By Brian M. Howle
As horrific as it seems, the pages of our lives are bookmarked by dates of unimaginable tragedy. Every generation has them, and they tend to overlap. For my parents, it was Dec. 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For my parents and me, it was Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas-Fort Worth with the assassination of President Kennedy. And now, for my parents, my children, and me, Sept. 11, 2001 – with the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., coming under terrorist attack from hijacked airliners.
Terrible events are taking place as we prepare this publication for print. My day starts off with – for me and my rather backwards body clock – an early phone call from my employer, awakening me from a blissful sleep after another difficult night of insomnia. Groggy and unfocused, I am asked if I’m watching television. No, I mutter, trying to understand why someone would ask if I was watching television when they know that I am asleep. Then I’m told our workday will be delayed a bit because of “what’s going on.” Still confused and half asleep, I echo the question, “Why, what’s going on?”
She tells me. At first, I still don’t understand. Automatically, I pick up the remote and turn on my television, which is always set on CNN. There I see the sickening images on the screen, while still conversing with her on the phone. I see, I hear; but I simply can not comprehend what is streaming through my flow of cognizant thought. I acknowledge the delay in starting work and hang up, mesmerized by the images of horror and devastation on the television.
The surrealistic pictures conflict with the voice-over accounts of the news anchor. Beginning to clear the cobwebs of sleep from my brain, a sense of denial attempts to keep things in perspective. I know full well that I am watching a live event, that this is really happening – but somehow, my mind wants to make it another of those “action” movies. Oh, it’s just Die Hard II or Armageddon on the screen, that’s all. This isn’t really happening.
But it is. An airliner has crashed into the World Trade Center’s tower one, and for the next 10 minutes I sit motionless, stunned by the shear magnitude of it all. Suddenly, a bird-like blur crosses the screen and plows into the second tower, spewing debris and an immense fireball out of the other side. I’ve been to New York City; I know the massive size of these buildings. But somehow, it still seems like a miniature set for a movie special effects crew. The long telephoto lens belies the scale of the tragedy, and I still can’t believe what I am seeing.
By the time my boss comes by to pick me up for work, I have a television ready to load into her car. We listen to CBS radio coverage on our way in, and then I plug in the set upon our arrival. As we work, the images continue to convey the horror, the shock, the destruction, and the pain.
The networks begin to realize that the buildings were swarming with firemen, police and rescue personnel responding to the initial explosion when the second plane hit. These brave souls – who go unappreciated and taken for granted on any other given day – have suffered losses in the ensuing shower of debris. But still, they continue their tireless task of risking their own lives to save others.
Abruptly and without warning, the first tower collapses on itself – taking those trapped survivors of the initial airliner impact to their deaths, sweeping across lower Manhattan like a volcanic pyroplasmic cloud. Massive columns of concrete, glass and steel rain down on those below, and even more rescuers lose their lives, as thousands of people bolt in panic and self-preservation down the cavernous streets.
Insidiously, the second tower collapses just a few minutes later, as another huge cloud of smoke and dust envelopes the entire city. The city’s emergency infrastructure has been decimated. They lose an estimated 300 firemen and policemen, along with scores of paramedics and volunteers. Sanity and self-preservation would surely deem immediate extrication from the scene as the likeliest response.
But that doesn’t happen. Thousands of people descend on the carnage – as bike messengers, construction workers, stockbrokers and everyday folks set about doing whatever they can to help. They toil with their bare hands, digging through the twisted wreckage in an attempt to help anyone still alive, and assisting the remaining rescue personnel in any way possible. 25,000 New Yorkers line up to give blood. Heavy equipment begins to roll in from all parts of the surrounding area to begin the cleanup. And the volunteers are given free food and beverages. Free food? In New York City?
Why does it always seem to take such horror to bring out the best in others? I am annually perplexed by human behavior around the Christmas season, when folks put aside differences and make the effort to be better, kinder, more helpful people.
Meanwhile, on television, it just gets worse. Now the Pentagon has been attacked, as another hijacked airliner crashes into it. And yet another crashes in Pennsylvania. More death, more carnage, more terror. And a nation is left with even more questions.
There were some truly amazing concessions in television programming as the painfully long day stretched into the wee hours of the next. America’s Shop, Shop At Home Network, Home Shopping Network, QVC, Product Information Network (PIN), HGTV and Speedvision all suspended regular programming, and either picked up network news feeds, displayed American Red Cross phone numbers or messages of condolences to the victims. TLC picked up the BBC’s coverage of the tragedy. TBS, TNT, and CNNSI shared the broadcast of their Turner sister network, CNN. Fox’s FX and Fox Net shared in Fox News’ live feed. I never thought I’d live to see the day when rampant capitalism would actually give way to compassion and decency.
In the immediate aftermath, I implore my fellow Americans not to do the following:
Don’t be an ignorant racist by calling for the head of any person who is Muslim. Don’t get pulled into the black hole of stupidity and misguided hate that always seems to permeate the mob mentality when these things take place. There are some 14 million Muslims who live in the United States. 99% consider themselves Americans; they have earned their citizenship and revere their freedoms and rights much more than most who have been born on our soil. If you allow yourself hate all Muslims because of this tragedy, then you are simply lowering yourself to the same gutless, ignorant and unjustified level as the cowards who flew those planes into the Towers and the Pentagon.
And no, I didn’t forget the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. But early reports indicate that the incredibly brave citizens on-board that flight – who had learned via cell phone conversations with their loved ones about the NYC and DC attacks – chose to literally go down fighting, attacking the hijackers and sparing the intended target (thought to be the White House or Capitol building) by sacrificing themselves for the sake of their nation’s capitol and countless other innocent victims.
So, don’t jump the gun on assessing blame. Remember the Mid-Eastern finger pointing that had to be swallowed when it turned out to be “one of our own” in the Oklahoma City bombing. That’s apparently not the case now, but restraint must still be exercised.
We don’t need to exacerbate the situation by screaming for annihilation of the entire Middle East. As I’ve said before, we aren’t loved and revered by a lot of folks in the rest of the world. And for the most part – whether you want to believe it or not – it’s our own fault. Running off halfcocked is not the way to resolve our grief and anger.
Running off fully cocked is the way. Let’s get it right – take our time, let our intelligence operatives find out exactly who is responsible, and proceed to erase the bastards from the face of the earth.
I have to admit that, up to this point, I’ve not been a big fan of President Bush – but there is no room for political differences right now. Our nation, our freedoms, and our way of life have been unmercifully attacked. He is my President, and I will support his administration completely as he grapples with this grave moment in our country’s history. I implore each of you to do the same. The pettiness of partisan politics has been an obese albatross around our country’s neck for too long, and we must cut it loose.
Our flag has always meant something special to me. But I’ve always thought that early U.S. flag – the one with the snake and the “Don’t Tread On Me” motto (known as the Gadsden Flag) – was most representative of our nation.
To the perpetrators of this cowardly act of inhumanity, I offer this thought on your fate: The Japanese Admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor – and then found out that Japan’s official declaration of war against us came 55 minutes after the attack – reportedly lamented to his staff afterwards on that infamous day, “I am afraid we have awakened a sleeping giant.” And you know what happened to them.
Poetic justice would have the last thing seen on this earth by those responsible for this attack to be a glorious, fluttering banner proclaiming: “Don’t Tread On Me.”
The previous column was originally published September 27, 2001.