My Gen Z kids have no memory of Sept. 11, 2001. School makes them read an article about al-Qaeda's attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon every year on the anniversary, but it's like D-Day or Pearl Harbor is to me: history.
A lived memory, in contrast, is more vivid and personal. And prone to deterioration.
Even though I worked in Manhattan on that day, I recall fewer and fewer details 20 years later. I took the subway from Brooklyn to the New York Post's office in the News Corp tower on Sixth Avenue at 47th Street. I took off my headphones on the train to hear a guy saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I pictured a two-seater plane and thought little more of it.
When I arrived at the office, the building security guards were running around locking all the doors and I felt lucky to be allowed in. At work we alternately worked the phones and watched CNN on the small cathode ray TV in the Business Editor's office. It was deeply disturbing when the towers collapsed on live television, their black dust and rubble falling in a fringe, like ink in water. It seemed impossible such monuments could disintegrate, but they were gone in 10 seconds. All day we basically called people downtown to see if they were alive. I cobbled together a story for the special afternoon edition and one for the next morning.
I worked until about six p.m., then took the subway home.
The pall of smoke lasted days as fires continued underground and New York City smelled of burning plastic and metal. My wife and I walked around the edges of the World Trade Center site two days later. The streets were blocked by blue police barricades and young men and women of the National Guard with machine guns.
It all had the feeling of too little, too late, and of impotence.
Over the next week there were terrifying rumors of sarin gas attacks and a nuclear bomb coming soon. People boozed a lot and strangers talked to each other, trying to figure out who al-Qaeda and their hosts the Taliban were, and why they hated us so much. A friend who worked in D.C. spread a rumor that the U.S. response would be to attack Baghdad, Iraq, which seemed curiously off the mark.
There were weeks of "Taps" and "Danny Boy" played at funerals, and trucks took months to cart the debris to the West Side Highway to barges bound for New Jersey. There wasn't much else that could be done since the attackers died right there. Operation Enduring Freedom started in Afghanistan on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. sought to eliminate al-Qaeda and "the people who knocked down these towers," as President Bush had put it, standing on the rubble with his megaphone.
It took a year for the first "Bush did it" marches to appear in San Francisco and Oakland. There were contradictory theories that the towers were blown up from within and that the U.S. government knew the planes were coming. That doesn't seem to deter some keyboard warriors from emerging from the Truther rabbit hole enlightened.
Fast forward 20 years and 7,000 more deaths and 30,000 suicides among American servicemen and women.
I visited the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in New York last month. It consists of two giant sinkholes with water disappearing into a dark square. It seemed to me more a metaphor for squandered "blood and treasure" than a Zen water feature.
The Sept. 11 attacks opened the conspiracy theory age. In the 1990s it was hard work to maintain that black helicopters were surveilling patriots and detention centers were being built to imprison them. Now, deciding that 9/11 was an inside job has made it easier in 2021 to believe millions of votes for one candidate were flipped/erased/stolen in the 2020 election, or that COVID-19 is a "plandemic," or that Jan. 6 was the work of antifa, or that vaccines make you infertile/cancerous/trackable.
People will believe anything these days, and we have early-2000's al-Qaeda to thank for that.
Joseph Gallivan is a business reporter for the Portland Tribune and a former business reporter for the New York Post.
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