The photograph that the Georgetowner caught that afternoon from Halcyon House, looking south, doesn’t seem like much if you don’t know the context.
Something way off on fire, plumes of smoke, a distant shot. It was our cover in our Sept. 14, 2001, issue after it happened. (Sept. 14, by the way, is the birthday of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written by Georgetowner Francis Scott Key in 1814. That flag seen waving in the foreground is a Star-Spangled Banner flag, a version of which still flaps today from Francis Scott Key Park on M Street.)
Knowing, of course, what it was and what happened, makes and made that photograph a powerful reminder of that day, you can hear it happening in your head looking at it, the noise, the utter confusion, and we know exactly where each and every one of us where that day and we can roll it back on command as if we lived in a story.
We still have a stack of publications from that day and right thereafter: the Georgetowner cover(s), the Time cover with President Bush waving a flag on top of the pile of rubble at the tip of Manhattan where the Twin Towers used to stand, a Vanity Fair special edition cover, “One Week in September,” “Faces of Tragedy, Faces of Heroism,” “Fanfare for the American Spirit,” a Newsweek cover with the faces of three sturdy firemen on the cover, “America a Year Later,” a Dec. 31 Newsweek cover with the Twin Towers on fire as the number 11, a commemorative issue based in Shanksville, Pa., where the last hijacked plane crashed in another ball of fire.
We remember all of those things vividly and only glancingly remember that Newsweek is gone. Yet 12 years after September 11, 2001, we are changed.
We live in the world in large part created and formed by that day and its aftermath. The terrorist attack on the United States led to two costly wars that had major impacts on our economy—wars that President Barak Obama is retreating from even as he and we and the rest of the world muddle through a response to chemical warfare in Syria, a muddle that has a lot to do with the wars of the 9/11 aftermath.
We live in a changed world because of 9/11—there is such a thing as the Homeland Security Department, there is the discomfiture of traveling anywhere, including the United States. There is a ratcheting of spying hiding under the flag of national security, the extent of which is now secret no longer, with a odd result: while people are afraid, aware and even angry, there is precious little passion or outrage that raises to the surface. We have gotten used to the world we live in, which is full of high-tech toys of the kind that bright 12-year olds can penetrate. So, why not the nation’s super-intelligence agencies?
In this world, everybody spies on everybody, for economic gain, for political advantage, for guessing the next terrorist attack, the latest scheming in some basement in America, Yemen or France. Our names are out there, and so are our bank accounts, any friend named Ali, or a contribution to a mosque, or knowing that a Sufi and a Sunni and a Shiite are different branches of the same Islamic tree.
In the Middle East, the Arab spring is misunderstood by most Westerners, except that perhaps free elections are overrated as a springboard to democracy. We know that what is going on has its dangers and that the grandchildren and children of Osama bin Laden are among the participants and soldiers of the civil wars and revolutions and demonstrations all over the region.
What happened on Sept. 11, 2001, raised a wall many of us would like to lower again. We are either at war or awaiting the next war, wondering who is friend or foe. The president may have been—in his agonizingly slow approach—acting on principle and seemed surprised that when he said, “Follow me,” there was no one behind him on Syria. The GOP stalwarts seem to have trouble imagining any sort of future except one that is absent Obama and his health care plan. They to would like to go back to before 9/11, somewhere when morals and movies were black and white.
We cannot go back. The smoke is still in our nostrils, as it was for everyone who experienced World War II. One of us remembers, as a five-year-old living in Munich, watching American tanks come into the fallen city. One of us also remembers standing next to the White House on 9/11 and being told by a policeman that two planes had struck the World Trade Center, and one had hit the Pentagon and another was coming right here, perhaps.
It didn’t. But that smoke from that picture, that was the Pentagon.
It was 9/11.