McAdams On: September 11, 2011
10/7/2011 4:56:28 PM
IN THE MOMENT:
I did nothing remarkable on 9/11. I lost no one. I did not so much as miss a
I was working in my home office when I got a phone call from a Navy officer
telling me to turn on the TV. We are under terrorist attack, he said, after the
first jet had hit the World Trade Centers. He had the type of clearance that
has no name in the civilian world. I was a trade hack who grew up on a farm in
Nebraska. We don’t get a lot of terrorist attacks out there. It’s not something
that immediately comes to mind. “How the heck does he know that?” I thought.
Then another jet barreled into the second tower. That was definitely a clue.
Then, an explosion, followed by a rolling earthquake and a sky immediately
filled with shrieking aircraft. “It’s raining jets,” I thought, in a stunning
display of synaptic acuity. “Should I go outside where I can see the one that
will hit me, or just die in here?” In the same instant, I realized those were
fighters scrambling from Andrews Air Force Base, across the river from where I
I spent the rest of that day trying to contact friends in New York and
monitoring TV news coverage of the events. I could not have felt more useless
had I been sitting in the carpool lane of the Beltway with a flat tire. I
watched a disaster unfold on TV while wrestling with an overwhelming need to
get there in work boots and start digging through concrete chunks for
survivors. I instead applied my years of physical fitness training flipping
through channels, watching Ashleigh Banfield distinguish herself. I admired
her; envied her even. It’s one thing to be on the front lines in the news
business. It’s another to be in the weeds, convincing yourself that what you’re
doing is more important than immediately collecting loved ones, stocking up on
bottled water and heading for the hills.
As it turned out, of course, the war that started that day was taken elsewhere.
There was no need to head for the hills. There wasn’t even a run on bottled
water, but rather the strange settling into a pseudo normal of terror threat
levels and a protracted loss of people serving in the armed forces. But for a
few brief hours over the course of 50 years, I’ve lived in such a cocoon of
safety and plenty that I can’t begin to comprehend what life would be like if
those few hours were the rule rather than the exception. Robertson Davies wrote
that “Life itself is too great a miracle for us to make so much fuss about
potty little reversals of what we pompously assume to be the natural order.”
Perhaps the best way to commemorate 9/11 is to simply be grateful.