A 9/11 Story: How It Changed Us, What We’ve Learned

Firemen work around the World Trade Center after both towers collapsed in New York City, September 11, 2001. (Reuters)

Life must be lived while it is with us. And we are beaten only when we allow ourselves to be beaten.

One bright, sunny, seemingly perfect Tuesday morning in September, everything changed. The thing about the world changing is, though, it doesn’t stay changed.

***

I was there on September 11, but mercifully, not quite there — as I wrote when this was all fresh and raw, I worked in Tower One (the north tower, the first to be hit), and I would normally have been at my desk at 8:48 a.m., but voting in the Bloomberg vs. Badillo mayoral primary, as well as my son’s first day of pre-K, delayed me. It was the first day of school for some New York schools that day. One wonders how many others were delayed by school, or by voting, or by being up too late the night before watching the Giants on Monday Night Football. In my case, it meant that I was standing on the street corner by the Chambers Street subway stop when the second plane hit the south tower.

I was just shy of my 30th birthday then, a young lawyer five years into my career. Our offices were halfway up the building; I’d worked on the 58th and 54th floors. There was time for people in my office to evacuate, but my law firm had one fatality, an older woman who had to stop to get oxygen on the long walk down the stairs. None of the firemen working the oxygen stations made it out. Some of my colleagues saw horrifying things, such as the fireballs that shot down the elevator shafts and out into the lobby. It could have been much worse. My firm had gone through a merger in May 2001, and the plan in a few months was to close the Midtown office of the firm we merged with and move the lawyers remaining there to one of the floors near the very top of the south tower until we could get enough space for everyone in one place. Nobody in those offices on the day made it out.

Thanks to some extraordinary efforts by our real-estate lawyers, who burned up the phones the very afternoon of 9/11, and the generosity of another firm that delayed a planned move, we ended up with the entire firm packed into the Midtown building until July 2002. And we were back at work the following Monday, September 17. It was like Whoville on Christmas morning: We had no files, not even any phones or computers, and no work we could do. But dammit, we were still there, and that is what mattered. Things came back gradually. Computer backup was slower in those days, so we lost a few weeks’ worth of work that had to be redone, but everything from the backup servers was loaded on our system by that Wednesday. For years after, any time I looked up something on the system that predated that day and hadn’t been updated since, it was dated September 19, 2001. A small detail, but the small details are often what stick with you.

For years, my wife and I kept our kids (then four and two) from knowing about the attacks, not because we are the type of people to shield them from the news, but because they knew where I worked.

I had interviewed a law student on Friday, September 7, and told him rather jauntily that we worked in the only office in Manhattan that had been proven bombproof. Never give hostages to fortune. The firm settled permanently in Midtown, and there was much sentiment to avoid landmark buildings and keep our offices below about the 25-story limit of how high a snorkel can go to rescue people in a fire. Somehow, we still ended up having a building evacuation in July 2019 when there was a fatal helicopter crash on the roof of our building. I do not miss working in Manhattan.

I had panic attacks for months after September 11, especially going through the Midtown Tunnel. That mostly went away, although to this day, 20 years after hearing the sound of an airplane hitting a skyscraper, I still startle easily at very loud banging noises. I still cannot sleep on airplanes, which I did easily before. But all things considered, many others had it much, much harder — people who died then or died much later from illnesses or the downstream effects of trauma, people who lost those close to them, people who lost their jobs and businesses. As the Wall Street Journal has detailed, over 3,000 children were forced to grow up without a parent, most of them fathers.

For me, September 11 changed the trajectory of my career in a way that led me to National Review. I was a political columnist in college, but when I began to write on the Internet in May 2000, it was strictly covering baseball. But seeing your office destroyed by terrorists has a way of reminding you that politics, and history, have not left you alone. After my mother died of a brain tumor the following summer, I started a blog of my own and gradually moved on to primarily political writing. Little did I know, when I finally took a full-time writing job with National Review at the beginning of March 2020, that the world was on the eve of changing again in ways that may prove as lastingly dramatic as the changes after September 11.

***

It already is difficult, for the many people too young to remember that time, to capture what the atmosphere was like after September 11, especially in New York. Even the physical atmosphere: the smoke and the smells that lingered for a long time. The posters of the missing, which stayed up long after everybody knew that the missing were not coming back. The palpable sense, which set in after the Pentagon was hit, that there were more shoes to drop, exemplified by the bizarre and never-solved anthrax attacks. A foreign enemy had not attacked American soil since Pearl Harbor; an American city had not been assaulted in this way since the British burned Washington in 1814.

People of my generation had lived to see the end of the Cold War and thought that nothing of its like would return. But even at its height, Americans had retained a sense of invulnerability around the places we lived and worked. That was very slow to return. The fervent patriotism that dominated the national mood for over a year after September 11, and really only dissipated around 2005, was the natural human reaction to that. Much of official Washington reached, as I did, for the lessons of the Cold War and the Second World War in the new ideological struggle that followed. It was not always a model we could replicate.

***

What have we learned, and what have we forgotten? We have lived with a beefed-up security apparatus, including a fair amount of security theater at the airports. Much of the work of anti-terrorism since September 11 has gone on so far from view that it is now taken for granted. Our humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, returning power to the same Taliban–al-Qaeda alliance that gave rise to it all, has ripped off one of the bandages that we had worn for so many years, we forgot what it covered. We seem, now, to be returning to the forgetfulness of the 1990s about what the world can do to us if left alone.

The Afghans, for their part, are overwhelmingly a people too young to remember when it all happened, given the high birth rates and low life expectancy in that unfortunate country. The Muslim and Arab worlds as a whole have undergone enormous upheaval in the past two decades, due in part to the determination of Americans that the status quo of tyranny and exported extremism was intolerable to us. For a while, there were even popular movements demonstrating that those things were intolerable to the people who lived under them. Neoconworld, if you will, gave rise to a period in which agitation in those regions of the world could find targets closer to home. That fire having mostly burned out, it remains to be seen when it will turn against us again.

What we learned about ourselves was not always encouraging, either. Arguably, our national willingness to accept indignities at the airport 20 years ago conditioned us for much greater indignities today, against an enemy we can’t see and that does not respond to deterrence or retribution.

Those of us who lived through that day have learned never to entirely trust clear, sunny skies again. But we also remember that even cataclysms that seem to freeze time in its tracks do not, in fact, stop its relentless march forward. Life must be lived while it is with us. And we are beaten only when we allow ourselves to be beaten.

PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks

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