Nine Eleven. 911. 9/11. 9-11. It is ten years since killers soiled the numbers we dial for an emergency phone call. Ten years since they chose American Airlines’ planes to fly into American icons.
And ten years later, our retribution is not complete. We are not done hunting down the killers and their colleagues and their ilk. One aspect of today’s commemoration is the notion that our safety is not secure. For me, I get that reminder several times a week in an airport security line. Each search commemorates 9-11.
The images of the jumpers are still as strong as when I saw them fling themselves from those windows. I can picture them with my eyes open. The imprints seem embedded on the retina; they have never left me. I saw five jump.
I particularly remember those two younger people jumping from the North Tower while holding hands. They were trapped above the inferno. They elected to die while clasped to each other. What did they think? What did they say to each other? How did they make the decision to leap to certain death? How old were they? All I could tell is that they were younger, and agile. What a horrible loss. For what? Why? It is very hard to grasp acts that are utterly irrational and futile. The 9-11 attacks are among the most difficult to grasp.
Ten years later. There is a memorial. And rebuilding. And forward-looking statements of hope. And speeches. And the reading of names.
And there is the endless stream of photos and replays. I cannot watch it. No, that is not true: I do not want to watch it. The photos and TV news clips do not do justice to the event. They cannot possibly capture what it was like.
Think about it. These TV clips are a record, of course, but they are made in a world where video can be created to portray anything. 9-11 footage tries to depict truth in a world where truth has become so distorted. Today we see video and suspect it. These days, the most truthful are the amateur clips sent from cell phones and iPods. We believe them when they are on the scene, sneaking revolutionary video out of Libya or Syria. These days, we wonder about anything that reeks of professionalism or politics.
Today we set that cynicism aside. The 9/11 TV clips are real. They are to be believed and trusted. They are not contrived. I will tell you that the one showing the second explosion is accurate. I saw it with my own eyes. I measured the size of the fireball at about 20 stories of the building. I heard it. I counted the “flash-to-bang” time to triangulate the distance – 1100 feet per second. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand, five thousand – and then a crashing boom. It took about five seconds. That meant I was about 5500 feet from the actual explosion when it happened. I saw it, felt it, heard it, and later smelled it. Four of my five senses recorded it. No dispute about the accuracy.
It is a busy day. Sleep came fitfully last night. Early awakening meant seeing the moonset before the sunrise today. We talked with Tom Keene and Mike McKee on Bloomberg radio this morning. We talked with students at Sarasota’s New College this afternoon. Some of them were ten years old when my NABE colleagues and I walked out of the South Tower onto Liberty Street. Today’s final 9-11 event will be an interfaith communal service.
Is it cathartic for me? Not a chance. I am still angry at the futility of these deaths and this destruction. I worry that 9-11 fades and becomes diluted by time, and speeches, and ceremonies, and texting. By words and TV clips.
“Words name things and then replace them,” said Elie Wiesel. I recall the conversation in which he said it. Wiesel is an historian, philosopher, and globally renowned Holocaust survivor. He captures with words the risks and the turmoil that swirl inside someone who is lucky enough to remain alive after a catastrophe strikes. He worried that words replace the event, and it fades as time goes by. He was thinking about the Holocaust, the event that is now denied by Iran and others in the current world. In that same world, they are taught that no one died on 9-11. In that world, children are taught that this is an American fiction.
Words and TV clips can also dilute intensity. Not for me, not in my lifetime. But I worry for others. I worry for the ones I talked with today who were ten years old and a thousand miles away from New York on 9-11. I worry about the evolution of the millions and millions who are being deceived with propaganda that denies the truth of 9-11. And I worry most for my three children, their spouses and my grandchildren. And I worry about this great American nation of ours. I worry a lot.
Wiesel also said, “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”
9-11-11. A decade has passed so quickly and yet it seems like yesterday.