Four Planes

I WAS IN WASHINGTON, about two blocks from the White House, in a meeting of writers, when an administrator came in from the hallway and said there had been “a terrorist event” in New York. The administrator knew we all knew people in the city.  Once she learned more details, she’d let us know.

We went on with the meeting.  We were in the Federal Triangle, a complex that includes the Department of Justice, and, a block away, the FBI building.  As the meeting progressed, we noticed blue-uniformed security guards out on top of the roof across the courtyard.  They were all facing away from us, looking across the Mall and the Potomac.

The administrator rushed back in and told us that two planes had hit the World Trade Center and another had hit the Pentagon and we needed to evacuate the building right now.  The reaction around the room was shock, mostly, people stunned, not knowing what to do.  It seemed impossible.  We needed more information to make sense of it.  A few of us stupidly went to the windows, and there was the smoke from the Pentagon, rising dark and thick behind the white spike of the Washington Monument.

We got the hell out of there, taking the stairs down the seven flights.

The streets were gridlocked–DC’s a commuter town, and it was the end of the morning rush hour.  Now people were trying to get out.  Police cars and ambulances and fire engines wailed through the stalled traffic. Meanwhile, people were streaming out of all the office buildings, trying to get away from obvious targets like the Capitol.  Some stood stopped on the sidewalk, looking to the sky.

Because National Airport is right across the Potomac, and airspace over the White House is restricted, usually a steady procession of planes comes in over the river.  Tourists visiting the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Monument are amazed and sometimes frightened by how close and loud the jetliners are.  Now there was nothing in the air–not a plane, not a helicopter, just blue sky and the plume of smoke bending in the wind.

At that point, we knew almost nothing.  What kind of planes were these–little private prop jobs, civilian air carriers, fighter jets?  A B-25 had crashed into the Empire State Building about 50 years ago with minimal loss of life or structural damage.  There would be casualties, but we were hopeful.

We luckily grabbed a cab.  The guy pulled a wild U-turn in front of a cop–the smaller laws were suspended.  On the way to the hotel, maybe a quarter-mile away, we listened to the radio reports, catching the basic details, which later proved to be accurate.  Three separate planes had been involved, a coordinated attack.

Our first suspicions, as in the Oklahoma City bombing, fell on that favorite American villain, the Arab terrorist protesting our policies against Iran and Iraq and our seemingly unconditional support of Israel.  That this seems to have proved true is no consolation.

And the targets made absolute sense, literally and metaphorically.  In a way, the only surprise–even then, just hearing about the initial damage–was that the terrorists had succeeded so spectacularly.

Americans on the whole understand that our country has enemies.  As a country, we may not fully examine why we have these enemies–our foreign policy isn’t deeply debated in the press–but we’re aware they’re out there (and sometimes in here, as in the case of Timothy McVeigh) and that they want to do real damage to us.  Often the popular reasoning for why this is so is chauvinistic and simplistic; basically, They hate Us because we’re so powerful and rich–terrorism as a form of political jealousy.  With that attitude, it’s impossible for most Americans to see any violent confrontation with military or political opponents except in absolute terms; that is, we’re right and they’re wrong, and to discuss things further is to miss the larger point.

So though we would rather not be bothered to investigate the meaning behind our political differences with the rest of the world, we know who our enemies are.  Occasionally we have to be told who they are (as in Grenada), and occasionally they’re people or regimes that were once our friends, but since the end of the cold war, this has been somewhat less confusing, as we no longer have to prop up failing dictatorships or unpopular governments to prevent the spread of Soviet-style communism, especially in this hemisphere (now fully democratic except for that odd antique, Cuba).

Our intelligence community hasn’t been lax, as so many commentators and politicians have testified since the attack.  Earlier this summer, the CIA proudly announced that they’d foiled a major terrorist operation.  There’s a constant hidden war going on, both here and around the globe, to prevent something like this from happening.  In this case the result is such that it makes our efforts seem meaningless, but the effort has been there all along.

By the time we reached the hotel and the constant assault of the TV news, Two World Trade Center had collapsed.  Another hijacked plane was on its way to Washington. The Pentagon was bracing for it.

