9/11 + 20

Photo taken from a Rosslyn rooftop Sept. 8 shows the "tower of light" tribute shining into the night sky from the Pentagon, with the river, Memorial Bridge and the Washington Monument to its left.

Twenty years ago today, I woke up and then the nightmare began. First as heard through the calm voice of NPR’s Bob Edwards, then as seen in increasingly horrific images and video clips on TV and online that revealed the United States was in for one of the most painful days of its existence.

As I wrote to fellow tech journalists on a mailing list that night: “I just had to turn off the TV. I can’t stand to watch the clips of the plane crashing into the building anymore–I keep hoping the jet will miss, but it never does.”

The moments of September 11, 2001 that have stayed with me the most, however, aren’t in any photo or video I can inspect today. Biking to the Washington Post as D.C. was rapidly emptying of its daytime population, with the gigantic plume of smoke at the Pentagon rising into a sky of fear… anxious back-and-forth with friends in New York via AOL Instant Messenger when other means of communication failed… seeing a colleague burst into tears at the thought of all the financial-industry voices she had known who were silenced… the ride home through a grief-stricken city with troops on street corners and a quiet sky.

It was all a stunning realization of our own vulnerability. But today, 9/11 also strikes me as the day when any wishful thinking that the 21st century had freed us from the mistakes of the 20th got crushed, conclusively and cruelly.

The 20 years since haven’t been much kinder with their lessons about thinking we have escaped history. We started a war in Afghanistan that we mission-creeped into a doomed exercise into propping up a corrupt government, then launched a war in Iraq with no connection to 9/11 or even a reality-based assessment of our national interest. We did find and kill the author of the 9/11 attacks, but terminating Osama bin Laden’s crimes against humanity did not make us that much quicker to end the atrocities of the Daesh death cult that has no right to call itself “Islamic.”

At home, the body counts from gun deaths and opioid abuse grotesquely exceed those of 9/11 but invoke no somber anniversary commemorations or giant American flags draped from office buildings. And then we decided the way out of these turbulent times was to give the most powerful job in America to Donald Trump, who could never be accused of being too subtle or mild-mannered like his predecessor and instead inflicted a four-year reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence that culminated in a violent attempt to overturn the election. Jan. 6, 2021 scared me as a neighbor of the federal government in a way no other day had since Sept. 11, 2001.

As I type this, the pandemic that has now killed nearly one in every 500 Americans grinds on, even as many refuse to take the vaccines that can do more than anything else we know to free us from this plague. The more I think about 9/11-conspiracy lies, the more I see them as the extended beta test for the anti-vax delusions now afflicting my country.

Yet despite all that, we have made it a fifth of the way into this century, and at least many of us see the broken things we need to fix more clearly than we did 20 years ago. Today, I don’t want to think about the crimes committed then as much as the bravery, sacrifice and persistence we saw afterwards. And which endure today.

An unlikely return to the skies

Weeks spent wondering when I might next get on a plane turned into months–and then that wait ended a little after 7 a.m. Friday, when I boarded a flight from National Airport to Newark.

I had no personal or business appointment near EWR. I just had my habit developed over the last nine years of flying on Sept. 11–plus a stash of future flight credit on United with no imminent use, a growing despondency over my grounded status, an empty schedule Friday, and enough research to establish that I could take a day trip then on largely-empty planes for a reasonable fare.

Commercial aviation’s pandemic-wracked status made this short-notice jaunt possible, in that I didn’t book Friday’s itinerary until Wednesday. The price of procrastination was a little complexity: The cheapest itinerary that would let me leave my city and altitude and arrive home in time for dinner without brittle connections had me flying from National to Newark to Columbus back to Newark and then home to Dulles.

That’s a bit ridiculous, but as a card-carrying avgeek I could not turn it down.

The flights themselves were fine and seemed safe. I spent more time near more random people making my grocery-store visits this week than I did up in the air, and airplanes have much better air ventilation and filtration. It helped that my frequent-flyer status on United allowed my upgrades to clear on all four legs–but note that a seat up front doesn’t get you much more in these pandemic days than extra personal space. I kept my mask on except to have a beverage or a snack on each flight, and everybody near me did the same.

But the real reward consisted of the chances to appreciate the memorial United employees once again set up at EWR to commemorate the crews of UA 93 and UA 175, soak in the post-departure perspective of a Manhattan skyline that doesn’t match the one I knew up to Sept. 11, 2001, and treasure returning safely to one of my two home airports.

Flying on September 11

NEW ORLEANS–I marked Sept. 11 this year by getting on a plane. That wasn’t my first such observance.

Sept. 11 landing at EWRThis year’s flight brought me here for the Online News Association’s conference. In prior years, I’ve flown on 9/11 for TechCrunch Disrupt and CTIA’s conferences… looking through my calendar, I thought I’d done this more often. Some of those years, it turns out, I flew on the 10th or the 12th of September.

Is it weird that I wish I’d flown more often on Sept. 11?

I have paid my respects at all the 9/11 sites: the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanskville, Penn. Those were intensely meaningful visits, and every American who is able should see least one of those memorials.

But another way you can honor this day is to spend time above the clouds.

Today was a good day to do that. I was glad to connect through Newark, so I could see Manhattan’s reborn skyline from the air, then take a moment to appreciate the memorial United employees set up near gate C120 for the crews of UA 93 and UA 175.

A friend has called flying on this day her act of defiance. I’m not sure I’d give myself that much credit. But going to an airport, boarding a plane, and showing a little solidarity with the people of commercial aviation does seem like a decent thing to do.

9/11 recollections on Twitter: sad, short, sharp storytelling

I figured Sunday would be a day to read stories on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a lump in my throat, then hug my daughter and my wife. (That beautiful September Tuesday remains the second-worst day of my life, surpassed only by the Friday in 1999 when my dad keeled over from a heart attack.) Instead, I spent much of the morning glued to Twitter.

I blame one person for that. Journalism professor and media critic Jeff Jarvis got up early to post a long series of tweets, synced to his timeline that morning–getting on the PATH train in New Jersey, exiting the World Trade Center just after the first plane struck, everything that happened after–that brought back the day with a grim urgency. A few examples:

Jarvis continued, recounting the second plane’s impact, being unable to see anything after the collapse of the South Tower and his subsequent wandering throughout Manhattan. But then he hit Twitter’s “rate limit,” silencing his account. He briefly resumed posting on Google+ until friends with connections at Twitter got his account freed up, allowing him to resume his story to its end–a reunion with his family at home.

Afterwards, Storify user Mary Bjorneby used that site to archive all of Jarvis’s tweets, start to finish–without most of his replies to people who offered thanks or inexplicable insults over his wasting their time. (He was right to curse them out. If somebody bores you on Twitter, unfollowing them will suffice.)

Other people had the same idea. Somebody else thought to set up a Twitter account, @UAFlt93, to relate the story of how the passengers on that flight fought back. A few news organizations provided live reenactments of their own–although the Guardian brought its own exercise to a halt after readers complained.

It is all compelling, upsetting reading. It makes one wonder what Twitter and Facebook would be like on a day like 9/11. May we never find out.

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