It was Sunday, Sept. 9. My sister had called to tell me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. My family has been blessed with generally good health and this was the first serious illness to strike one of my siblings. She was scared. She remained on my mind the rest of the day and through the next. I woke up on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 thinking I needed to call her and arrange to go see her. A phone conversation wasn't good enough. Face to face time and hugs were required.
I arrived at the office just about 9:00am. I work in what my son likes to call "cubicle hell." I saw several concerned faces sticking up over the wall in the cubicle next to mine. Generally that means one of our systems is down. That's what I thought so I asked, "What's up?" The answer was that the World Trade Center towers had just fallen. I said, "You're kidding, right?" Somebody saying, "He doesn't know." A very serious head shaking no. "You're not kidding. What's going on?"
I was told that airplanes had hit both the Trade Center towers and that the Pentagon had been hit as well. Someone said the Capital Building too. I looked out the window across the river where I can see the Empire State Plaza and New York State capital office buildings. They were still standing. I think I asked if we were under attack. It was obvious that we were. I don't recall wondering with whom. I guess the use of airplanes and the attack on the World Trade Center had me sure it was Islamic Terrorists. I kept looking out that window all day.
I asked if anything had happened in Europe. Puzzled faces seemed to be wondering why I asked. This was clearly a coordinated attack. I'd wondered in the past why Europe seemed to get more terrorist attacks then we ever did. Why didn't they happen here? However, the reason I asked was that my parents were on vacation in France. I knew they were supposed to be returning home sometime soon. No one knew of any other attacks but web sites were down and information was sketchy. A cell phone rang and it was my colleague's brother calling as he ran down the street away from the towers. He had gotten out of the first one and didn't stop running until he reached midtown. By then the towers had fallen. He didn’t know since he had never stopped running and never looked back. Adrenaline is a good thing sometimes.
I sat down and looked over my email trying to find my parent's itinerary. I called my sister. She had the note from Mom. For the return flight it said Sept. 11 but it also said Thursday rather than Tuesday. My sister speculated Mom probably had the day right and the date wrong. We didn’t know what to think.
I told her I loved her and had woken up wanting to come see her, that the phone was not enough. She said yes, we should do that. In the meantime there were other concerns and our family crisis had to wait. We set about contacting other siblings and to see if we could determine the location and status of our parents.
As the day unfolded my other sister took charge of tracking down flights. It turned out their flight was scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 11 and it was the day of the week Mom had gotten wrong. At first Continental said their flight never took off. Sign of relief. Then we were told that the flight had taken off but then been turned around and sent back to France. Later we were told that they had taken off but not returned to France. In the meantime there were stories of unaccounted for planes still in the air and the U.S. airforce with orders to shoot them down. Later still it became clear that they had taken off, not returned to France, but that their flight had been diverted. We didn't know where.
Eventually we learned that flights had been diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. At some point in there, late that night I think (my sense of time around this is a little fuzzy) my sister managed to get a number and a call through to Gander. A very nice woman on the other end of the phone confirmed that their flight was on the ground, that they had opened up the school gymnasium for people to sleep in and that right now they were on a nature walk that had been arranged for them. Huge sign of very grateful relief.
The people of Gander and the surrounding towns that opened their homes, their lives, and their hearts to the thousands of stranded travelers that arrived that day are a story unto themselves. They are the lesson the world should have learned from Sept. 11. They showed us all how life is supposed to be lived, how neighbors are supposed to treat neighbors and strangers alike. That their story has been drowned out by all that has happened since is a tragic loss for us all.
The next several days were full of fits and starts around when and how they would return home. The borders were locked down. All flights were grounded. My sister and I discussed driving to Newfoundland and bringing them home that way. Each day brought a new story and a new letdown about how to bring them home.
In the meantime, my oldest sister wanted nothing more then for her Mommy and Daddy to come home. We had decided not to tell them about the cancer diagnosis until they got home. I was left in the role of comforting my older sister. As best as I tried I was a poor substitute for her parents. Dealing with our family crisis continued on hold.
