9/11, 20 years on

On Tuesday, September 4, 2001, a book called Fooled by Randomness hit bookstores. In it, author Nassim Taleb wrote that we should be aware that we don’t know what’s coming, and we should be ready just in case. Just in case what? Well, who knows, maybe a plane could fly into a building I’m working in. What then?

Well, what then? It happened a week later. People asked him how he predicted it. They put him on news shows, on talk shows, on campuses, and he told them all the same story, until he got tired of it. “I didn’t predict it, and you didn’t get the point.” That’s not what he said, but it’s the gist of it.

We don’t know what’s coming, and some things aren’t predictable. Just like COVID-19 shut the world down, no one saw 9/11 coming. Except it was always a possibility, merely a not-very-likely one. For most of our lives, we don’t waste our time protecting against something that’s probably never going to happen. And then something happens, like planes flying into buildings.

If we’ve learned anything, maybe it’s vulnerability. Maybe we’re living a little more like we might die tomorrow because it showed us that we might, in fact, die tomorrow.

But we’ve shown on the larger level — large systems, like TSA and the federal government — that we’re very reactive, never proactive, and we rarely revisit our reactions.

If you are old enough to have flown before 9/11, you’ll remember that your friends and family used to be able to walk you to the gate. Yes, they had to go through security, but security was largely the x-ray machines (small bins for your keys and change, but none of the gray bins we currently put our shoes in, and our belts in, and our laptops in) and a metal detector. Sometimes you had a real metal belt buckle and the detector went off, and you got the wand. Back when we were able to wear our belts through security.

Jim Jefferies has a great bit about it. Language warning.

Humans build our greatest tributes first to our gods, then to our dead. Here in Savannah, there’s a gorgeous cathedral erected to St. John the Baptist. As a Jew, churches often make me uncomfortable — they’re simply foreign spaces with a very different feel from a synagogue, even if the activities taking place there are similar — but I really love this space. I recommend it as a stop for most people who visit, and I bring a lot of people there.

The cornerstone was laid in 1873, and the stucco and spires that completed the building were finished in 1896. In 1898, it burned down. They took what was left and immediately started to rebuild, and managed to hold a Christmas Eve Mass in 1899.

The terror attacks of 9/11 are really our national crisis, at least for the current generations. Pearl Harbor had been the previous attack that devastated the country, killing many Americans. There was the assassination of President Kennedy, which killed two people (Kennedy, of course, and Lee Harvey Oswald, shot by Jack Ruby). Apart from that, very few other things over the past century have happened to “us” as a collective.

And so it had to be remembered. I’ve never visited the 9/11 Memorial, but it looks meaningful. In fact, it’s more than that, as Malcolm Gladwell outlines in an episode of Revisionist History. It had to be completed by a certain date. It had to be a certain size. They had to build below the memorial to keep it from falling onto the subway tracks (or trains) below it.

We don’t do this for the dead, of course, the way we don’t build cathedrals and other houses of worship for God. We do both things for the living. We do it for solemnity and remembrance. To impart importance.

But maybe we do it for a more sinister reason, too. Maybe, just maybe, we build grand cathedrals to keep people in line, not necessarily before God, but before the clergy, the humans who claim the power of the space. And maybe, just maybe, we build memorials to the dead to remind us that the thing that befell them could befall us if we don’t follow new rules we’re told are designed to prevent that thing happening again.

10 Septembers, 20 Septembers »

What we did get out of 9/11, was a national story, surrounding our individual stories. Families and nations, like gods, are built on stories. America was built on George Washington’s cherry tree, on Paul Revere’s ride, on Ben Franklin’s kite. So far as we can tell, only one of those stories is actually true.

We’ve had other stories, of course. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, Manifest Destiny, Ford, Disney, the Kennedy clan, and the bulk of the names and events mentioned in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

And so, when I was driving from a meeting at our main office to getting set up for my week in our satellite office, I heard Dee Snider, on his syndicated radio show, tell me about the newest American story.

The national story was always going to be part of us, but it would only stir some of us. For the bulk of us, we spent a few days scared or unsure, and within a week we had air travel and baseball again. Some signed up for the armed services. And for some — a not insignificant number — our national story was wrapped up with a new family story, with thousands of family members and friends lost.

My friends group lost Amy, who had been setting up a presentation on a high floor. We got to keep Carol (not her real name), who was just getting a retail shop on the ground floor open when the first plane hit. She managed to run several dozen blocks north and get the last train headed her direction out of the city. We got to keep Jarod (not his real name), who had been in a building nearby when the towers came down; if the wind had blown a little bit in the other direction, his building would have taken a devastating hit and he was probably on a high enough floor that he wouldn’t have gotten out.

One family has the story of The Falling Man. Many people stuck above the impact spot either fell or jumped rather than wait for the inevitable. Esquire photographer Tom Junod was out on assignment when he heard about the first plane hitting, and he ran over to get photos.

One of the photos wound up being the famous Falling Man photo, a picture of a man mid-fall, inverted (that is, upside down), in an apparently casual pose, waiting for impact. After some reflection, it’s clear to the viewer that this “casual” pose is really just a moment in a fall. It’s not a 100-story swan dive. It’s just the luck of the camera shutter.

We don’t know who the Falling Man is. Several families believe he’s a relative, but the photo is taken from too far away to zoom in enough to get a definitive look at his face. He is all of ours, and he is none of ours. Another story.

Cal Fussman has his own special story from 9/11, one that took 10 years to tell. He wanted to learn about wine, and Esquire gave him the go-ahead to take some classes. He got so into it that he spent a night as the sommelier at Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, not long before 9/11. With the story partly written, everything changed, and his story was finally published in the September 2011 issue of the magazine.

A story interrupted, a story created.

***

We learned, in the days and weeks after 9/11, what Americans are made of, what we stand for. We wrote and rewrote our stories, and our myths. But we’ve learned in the ensuing years, as well, what Americans will put up with. Tell your story, tell our story, but stay vigilant.

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