This was originally published the week of Sept. 24, 2001, in The Miami Herald and other newspapers.
I watched the World Trade Center burn to death from 70 blocks away, Fifth Avenue and 45th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It gushed flame and black smoke, staining an immaculate, pale blue sky. I made it to work, and my office at Rockefeller Center was shut down at 10:30 a.m. The sidewalks overflowed with scared people who wanted to go home. By mid-day, while a colleague and I were trying to walk to her flat in Battery City, well within lower Manhattan’s dead zone, the giddiness that comes with emancipation from routine had faded. The city was numb.
The striking thing about the hospitals where we tried to volunteer, or give blood, or something, was the medical staff: They stood around outside, chatting, drinking coffee, with nothing to do. I realized there wouldn’t be anybody to treat. By 3 p.m., we had walked back to Midtown, and from the same spot where I’d seen the towers on fire I saw only empty sky, nothing but clouds of white smoke and dust. The city’s front teeth had been punched out.
We ended up in an Irish bar run by Hispanics. An African-American guy, a building contractor, told us about running for his life after he saw the second jet hit the tower a few blocks from his job site.
I went back to work the next day and learned that the young sister of a close colleague’s wife had phoned from the 90th floor of the south tower minutes after the second plane struck. The building was on fire, and she knew she had no way out. They had heard nothing since.
A night later, a friend who lived in the neighborhood walked me through a police checkpoint in the West Village. We passed her local fire station, a quaint, storybook place that her 5-year-old son loves because the firefighters always fussed over him. My friend said that eight of its men were lost, and it’s a small firehouse.
I made my way to the financial district. The air was thick and dank with diesel and pulverized city. It was hot. The streets were ferociously loud from dozens of huge trucks. Apart from the strobes of occasional emergency vehicles and the lights of the odd Red Cross coffee truck, it was very dark. The power was gone, and the buildings were black. I got within a few blocks of one of the fallen towers and could see a giant, flood-lit lattice of metal struts poking into the air, like a rib cage on an autopsy table.
That weekend, back home in Miami, we gave a surprise birthday party for our youngest. We had sixty 13-year olds rampaging through house and yard, oblivious – the boys still young, the girls already grown, pizza in the pool. I was back from a future they hadn’t seen yet.
I thought of the old Esquire magazine cartoon: Two golfers standing on the green, in the distance a mushroom-shaped cloud. One says to the other, “Go ahead and putt. It’ll be a while before the shock wave gets here.”
How did we get here? How was it that two weeks ago we were talking about Gary Condit, shark bites and stem cells, and overnight we’re facing a tottering economy, a roll-up of civil liberties and the prospect of a long, shadowy war in a world peppered with murderous monsters?
The search for causes seems beside the point now. But it’s key to our future:
* If our protectors failed us, maybe it’s because for decades we starved our government of money and talent, cutting funding and turning public service into an unappealing career path.
* If we were pig-ignorant of the desperation and hatred in the world, maybe it’s because our media stopped telling us what was really happening out there, because the audiences were deemed sparse compared with, say, “reality” TV’s.
* If we quietly have been making enemies, maybe it’s because we were heedless of the innocent blood we ourselves, with the noblest of intentions, were spilling; the causes we summoned, armed and abandoned; and the lives we ruined.
Those questions must be posed. But now we must not only ask, must not only cope; we must prevail.
Elemental justice demands that the guilty be punished. The challenge is not only to our might, though; it’s to our wisdom. We suffered horribly on Sept. 11. To redeem that suffering will require true greatness – not just power, but humility. Our victory has to hold out a promise not just of safety for our own people but of a promising future for the rest of humankind. The whole world is watching.