We were on the top floor of the hotel, and again, like idiots, many of us went to the windows and opened them to look up at the sky.


Logically, we should have been clattering down the stairs, trying to get outside.  We’d just seen a building collapse on TV, a suicide plane was on its way, and yet we still had that impervious feeling.  It can’t happen to me.

By then we were so wrapped up in the TV coverage that nothing could have pried us away from the set.  The clips of the planes hitting the towers rolled again and again.  A report came in that another jet had crashed south of Pittsburgh.  (It’s very possible from the timeline of events that this plane, lagging a good twenty minutes behind the other one that hit the Pentagon, was downed by interceptor jets, but there’s been little comment on it in the major media.)

For a while there was nothing, and we were hungry for more news.  We needed information, change, anything.  Then the other tower collapsed.

It was inconceivable, the stuff of bad Bruce Willis movies, and yet it had happened–live on TV, the way we like our events.  There was no refuting it, but no processing it either.

Many of the dead were firemen and rescue workers. No one would know how many people had died until they were dug out–Oklahoma City all over again, but on a massive scale.

I was in Oklahoma City when the Murrow Building was hit, and the feeling around Washington was much the same, a common attention and concern that brought the city together.  The attack brought people out into the streets to talk with each other and share information, to help somehow, a kind of wartime camaraderie. “Heard anything new?” people asked.

Now trying to phone out was the problem–to call New York and find out about loved ones or just tell our families that we were all right in DC.  The wireless system was overloaded.  Many of the major antennas for the northeast had been located atop the twin towers. The regular carriers were swamped. “All circuits are busy,” the annoying recording said.  People who could get through to other parts of the country had friends there relay our messages home.

And still the TV went on, mesmerizing yet providing no hope, no answers.  The president decried the attack in his bland, fumbling style, then jetted off to a Strategic Air Command bunker in Nebraska before realizing that he was supposed to rally the country.  He re-emerged while the vice-president completely disappeared (Saturday he finally turned up–another puzzling issue the media has left alone).

The president’s immediate response to the situation has been to promise the American people that we will avenge these deaths; that our military will do whatever is necessary to bring the terrorists to justice.  Congress has granted him executive power to call up reserve troops, and intelligence has pointed to Afghanistan as the likely target.  The idea is to yoke the country and the people of Afghanistan to Osama bin Laden, who–even before the attack–has been seen here as the most evil of our enemies.

The danger in this demonization of an entire country under the umbrella of a mission to take out one leader and his followers is that America has tried it several times over the last twenty years with little success.  American politicians are loath to commit ground troops, fearing that American casualties will undermine public support for the war as they did in the case of Vietnam. With this in mind, American presidents have lately relied on air power, bombing cities like Tripoli, Baghdad and Belgrade in attempts to root out Khadafi, Saddam Hussein and Milosevic. These bombing campaigns have been popular here, and yet strategically and politically they’ve been for the most part failures, inflicting damage on civilian populations and creating only more enmity against the U.S.

The only way to take out powerful enemies is either through assassination (a former CIA specialty, but hard to pull off) or by occupying their territory with ground troops.  If the president chooses to move against Afghanistan, it appears the U.S. or some hastily gathered coalition (the usual suspects, plus a few Arab states for public relations) will have to go to war with the Taliban government and the Afghani people.  The American public has some reservations with this plan, but probably not enough to stop it from happening.  The question of exit strategy–so large in Bosnia and Somalia–will likely be glossed over; it’s more important that someone be punished for the attack.

The people I was with were thoughtful intellectuals, writers whose work shows a deep and generous understanding of people and the world.  We were devastated and angry, appalled, and yet fearful of what further horrors this attack might precipitate.  We all understood the too-clear symbolism of the tower struck down, the proud and mighty humbled, our own technology (the airplane and the skyscraper–two American marvels) bent against us.  We were all aware of the inequities of the capitalist system and the consequences of globalization, and all disgusted with the cavalier attitudes of the multinational corporations that sustain our (and much of the world’s) economy, but even we had trouble seeing this attack as a political act.

