9/11; Some Thoughts on What the Legacy Might Have Been

It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since that fateful day of September 11, 2001, yet the memories are as vivid and intact as if it was yesterday. Like most folks of at least a certain age who were living in the New York City metropolitan area, I remember waking up that morning to a beautiful late summer day with a cloudless cobalt blue sky. It had all the makings of being just another Tuesday. My wife, Annie, was a homemaker at that time and my two kids, who are now grown adults pursuing their own dreams and aspirations, were in middle school and grade school respectively. At that time, I was still using Metro North railroad to commute from my suburban home in White Plains, New York, to Grand Central Station and my law firm in the City.

Annie was busy getting the kids fed, outfitted and supplied for school, and for reasons I cannot recall I was running a tad late. After hugs and kisses good-bye, I got in my car and drove to the train station for what I expected to be a typical 35-minute ride into the City on an express train. During the 12-minute drive, I was listening to the Howard Stern show which was still on terrestrial radio. As I neared the parking lot at the station, Robin (Howard’s partner) was talking. Suddenly, at about 8:46 a.m., Howard broke in and, in a thoroughly professional tone, reported that the north tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan had been struck by a plane. I parked my car and listened to the radio for a few minutes. I couldn’t reach Annie from my cell phone, so I ran into the station looking for a payphone. As I ran, I recalled that in 1945 a plane had accidently struck the Empire State Building, and I just assumed that the same thing had just happened in lower Manhattan.

I found a payphone and called Annie at home. As I dialed, there was an audible buzz amongst the other commuters in the station at that time. I heard snippets of conversations about “the Twin Towers”, a “plane”, etc. When Annie answered the phone, more than 17 minutes had elapsed since the impact. I told her that I had been listening to Howard and that a plane had just flown into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. In response, she said that she had just heard that a plane had flown into the building. There was then some confusion between us. I thought she was referring to the initial impact, however, she then clarified that each of the two towers had now been struck by planes. It became instantly clear that this was no accident, and that America had just been attacked by international or domestic terrorists on our home soil. In a panic, we had a quick conversation. Annie asked me not to go into the City. I told her that we had people in the office, and I had to go in. Not knowing the extent of the attack we might be facing, we ultimately agreed on the following: (1) Annie would get the kids out of school, get some supplies, get some cash out of the bank, and drive north towards her parents’ vacation home in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts; and (2) I would go into the City, make sure everyone was all right and then catch a train on the Harlem Line to the northern most stop, Southeast, which was only about 45 minutes south of the Berkshire house. We then each said I love you, and that we would see each other soon, and we hung up.

After getting off the phone, I wandered out onto the southbound platform to catch the next train to New York City. Word was now spreading through the passengers of the double plane strike and a terrorist attack. I boarded a train that was packed with commuters and stood in the area between the two doors on either side of the train. Confusion, anxiety and fear were palpable. As we pulled away from the station and headed south, announcements began to come over the public address system that they were not certain that the train would be heading all the way in to Grand Central, and that we might be turned around. Several people in my area had electronic pagers with them and were getting brief news feeds. When they learned something of importance, they shouted it out. The ride was long as the train stopped and started frequently in between stations.

At about 9:59 a.m. one of my fellow passengers who had a pager shouted out that the south tower of the World Trade Center had collapsed. There were screams and sobs throughout our train car. I was terrified. The thought that this could happen, and that one of the Twin Towers now lay in ruins was unimaginable. Then, as we sat stopped about 40 minutes later there was a shout that the north tower was gone. A gentleman seated close to me screamed and collapsed on the floor. You see this gentleman worked for the firm Cantor Fitzgerald. When the north tower collapsed, that company lost three quarters of its workforce, which amounted to 658 people.

Eventually our train made the stop at 125th street in Manhattan. We were told to disembark and, in no uncertain terms, to take the next train headed north. As I stepped out onto the platform on that beautiful, horrible day, myself and many other passengers tried to peer southward in an attempt to see the smoke rising from the ashes of what earlier that day had been the mighty Twin Towers.