Eventually the airline decided to return their plane to France. Some stranded passengers had been able to get on with their travels others had not. Remaining passengers went with the plane back to France. So my parents ended up in Paris were they attended a service at the American Cathedral. There they joined people of all nations in tears over this international tragedy. It was very moving for them. Try as they might they were unable to get a return flight home from Paris. They managed a flight to London and after some finagling managed a flight from there to Newark were they rented a car and drove to Logan Airport in Boston where their car was.
They had been over the Atlantic 2 hours out of Newark when the attacks occurred. It took them a full week to finish that 2 hour trip.
We were amongst the lucky ones. Our parents made it home. The father of a friend of my niece and nephew died in the towers that day. He went there once a month for his job. For September it happened to be that day. Being only a few hours north of New York City there are many stories of friends, neighbors, relatives that were in the towers that day.
My father is an Episcopal Priest. My mother, an organist and choir director that was raised a Quaker. My preschool and after school hours were split between my Dad’s church and my Mother’s office at the Seminary she helped run. I am not quite a pacifist but do not believe in violence as a solution to problems. Violence begets nothing but more violence. It is a sure sign of a failure to find solutions to problems.
But I also grew up on the streets of the south side of Chicago. There are times when we are left with no choice. My wife was amazed to hear me say that we needed to hunt down and kill every member of Al Queda. If it meant a knife in the back on a dark street corner then so be it. If it meant launching Cruise missiles into training camps then so be it. If it meant poison slipped into their drinks then so be it. This would not solve the root causes of terrorism but it was clear that we had an enemy intent on killing us and when it comes to kill or be killed you damn well make sure it is the other guy that dies.
Like I said, I am not quite a pacifist.
Sept. 11 was one of those rare opportunities to change the world. Virtually every nation was ready to follow our lead. NATO invoked its mutual defense agreement for the first time ever. We were all Americans those days. We were all New Yorkers for a few days there.
The President of the United States could have used this great tragedy and great opportunity to bring the whole world to the table and craft real solutions to the problems that beset this world and cause the great depth of despair from which terrorism springs. Instead, he issued TV platitudes like "dead or alive." Would that Al Gore had been President that day instead. The world is a lesser place for George Bush and the Republican's inability to think outside the box, learn from history, and try to craft real solutions to very real problems. A great opportunity was missed and the world is doomed to decades more of such violence as a result if this administration.
When we went into Afghanistan I supported it completely. That was were the enemy was and the enemy needed to be killed. I read accounts of our preparations and was dismayed at some of it. Dismayed that we weren't sending in half a million men. Dismayed that we weren't bringing along NATO, the UN, and any other allies that wanted to come along. Dismayed that we weren't taking a hard line with Pakistan and Iran. Dismayed that we weren't allowing them the opportunity to join us in the effort and prove their sincere desire to disassociate themselves with terrorists and associate themselves with the responsible nations of the world.
Dismayed that we failed to capture and kill the enemy. Dismayed that this administration was so arrogant and incompetent that they let the enemy get away.
My dismay has only increased since them.
And turned to anger.
Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on this nation on Sept. 11, 2001. This administration let the real enemy get away and instead went on it's own agenda. It lied and deceived the nation. It has been criminally negligent in its failure to pursue the enemy and its diversion of our military resources to pursue it’s own agenda instead of allocating them in defense of the United States of America against it’s real enemy.
How dare they!
It was obvious every step of the way through their build up to the invasion of Iraq. We knew it. We said it. We were derided and dismissed. The various reports and commissions since then have proven us right. The Downing Street Memo's have proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. This administration lied and led us falsely into an illegal and unnecessary war. This administration doesn't care about Al Queda, Osama Bin Laden, and the 3000 that died on Sept. 11. They care only about their own profits and those of their friends. They are only about power, obtaining power, consolidating power, and keeping power.
How dare they!
And how dare the likes of Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, Scott McClellan, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and George Bush lecture or deride Democrats and liberals for our position on the defense of the United States of American when they have proven themselves to be so criminally negligent and incompetent in that role. How dare they open their mouths to speak even a word that does not begin "I beg the forgiveness of the people of the United States of America."
How dare they!