I always recount it the same way, by remembering the most beautiful blue sky I’ve ever seen. Washington, D.C. was like that. The weather in September at that time was luxurious, like a perfect bed. It was like that, when I got off the Metro at Metro Center, I remember specifically, looking up at that beautiful sky and giving it a moment of appreciation before I entered Le Bon Pain to buy my daily carrot nut muffin, then again when I walked a bit further to Jay’s Deli to get my juice and banana. A workman in was in front of me in line in the tiny space, and he said to the proprietor (Jay, a nice Asian fellow who always reminded me to buy a banana as well as a juice) that a plane had flown in to the World Trade Center. Huh, I thought. That’s weird. And I took my breakfast and I entered my building and I took the elevator up to the ninth floor, and I entered through the glass doors and made my way back to my pretty office. I sat down, and I logged into AOL Messenger and was chatting with someone, I don’t recall who. And the reports kept rolling in.
The mustaches were meeting in Ken Fox’s office. Our president, our Ken Fox, Mark Reiter, our very own Toby Ziegler (whose claim to fame as I recall was interning maybe for Bella Abzug, I could be wrong about that), I mean, I don’t remember who all was gathering to that office around the little TV, Amy must have been there too I guess because she’s who I walked home with.
We held out hope, we kept holding out hope that we’d be able to have a normal work day. But the incoming (inaccurate) reports were kind of horrifying. The National Mall was on fire. Car bombs were going off all over the place. This was not the first time I had been in a crisis situation such as this (I witnessed an active shooter on my campus in 1992), and these experiences have led me to understand why the “good guy with a gun” assertion is such a disaster. On the ground, in the moment, nobody has the facts. You don’t. I don’t. The cops don’t. It’s all a scatter of everything from conjecture to downright stupid. This aspect of crises blurs the line between good guy with a gun and moron trying to be Rambo, or to simply bad guy with a gun. Nobody. Knows. What. Is. Happening. As my continued narrative will amplify.
There were some who chose to take the Metro; our steadfast magazine editor took to the underground and by his report he did just fine. But by that time I already had a festering apprehension of taking the subway after they kept me underground for 20 minutes due to a fire at the Farragut West station. This growing panic regimen would ultimately be one of the factors to lead to my personal diaspora from D.C. Once you are not able to take the subway in Washington, you might as well just pack it in.
So I chose to walk, as did my colleague Amy, and as did several thousand of our friends. I believe we took the Roosevelt Bridge from D.C. into Arlington. And this is my favorite part of the story, as we were about 1/4 across the bridge, a little white pickup truck drove up next to us, and a guy rolled down his window and said “hey, what are ya’ll doing?” or something like that.
They had no idea what had happened. I think we just pointed to the left of us, where the smoke from the Pentagon, which was now technically a square, billowed.
Amy lived closer than I did; she was near Court House, in the apartments across from the old house on Veitch. She was nice enough to let me come in and chill and have a glass of water and get my bearings. Cell service was impossible, but I managed to get a call through to my Grandma G, the person I knew would be most beside herself about what was happening. Told her I was fine. Amy was extremely generous and offered to drive me the rest of the way home. I accepted that offer.
As it happened, my DOD was in town and had a meeting at Pentagon City. Dude felt the walls shake and tried to go out and look at it. He was closer to that than I was, and I’m glad he made it home. We walked up to the local bar that night, the world-famous Cowboy Cafe, and drank beers in the sweatiest, most dejected gin joint I’ve ever visited. There was a global, mutual sense of burnout, of heartbreak, of disbelief in that room. All I remember is that it felt so hot and sticky and gross. But it was still somehow a welcome comfort.
Just before this happened, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings fluttered around 50 percent. On Sept. 12, they were at 85 percent. Americans rallied behind this President that, previously, many Americans (including this guy) didn’t think was legitimate, as he had not won the popular vote, and he had been installed by a weird Supreme Court decision. Democrats and Republicans gathered on the Capitol steps and put their hands on their hearts and sang “God Bless America.” And not only did he have a new wave of resounding support from his own people, including those who eschewed voting for him; he had support the size of tanks from governments around the world. We are all Americans now, they said. And this president-ya’ll-would-have-a-beer-with took all of that good will and all of the enormous power it might entail, and he squandered it like a 20-year old with a fresh paycheck in a beer store. Questionable wars. Torture. Propaganda. Horrors. It is easy to forget how bad it was. But it was a horror. Don’t believe me?
July 22, 2003. It was a Tuesday. I took a lunch and stepped out of my building and crossed the street to go to Wachovia Bank. As I stood in line, there was an image on the TV of this corpse. The face appeared to be stretched back onto the head post-mortem, and the autopsy stitches ran up the chest. It was Uday and/or Qusay. And our government had these images put on the TV, I guess for the benefit of the Iraqi people? But then, why did I have to be exposed to this macabre image? Just doing some banking. Hey, here’s a corpse we reconstructed for propaganda reasons! Happy Tuesday.
Living in those times was a horror. Believe it, or don’t forget.
Don’t forget when the Abu Ghraib photos were released. Men forced to stand on boxes, hooded, for hours. Naked piles of humans overseen by grinning idiots. Humans sicced on by fierce dogs, which tortures both man and beast needlessly. And just like everything in life, only the low-level grunts paid any price for this atrocity.
This country under George W. Bush was like when Baltar gave in to the Cylons on New Caprica. It was a horror, a shameful horror. Don’t let that man’s cute little paintings or his aw-shucks friendship with the Obamas let you forget. A shameful horror, and we haven’t even mentioned Katrina, the worst economic crisis in my lifetime, or Iraq, and not to mention that HE FAILED TO PREVENT 9/11 FROM HAPPENING IN THE FIRST PLACE. What a disaster was the Bush II presidency. What a smouldering dumpster. What a nuclear explosion with diarrhea. What a horrible, horrible, horrible.
But honestly, the most profound observation I can track on this 20th year since it happened is that, great gravity, I was 32 once. And that is weird. I feel at this time that I’ve always been in my 50s. But it’s true. I was once that young. And I lived through that. And I believed at that time that I had witnessed the worst thing I’d ever have to sustain.
Then 2020 was all like hey, watch this.
Peace to you and yours on this anniversary. May everyone you know be healthy and smart and, most importantly, vaccinated.
Thanks for listening.