Two years ago today I rolled out of bed in the morning, still semi-conscious and half asleep. As I walked into my living room --- the TV was still on from the night before --- I saw the second plane slam into the World Trade Center and explode in an orange and black fireball.
I'll never know whether that was a live shot or a replay of the images from a few minutes before. It was just after nine. Still groggy, I had a hard time processing what I had seen. I knew it was a big deal. But I didn't at first grasp just how big a deal.
When I sat down at my desk my girlfriend was already typing out messages on IM from her office at work. Had I seen? Where was I? They (she worked on Capitol Hill) were next, she said.
Beside watching the plane crash into the building, what stands out in my mind about those few minutes was that I asked her why she was so sure it was terrorism.
Partly --- mainly, I think --- this was because I was still only half awake and still trying to process what I had seen. I'm not sure in those first moments I was quite clear on how large the planes were. But certainly part of what was happening was that I was still for a moment living in a pre 9/11 world, where something like this was still hard to comprehend, hard to imagine.
Then she said something like: Two planes one after another in to both buildings? What do you think it is?
With that, suddenly everything snapped into place. The sleep fell from my eyes. My mind cleared. Everything was obvious.
A few moments later she typed out a quick message: they were evacuating.
This weekend I watched a CNN documentary about September 11th. 'Documentary' is probably too grandiose a term. But the images and recollections still cut into me. Perhaps more than I'd expected, perhaps because it had been some time since I had seen some of these pictures.
There was one set of images that got to me most, ones I didn't remember seeing before. As we all have, I'd seen many times the crushing images of bodies falling the hundreds of feet from the upper floors of the towers. But I hadn't seen or didn't remember the close-ups, the zoom-ins of people on the upper floors leaning out the windows and waiving shirts or clothes into the air, trying to grab the attention of helicopters circling nearby, hoping for help.
To me these sorts of images are worse than all the rest, the bodies falling, all of them. There is something unbearable about seeing people clinging to hope when, you know, there is no hope. Their fate is sealed; they just didn't know it yet. Those were the pictures that even today made me grit my teeth and twist up my face.
Watching brought me back to the newness and rawness of those first hours and days. I recalled the images of the president getting the first word from Andy Card about the attacks, the later ones of his touring ground-zero and talking to the assembled search and rescue crews. I found him an inspiring leader in those moments. And not simply because it was such a traumatic event. I never thought much of the criticism that President Bush didn't get back to Washington till late that evening. I thought he served admirably in those first days.
As the documentary moved toward the aftermath, I wondered whether those thoughts of mine would seep into the present to color what's happening today.
What I felt wasn't continuity but the jarring contrast, the cheap, obvious lies, the hubris, the tough-talk for low ends, not so much the mistakes as the tawdriness of so much of what's happened, especially over the last eighteen months. Fred Kaplan has an excellent piece in Slate this week about the missed opportunity of September 12th. "By the summer of 2003," writes Kaplan, "it could fairly be said that most of the world hated the United States, or at least feared the current U.S. government." That sounds like such an extreme, over-the-top statement. "Hate" is a pretty subjective word. But it's hard to read the papers regularly and not realize that what Kaplan says is true. It's sickening.