Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reflections on September 11

Inside my cranium all sorts of thoughts, emotions and memories swirl about, battling for supremacy.

I get it. I understand media fixation on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But I’m struggling with my own acceptance of the commemoration, as if paying respect to the dead in some way can assuage the tragedy that has befallen our nation by the subsequent acts of our elected leaders who chose to plunge us into two intractable, interminable wars and into a political no-fly zone where government by negotiation and compromise is as foreign as an al-Qaeda peace offering.

I can’t bring myself to read but a handful of the articles spewed out by the omnipresent media. I can’t bring myself to watch special after special depicting the loss of our seeming innocence 10 years ago. September 11 without a doubt was a national catastrophe, but it was not the first time our country suffered physical and emotional scars, some deeper and more conflicted than the sudden though perhaps expected assault by an enemy committed to our destruction as a beacon of civilization.

We lost 2,983 mostly civilian souls 10 years ago. An almost incomprehensible tally. But not unprecedented, not in sheer numbers the largest of any one day toll, nor the biggest in percentage to total population. On the killing fields of Antietam, near Sharpsburg, MD, on September 17, 1862, the armies of the North and South inflicted the highest single day carnage in our nation’s history: 3,654 died, almost 20,000 more were injured. The dead represented .00011% of the U.S. population of 31,443,000. Put into perspective, the equivalent loss of life against 2001 census figures would have been 31,361. Antietam. Aside from Civil War buffs, hardly anyone takes note of September 17, I’d venture to say.

We do remember and commemorate Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, when 2,459 perished, .000018% of our then population. Film of the sneak attack was as visible in its day as the tumbling of the Twin Towers.

Other seminal moments have been seared into our national conscience: 274 sailors killed in the the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor February 15, 1898, that precipitated the Spanish-American War; the sinking of the Lusitania May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans. Though a British ship, the torpedoing of the Lusitania fueled U.S. entry into World War I two years later after Germany began a new campaign of indiscriminate U-boat attacks on Atlantic shipping; the now refuted attacks by North Vietnamese gunboats on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin August 2-4, 1964. No one died in that incident; from 1965 until U.S. involvement in Vietnam ended in 1975, nearly 58,000 Americans perished.

Perhaps part of my antipathy to September 11 is I knew no one who died that day, though one of our friends surely escaped death by having the good fortune to reschedule a morning meeting to his midtown office rather than in the headquarters of AON in 2 World Trade Center.

Perhaps another part of me is disturbed by the failure of our government to seek shared sacrifice in the war on terror. I’m not an advocate of a draft, but paying for the wars with a more equitable tax schedule, especially for the wealthy, would have been appropriate. Moreover, equipping our troops with the right materiel should have been a no-brainer, along with providing top notch veterans medical care and employment help once their tours of duty ended. Of course, launching an undermanned, trumped up war in Iraq instead of pursuing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan cannot be ignored, either.

Perhaps I’m distant from the commemorations because on September 11, 2001, I was in Phoenix, attending a technology conference. I turned over in bed at 6 am and decided to alter my usual business travel routine. Instead of turning on the TV to watch the news, I picked up the USA Today at my front door and returned to bed to read. A half hour later, 9:30 in New York, I called my office to listen to voice mail. My brother Bernie in Maryland had left a cryptic message asking if I was all right. I transferred to Mary Beth, our managing editor. Perhaps she could explain why he might have asked a question so strange 10 years ago, so commonplace today. She stunned me saying two planes had flown into the Twin Towers, one of which had already imploded. For the next several hours I lay transfixed in bed watching hell transform lower Manhattan.

I called Gilda. Along with the rest of the Beth Israel Medical Center staff, she was assigned to prepare and wait for survivors who never materialized. At 8 pm, she was sent home.

I was marooned in Phoenix until Saturday. Sunday morning, after an overnight stop over in Chicago, I flew back to LaGuardia Airport, a trip I had made some 25 times a year for the prior 25 years. More than 500 approaches to the city, in daytime and evening, never tiring of the spectacle under wing. At first, if not at a window seat, I would crane my neck to snag a view of the stalagmites of steel and glass rising from the bedrock of Manhattan.

Now, on September 17, 2001, as the flight from Chicago descended in the sky above New Jersey, from 50 miles out plumes of smoke could be seen still rising from the spot where the World Trade Center stood less than a week earlier. As the plane glided up the East River, even without the Twin Towers the Manhattan skyline was still spectacular, as majestic as the Rockies or the Grand Canyon.

I had visited the World Trade Center many times for business meetings. I had eaten in Windows on the World, taking in the food and the view. I was a dazzled tourist on the observation floor, sitting in the scooped out seats flush against windows that let you peer almost straight down from more than 1,000 feet in the air. I miss the towers.

But perhaps because I’m from an ethnic culture that has known more than its fair share of trauma, unspeakable, often unimaginable, offenses, and yet extraordinary resilience and rebirth, I can’t stop for a day dedicated to one event. I can pause and hope we will be vigilant enough to prevent a similarly invasive assault on our way of life. I hope those who lost loved ones always remember them. I hope their fellow countrymen never forget them. But I also hope we keep our collective grief in context while rededicating our nation to values that made America the most remarkable and envied in the world.