With the exceptions of low murmurs and sobs, the packed train ride north was eerily quiet. Everyone was in a state of shock. Eye contact was made, and nods were exchanged, but conversations were rare as everyone was lost in their own thoughts and emotions.

In the days that followed, and full knowledge of what had transpired became known, something rather amazing happened. The people collectively wrapped their arms around one another, supported one another, hugged one another, and cried together. We became one. It did not matter your gender, religion, political philosophy, skin color, sexual orientation, etc. There were no blue states or red states, or north or south, or east or west, or democrats or republicans, or liberals or conservatives. We were just one. With the exception of perhaps the assassination of JFK (for which I was really too young remember), and the first moon landing, this was the one and only time in my now 62 years that it felt like we were really and truly the United States of America. Of course, it took an act of terrorism and the loss of 2,977 lives to bring us to this moment, but it sure felt like we were there. It was there when you walked down the street and made eye contact with people, when you went shopping, everywhere and anywhere. For a brief moment we were not strangers, and we forgot our silly insignificant differences.

In December 2001 Annie and I traveled to Oahu, Hawaii, where I ran in the Honolulu Marathon. Several days before the race we went to a luau attended by bus loads of people out in some secluded beach. There were hundreds of attendees. We sat with our legs crossed in the sand around long rectangular tables. There was some entertainment before the feast. Then, before we broke bread, the master of ceremonies over a microphone asked if there was anyone present from New York. He asked for all New Yorkers to stand up. Annie and I looked at one another, and then we stood up. Slowly other fellow New Yorkers began to stand up. Once we were standing, the emcee told those seated to give us a round of applause and to extend their love and good wishes to us because of what took place on 9/11. I became overwhelmed with emotion. I stood there blinking back tears and looked around at the others standing, and then at the faces of those seated. There was nothing but love and support. Unbelievable. As I sat back down, I leaned over to Annie and quipped, “amazing, before 9/11 these folks might have thrown stones at us”.

Unfortunately, the good vibes didn’t last very long. Soon, we began to tear ourselves apart, and let others tear us apart for their own gain and power. For myriad reasons that I don’t feel are appropriate for this article, we let the love die, we let the haters win, we stopped standing with each other, we allowed ourselves to become hyperpolarized, and we ceased being the United State of America. Instead, we have devolved to such a degree that insane unsupported theories of stolen elections have taken root and persist; insurrectionists who desecrated our Nation’s capital, and whose actions resulted in deaths, are referred to by some as mere tourists; science and climate change have become political issues; and we couldn’t stand fully united against a global pandemic and thousands have died unnecessarily or been forever harmed as a result.

It’s now 20 years since 9/11. Since then, we have engaged in military operations across the Middle East, in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs has been working on estimates since 2010. They put the human toll at more than 890,000, including armed forces on all sides, contractors, civilians (more than 380,000), journalists and humanitarian workers. The efforts have cost the United States alone $5.8 trillion, not including the additional $2 trillion that has been estimated will be needed for healthcare and disability coverage for our veterans for decades to come. These insane numbers are part of the legacy that has been wrought over these past two decades. Four presidents, two democrats and two republicans, have held office during this time.

As I reflect on all of this, I can’t help but think that it didn’t have to be this way. Following the events on 9/11, in addition to the feeling of brotherhood from “sea to shining sea” within our own borders, the world turned to us with support and sympathy. Maybe, just maybe, all of this goodwill could have been leveraged such that the past 20 years would have been a time of building, advancing and unity, and we would now be looking back on a very different history, and looking ahead at a brighter future. Well, that didn’t happen, and no one is to blame except us. It sure seems that we could have done a better job of honoring the dead by using the moment that was briefly presented to us to create and remain unified, instead of turning our backs on one another, vilifying one another and allowing ourselves to be so horribly divided.

Imagine.

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