9/11: Getting Past—But Never Getting Over—It

You walk out the door.

The sky is blue.

Just as blue.

And because today is Tuesday, September 11, you remember that blue sky, because you’ve seen it on another Tuesday, on another September 11, blue skies, nothing but blue skies.

You remember the day, where you lived and live still, what you did, how the day went, what happened that day, and how the world has changed since, going right along to now.

All you’ve got is your own memories, it’s all everyone has. Human history is full of tragedy, losses too great to take in, violence that continues to defy the imagination, murder most foul, nature most rampantly destructive, but somehow 9/11 seems a unique event, not in terms of scale or numbers, but in terms of its singularity and its transformative power.

I came to the United States from Germany as a ten-year-old in 1952 and was plunked into a northern Ohio steel town, the Midwest, as opposed to the Wild West. I tell everybody that my first childhood memory is of American tanks coming into my hometown of Munich, a city 50 percent of which had been destroyed in bombing raids, including an apartment house next door to where I lived. In World War II, 3,000 dead was a normal day, civilians or otherwise. It hardly registered in the annals of the time, except of course to those who lost their homes and lives and friends and relatives. Death by destruction, fire and explosion were common place in cities like Munich or Berlin.

I mention this not in sorrow or anger, but rather to give 9/11 its scale and exceptionality. In terms of numbers, it was small, but it was seen by millions. In terms of impact in these our full-communication modern times, it was huge. In contemporary times, it was the kind of destructive event, caused by a suicidal, fanatical enemy, we had never seen before. Our hearts and minds refused at first to accept it and to understand it, because, in some ways, it was unknowable. In spite of all that’s happened since, it remains a mystery, a black hole in our national experience.

On a clear blue day, like this current Tuesday, I boarded a 42 bus from Columbia Road to see a photography exhibition on disappearing spaces and places. I had no cell phone, and I forgot my camera. I had not turned on my computer that morning, a break of ritual I sometimes think about to this day. It was a Tuesday, with no worries.

At Farragut Square near the White House, the streets suddenly seemed fuller than usual, and almost everybody in the street was talking into a cell phone. I got off the bus there and heard only fragments of phrases as people rushed out of buildings. I asked a policeman near the White House what was up. “Two planes hit the World Trade Center, another just hit the Pentagon, and there may be one heading this way,” he told me in such a non-committal manner, as if reporting a street closing. He pointed to the White House as to where “heading this way” was.

It took me a few moments to take this in because he had no details, and for a second I tried to picture a jet plane crashing into Pennsylvania Avenue. I couldn’t do it. Instead, I started watching people, including attendees at a religious business conference who dropped to their knees on the sidewalk, murmuring prayers for their brethren in New York.

I wandered around, ran into some of my peers in the critics and arts community who also appeared not to know much. I headed toward the Mayflower looking for a phone, hoping for quarters and found people hailing cabs or gathered around a television set, gasping and frozen in awe as one of the towers pancaked to the ground under the shocked gaze of Katie Couric.

The day is a kind of blur for me—I heard a man selling newspapers yelling about “them bastards” and declaring a love of country and a prayer for the safety of President Bush, who was at some point reading a story about a goat to school children in Florida. I called the Georgetowner, and I called home, and I wondered what my mother in Arizona was thinking watching this, or how my son was seeing this in Las Vegas.

Eventually, because there was nothing else to do, as crowds formed to walk home on Connecticut Avenue or Wisconsin Avenue toward Bethesda and Chevy Chase, I joined lines waiting for a 42 bus home. I heard a woman in the hotel say that she was going home to a changed world. I heard a rumor at a CVS about bombs at the State Department, and on a radio, there was talk of a plane crash in a field in Pennsylvania.

We all watched in awe that day and night, all those images of dust and inferno, of the mayor of New York saying that some 300 firemen, policemen and emergency workers had been killed, an impossible number to take in. And he talked about New York going on, and about thousands of body bags and there was a video of a second plane crashing into the second tower and disappearing, into a roar of flames. There were images, later of bodies flying from buildings, unforgettable, our common nightmare and loss.

That was that day: it’s what I remember more vividly than the tanks in Munich because nothing in this world of ours where images, videos, texts and electronic messages invade our daily lives as commonplaces, nothing like this had ever been experienced so vastly and viscerally.

It has been 11 years now, another blue sky. Osama bin Laden is at last dead and ingloriously so. There have been sporadic other attacks in other nations, but Al Qaeda in numbers and size has dwindled under the shadow of constant raids and drones.

There is no victory, of course. President Bush stood tall on a pile of rubble which I instantly recognized as the kind of the rubble in Munich in its grotesque twists of steel and cement. We struck at the Taliban in Afghanistan, eventually, in 2003 invaded Iraq. When Saddam Hussein was captured, I was in Las Vegas, headed for Sun City, Ariz., with my son for a last visit, as it turned out, with my mother. She had for some time now forgotten the immediate present in America and returned occasionally to bombing raids, roundups, the things she didn’t know or remember in the war.

Here in our Adams Morgan neighborhood, I remember a girl sitting on steps across the street lighting a candle on the night of 9/11. Neighbors gathered together a few days later spontaneously and met at the lot where the market sets up shop on Saturdays. We all lit up candles and sang songs from the 1960s like “We Shall Overcome,” families, children, homeowners, renters, bankers, cops and street people alike raising their voices. People from all over the neighborhood signed their names in sorrow to a wall of commemoration and lamentation.

I remember the anthrax scare, and Haz Mat units coming to our neighborhood in their sci-fi outfits. I remember talking to the firemen in Georgetown who had been one of the first on the scene at the Pentagon and their talk of the unbelievable destruction, the smoke, the choking dust and the smell of burnt human flesh.

I remember to this day the photograph that graced our cover the first week, taken by editor Robert Devaney, a fuzzy blur of a shot of smoke coming from the Pentagon. My first reaction to it was that it was blurred a little, my second and lasting one that it captured the moment, confusion and shock, the kind of picture you should not be seeing from where it was taken at Halcyon House on Prospect Street in Georgetown. We had four covers about 9/11 that year, interrupted only by the death of George Harrison, the Beatle of peace, oh, my sweet lord. We talked to firemen and security specialists — and Mayor Anthony Williams who had handled himself with grace and strength in the onrush of events. I remember his talking about not expecting to be a mayor of Washington, D.C., in wartime, and the difficulties of the adjustment and the different qualities of leadership needed for the task.

Time went on, as did the war on Iraq. Disasters have struck with regularity—tsunamis in Indonesia, a horrible earthquake in Haiti, the disaster in Japan, Katrina, and sometimes I thought of James Taylor’s lyrics, coming unbidden—“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.” But 9/11 remained in the memory. Saddam Hussein is gone, and so is bin Laden. President Barack Obama is locked in a bitter election campaign against GOP standard bearer Mitt Romney after becoming the first black president in the history of the United States, a singular moment also. We are in the midst of a floundering, struggling economy which has not yet come to a safe place.

So many Tuesdays since –570 plus—not all of them framed by blue skies. The Middle East from where the attack came is now in more turmoil than ever, an Arab spring in which almost every country trembles in fury and loss and fear. The political maps have been rearranged, while we remain in Afghanistan.

There were commemorations Tuesday, and the reading of names once again went out into the clean, sad air. But there was a recessional quality to the events this day—a kind of thing we say about grief and loss in America, the effort to get past things.

On this Tuesday morning, I walked out onto the street under a blue sky as bright as another blue sky 11 years ago. Getting past it, but never getting over it.


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