What passes as a hard or soft target nowadays? Where is the line drawn?  The Pentagon might be seen by some as a hard target, the bull’s-eye of the military-industrial complex, but the twin towers, despite their role in shaping our foreign policy and therefore the destiny of millions, maybe billions, around the globe, still seems a civilian population, out of bounds.  Because the victims were unarmed and unprepared, the attack has rightly been called cowardly (a distinction Susan Sontag entirely misses in a forthcoming New Yorker article, giving the hijackers points for personal bravery in accepting their own deaths), and the righteous anger most Americans feel is justified, and will be swiftly turned into political capital to fuel the military campaign that follows.

Bombing–even against civilian targets–does not demoralize a country unless its capacity for retaliation is compromised.  The British in World War II and the North Vietnamese in the American War are prime examples.  A country that survives attacks and has the capability to bring superior firepower to bear on its enemy rarely resists this temptation (some might even call it a military imperative).

America is prouder now than it was before the bombing. People are flying the flag everywhere–from the cities to the suburbs, the middle class and the workers–and they’re angry.  Rather than diminishing the country, the attack has galvanized it.  Whether this administration can effectively and responsibly direct and control the awesome power of our military resources is the question.  Replacing this tragedy with another on foreign soil is no answer.

The afternoon of the attack, I heard the first plane over Washington since that morning–a fighter jet I couldn’t see. There was nothing until the next morning when a single helicopter looped out around the Washington Monument, just once.

Later, after the president had his photo op at the Pentagon, I thought I heard his helicopter taking him back to the White House, but it was just a ventilator on a nearby rooftop.  That night I saw smoke pouring up from a building across the street–a siren below convinced me it was a fire, that we were under attack–but it was just steam being released from the heating system.  As I was drifting off to sleep, I dreamed I was falling over a high balcony and jerked awake, and the next day, in the same building I was in during the attack, I had a fleeting vision of the room I was in folding flat like a box, the whole place collapsing on itself.

I had to get out of town, but the airport was closed (National–it’s still closed today, and because of its proximity to so many sensitive areas, may never reopen to the public).  I got a reservation on a train and jammed into Union Station with thousands of others leaving the city.

The train had to pass through New York.  We approached the city at dusk by the industrial marshlands of Newark.  The airport there was closed, planes standing dark on the runways.  Across the Hudson was the first long-distance glimpse of the skyline.  I found the Empire State Building–dimmed, the stepped top not lit up like usual–and then searched downtown for where the towers used to be.  Night was falling fast, and I could only see a faint white smoke pushed north by the wind off the harbor.  Further down the Battery stood a blocky building, small, maybe thirty stories tall, a red light on top of it blinking to warn away airplanes.

“New York is next,” the conductor called. “New York’s Penn Station.”

We passed beneath the river and the city, stopping to let off most of the other passengers.  For a few minutes it was quiet, and then the escalators reversed, bringing down hundreds of people who’d lived through the attack–a young woman with a miniature flag, a middle-aged man with his arm bandaged, a Lubavitcher with a gray beard and solemn black jacket and hat.  The cops on the platform had facemasks wrapped around the walkie-talkies on their belts.  As the train pulled out–filled again–it seemed strange, as if we were fleeing, abandoning the city to its fate.

On the other side, looking back over the East River from the Hell Gate bridge, the skyline looked normal–the apartment blocks of Harlem and the highrises of midtown, the Met Life Building lit up, and the old Woolworth Building.  It was too far to see downtown, too dark, and usually the only thing you can see at that distance are the twin towers.

Then on past the projects of Co-op City and the golf courses of New Rochelle and into the suburbs, the empty commuter platforms rattling past, posters on plexiglas shelters advertising grief counseling.  At each station a line of taxis waited to drive passengers to the nearest airport to retrieve their cars.

Hours later, north of Hartford, driving home, I noticed a light moving low on the horizon, coming toward me through the trees–a plane on final approach.  It was the first one I’d seen in three days.  Behind it was another, and another, and another.  Our house is directly under the flight path.  All night I could hear them scraping across the sky.

Saturday, 15 September 2001

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