So it’s been ten years. Already. In some ways, it doesn’t seem like it. In others, it seems like a lifetime. Saddam Hussein is dead. Osama bin Laden is too, or so we’re told. Kaddafi is on the run. The so-called Arab Spring is supposedly still more or less in full bloom.
And we’re still stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan like a truck buried to the axles in mud.
A lifetime in ten years.
Yeah, I know: there’s more 9/11 Ten-Year Anniversary thises and thats out there than you can shake a stick at. This is just one more, lost in the sea of the Internet and all the other commemorative posts, news articles, blah and etc.
But I ask you: do you remember? It’s supposed to be one of those things that everybody can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
I was at work. I worked at a place called Cooper Power Systems, Kearney Operation in those days. I hear it’s closed down now, all the jobs shipped to Mexico. Imagine that. We made all manner of things for electrical utility companies. The department I was in made what’s called pipe-arm switches, if I remember the name correctly. Basically, they’re the big insulated switches you see on poles outside subdivisions and the like. I worked the table assembling and testing the insulated bases before they passed to the guys who put on pipe-arms and their assorted hardware.
I was in between orders, discussing something or another with a co-worker when a guy came up from the warehouse (they weren’t exactly a busy department) and told us a plane had crashed into one of the Trade Center towers.
Okay, I figured, probably some guy in a Cessna screwed up.
Except, the guy who told us said they thought it might be terrorists. Naw, couldn’t be that. They wouldn’t have the chutzpah to do that, would they?
Something tickled at the back of my brain, though, told me they very well could.
See, I’m a Cold War military veteran. Never saw any action outside war games, but I was in the Army from ’83 to ’87. We trained almost exclusively for one thing: war with the Soviets. Heck, I got to see Germany at the age of nineteen—something that definitely never would have happened any other way—when I went over for forty-five days on an exercise called REFORGER: REturn of FORces to GERmany. The military loves their acronyms. It was practice for the Russians invading West Germany from East Germany through Fulda Gap. It was the hope that the war would be conventional, rather than nuclear.
The only people who really worried about terrorists in those days was Delta Force, and maybe SEAL Team Six. And I’m not sure if those last guys were around yet in the mid-80s. Either way, I know it wasn’t on my mind.
I happened to be watching the news when they reported that Soviet Russia had fallen. I was sitting in a friend’s living room, a guy who’d been a Marine during roughly the same time, and we both looked at each other and expressed disbelief. Those of you who’ve been born since then need to keep in mind that what I like to call the nuclear umbrella had been spread over us for some fifty years at that point. It dominated everything, no matter what you were doing or talking about. Like some insidious undercurrent. And I’m convinced it’s hard to know what it was like unless you lived under it.
Then it all fell. And we thought we’d won the Cold War, and the US was the superpower now. The future looked bright.
Until we started noticing a few details. Like, some of Russia’s nuclear physicists went missing. So did some of their nukes. Nuclear physicists, once the darlings of the Soviet war machine, were suddenly unemployed, and they had families to feed. The new Russia certainly wasn’t going to do it. The Soviets fell because they dedicated so much of their economy to building up their military—at least that’s one of the major reasons—that there weren’t any private sector jobs to speak of. Especially in the nuclear field.
So, maybe these physicists went to a lot of countries with names that end with –stan. As in Afghani-, Paki-, Uzbeki-, and so on. Countries that don’t like democracy. Or Christians. Or anyone non-Muslim. No let’s be accurate here: anyone non-Islam. There’s a difference.
Makes the world a scary place.
Then boom! Some guy from one of those countries planted a bomb in the World Trade Center. It was 1993, and the thing didn’t work like it was supposed to. We caught the guy, some people died, and then we got distracted by the Oklahoma City thing. And Waco. And Ruby Ridge. Supposed domestic terrorists. Clinton needed to wag the dog, after all. (Okay, to be fair, if I remember my chronology right, Ruby Ridge took place during Bush the Elder’s administration.)
And, oh yeah: Desert Storm. Let’s not forget that little exercise.
Hmm. Maybe having crazy Russkies in charge of enough nukes to obliterate the planet wasn’t so bad after all.
Because, see, the Russians still wanted to live. Unlike those who look forward to the return of the Twelfth Imam. In case you don’t know, what is Armageddon for Christians is the cleansing and purifying of the world for Islamists. Handy, isn’t it?
Now, look. I don’t care if you believe in all the apocalyptic stuff or not. Doesn’t matter whether you believe. What matters is they believe. I’m not worried about you bringing a dirty bomb into the country through a porous Mexican border. Or in a shipping container through the Port of Los Angeles or wherever.
It’s Achmed that bothers me. ’Cause that dude wants to see both of us die for Allah. Or die because we’re infidels who don’t follow the way of Allah and have the gall to draw cartoons about Mohammed.
Yeah, maybe the Russians were a little better. At least they were reasonable.
But, see, the genie’s out of the bottle now. Too late to put it back. And it can’t be done anyhow. It first got out way back in 1945 in a couple of towns called Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. And the nukes we set off over there were firecrackers compared to what’s available these days.
Okay, I’ll concede that you can’t build a nuke—supposedly even a dirty one—in your kitchen sink. You wanna worry about something blowing up in somebody’s kitchen sink, you need to worry about whether or not the neighbor’s cooking meth.
The thing is, we’ve become blasé. In ten long/short years, we’ve already begun to forget.
I don’t care what theory you subscribe to: it was Islamist terrorists. It was our own government bidding for more control of us (a scary possibility I can’t fully dismiss. Witness the so-called Patriot Act). It was little green men from Mars. Whatever it was, the bottom line is that over three thousand people died that day, and they, whoever they are, are just waiting to do it again.
Oh, I doubt they’ll use planes. That’s been done, and the government is using it as an excuse to take away some of our liberties.
Terrorists – 1, Freedom – 0.
Sure, we’ve had some amateurs try it, like the dude who had explosives in his underwear. That, my friends, was simply Darwinism at work. There were probably some folks back in the Mideast who were rolling in the (fundamentalist) mosques over that one, friends and neighbors.
No, it’ll be something else, and I don’t pretend to know what. If I did, I’d have a high paying security job.
So, to come back full circle: do you remember? I’ll tell you what I remember the most: the feeling I got when I finally got to see footage of the planes hitting the buildings. And the people jumping rather than burning to death. And, finally, the buildings collapsing, dust billowing through the streets of New York, people running in terror.
A tower of smoke drifting off in that blue September sky. Replacing the Twin Towers, where so recently three thousand or so people had been going about their day. Maybe thinking about the kid back home, teething. Or the date they had that night. Maybe a relative had come by for a surprise visit from out-of-state, and someone in the building wished they’d been able to take a day off to visit. Maybe someone there was a newlywed, just back from his or her honeymoon.
I can’t know all the details. I’m a writer, but I can’t keep up with over three thousand stories.
In writing, we are told to resolve all the major plot lines. How many were left unresolved on September 11, 2001? How many people are still sitting around, wondering what might have been?
I can’t describe the feeling I got when I saw that footage. I still get it when I think about that day. Maybe this all sounds a little melodramatic, but I don’t care. I’m one of those uncool people who still thinks this country matters, that the Pledge of Allegiance stands for something.
That if we keep restricting our freedoms to try and catch a nut, the nut has won already.
No, I can’t describe the feeling. But, while I can’t put it into words, I’ll never forget it.
Addendum: I just heard Wednesday on NPR that 9/11 is barely even touched on in public school civics and history classes. I will never forget, but will anyone born since then ever remember? Your tax dollars at work.