September 11, 2006

five years later

On September 11, 2001, we were in DC, a few blocks from the White House, watching with everyone else on television and on the web as the towers were hit, then realizing in horror that we could see smoke from the Pentagon from our office windows. Half the office cleared out at that point, and as Washington went into a state of emergency, we spent the time taking care of half the employees of our company — some of whom would not have jobs a few months later — who could not go home until the roads cleared. On the way out of the office, I’d done a last look around to make sure everyone had a place to go, then busted open the petty cash drawer to get the remaining people some food once we’d gotten clear of downtown.

We walked from downtown up to Adams Morgan, the streets full of people heading north and out of the city center. Unlike the dust-covered people we’d later see streaming from downtown Manhattan on television, it was a spotless procession, everyone looking crisp in the clear day. But we were all worried, our thoughts going to people we might know in lower Manhattan or the Pentagon, and our haste propelled by rumors that something had happened at the Capitol, which was being repeated on the news. The next day, everyone in the company would throw themselves into building an emergency responders’ website registry for co-workers, friends and families looking for information — just one of the many ways people took their fear and confusion and funnelled them into incredible works those first couple of days.

Much later that evening, after having gotten the last few employees home to the outer suburbs, Rachel and I finally started to break down, and headed to a small bar on our street, the only one without a TV, to be with other people and talk through the night about what had happened to all of us. The feeling was that nothing could be taken for granted anymore, and that everything had changed.

Unfortunately, too many things haven’t changed. Too many people are on television tonight, making hay of 9/11 with fictionalized thrillers, partisan political speeches, and selling ads against the spectacle — all things that were, at that time at least, unthinkable. We’ve been through years of partisan fighting and corporate profiteering, seen one of our cities wiped out, and watched the Middle East continue to be torn apart, and all of it has taken its toll on rebuilding any faith we feel in the institutions that were shaken to their foundations that day.

Living now in Manhattan, it’s hard to feel any safer, or that the world is any wiser for all the tragedy that occurred then and in the time since. Instead, many things seem worse — many people I know seem more hopeless and cynical, having seen much of the worst of what people can do on display in the years since the attack. What a terrible thing to be feeling, five years later.