my husband was working that day, leaving my unborn son fatherless and endangering thousands of D.C. residents, as well as the infrastructure of the U.S. government.
The Metro’s Blue Line began running again that afternoon, going through the Pentagon station but not stopping there, and Bob finally made it home. The next day I left for Indianapolis.
What a long, strange drive that was! The roads were mostly deserted, except for, ominously, army convoys. American flags started appearing on overpasses and along the side of the interstate. And every time I stopped for gas — a visibly pregnant woman driving alone with Virginia plates — the few people who were out gathered and spoke as if we were all friends, or allies against a common enemy. People were especially kind, maybe because I was pregnant and alone on the road at a strange, unsettling time. The camaraderie felt good, but was tempered by the news reports of harassment and violence against Muslims and people who were mistaken for Muslims all over the country. I’d never thought much about the number of planes and vapor trails visible in the sky on a normal day. But with almost all flights grounded nationwide, the sky felt strangely empty.
My meeting in Indianapolis was the annual conference of the National Federation of Press Women, a close-knit group that cherishes our yearly reunions. Applause broke out in the business meeting when I walked in, as it did when each person arrived, one by one, over several days. With the nation’s planes grounded, many of our attendees were stranded en route when their flights were immediately canceled and forced to land at nearby airports instead of continuing to their destinations.
Now, nineteen years later, we are in another period when Americans are understandably confused, disturbed, and vulnerable. My son was born a few months after 9-11 and is now in his first year of college. He started the year at the university, until much of the campus closed down and students were sent home to take their classes online. These young adults who were born in the shadow of terrorist attacks on our country ended high school and began the next chapter of their lives in the shadow of Covid-19 and corruption, incompetence, and deception at the highest levels of our own government.
There is none of the feeling of unity that was so widespread on 9-11 (except, unfortunately, for certain minority groups, who were actively excluded from that sense of us all being in this together). The country is divided, and nutty, toxic conspiracy theories like those that were heard on the fringes in 2001 are now part of the mainstream conversation. Have we learned anything in the nearly two decades since that terrible day? As frightening as an attack from outside the country was in 2001, the attacks from within in 2020 may be worse.
Now it is September 11, 2021. It’s hard to believe that twenty years have gone by since the day the world changed so much. I was pregnant the day of the attacks; my son is now a college sophomore. Two wars the United States started in the aftermath are finally over. But distrust of Muslim Americans — and of many immigrants — is still very real and even more troubling than it was twenty years ago. When we fly, we still have to take our shoes off at the airport and carry only the liquid that fits in three-ounces bottles in a quart-size bag. But in the midst of a pandemic, most people are not flying nearly as much as before. The Patriot Act still affects our freedom in very real ways, but many Americans are more concerned with their freedom to spread a virus by refusing to wear a mask and get vaccinated. The lack of unity I remarked on a year ago has only intensified. People seem angry. Is that anger a legacy of the 9/11 attacks? Or is it a new anger, over new issues?
I tend to think it’s all part of the same anger, an anger over a growing realization — that many will not consciously admit. So many Americans have failed to come to grips with the fact that we are not invincible. 9/11 showed us that, but some still refuse to admit it. Instead, they wear their red hats and wave their flags, and ignore facts in favor of fantasies. Fantasies that drinking detergent or taking a veterinary pill will fight a virus more effectively than a safe, medically approved vaccination. Fantasies that every Muslim is a terrorist, that Spanish-speaking immigrants are ruining this country, that Donald Trump won last year’s election, and that women blithely choose late-term abortions as a method of birth control. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so pessimistic about the direction this country is moving in, not even in those dark days of September 2001.