A Menagerie of Outspoken Opinions on Science, World Politics, and Geek Culture

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Where were you when...

JFK's ubiquitous ghost has finally been laid to rest, at least in respect to the "Where were you when..." question for those of us who have no memory of that day in Dallas.

For our generation, the end of that query is now, of course, "... the World Trade Center was attacked?"

All the national and international news was not very memorable to me as a child, having been born in 1970 after JFK's assassination, and the following decade itself being just a blur of much more personal near-tragedies including: being hit by a car; being forced out of a town because an allergy to cow's milk meant owning goats that the neighborhood Nazi's could not abide; and dealing with the ostrasism that is inevitable in going to school in rural cow-farm Virginia while living on a goat farm.

Similarly nondiscrept, the 80's were the "salad days" of my youth. Flush with a fledgling national optimism generated by Reagan's steady stewardship of this country through a frightening cold-war and into economic stability and growth, and with having broken through the hard social wall of my peers and become something approaching popular.

The 90's were more or less a wash. While certainly a great many things happened to me that were memorable, both good and bad including a motorcycle tour of the country and death threats from a mobster in South Florida, no single burning event distinguished itself enough as a date to remember.

I've always been fairly nonplussed by events many others seem to commemorate automatically. This will probably create a real problem for me if I ever get married.

September 11th, 2001 was different, because it was the day the suspension of disbelief I'd managed to craft for myself concerning the real world was shattered.

Butte, Montana is an ugly place. It was known as "the richest hill in the world" in it's heyday, a mining town on a hill full of copper being dug out of the ground just as Alexander Graham Bell's device was driving demand through the roof.

By the mid 1980's diminished demand and increased power costs closed the last of the mines, and the city began it's long decline. By the time I arrived in February 2001, a once bustling city of over 100 thousand residents had shrunk to a population of 30 thousand and a landscape scarred a perpetual brown and gray, the results of the environmental unconsciousness of the boom times.

In a town like this where a dollar went far, I was fat and happy. Making as much as 5 grand a week, while living expenses per month was 500 tops. Yeah the town was ugly, I didn't have a girl, and the weather was cold, but on any given day, you would find me flush and carefree.

I walked into the NOC that morning and had barely finished my morning rounds of getting the hand-off information from my night techs and the light bantering of shift change, when someone said the Trade Center was burning, and all TV's were changed to news broadcasts.

Now, I am a hard individual. My first response wasn't, "Oh those poor people". It was truly bemusement at the plight of us humans, to be killed by our inventions. I was even joking around with it with my best friend as he was getting ready to leave work.

And then the world changed as in the corner of my eye I saw the explosion from the second plane impact.

What gives me goosebumps as I write this is the apparent universal thought that everyone had. Up until that moment, lively chatting could be heard throughout the NOC, yet at that moment, the air literally went out of the room as all eyes focussed on the flames and everyone realized the same thing at the same instant: That this was no accident.

The mind struggled fleetingly for a rationalization against the terrible truth, but the evidence of a deliberate attack couldn't have been clearer than the blue sky from whence it fell.

For the first time in my life, I felt my legs go wobbly from something other than a Buick's bumper, and I took a seat. There, along with 40 of my stunned workmates, I stared at the tv screens as the pandemonium, the fear, the anxiety and panic unfurled in horrible color.

As frozen as that moment in time is, the rest of the day passed in a blur of rage, frustration and sorrow, on constant rotation with terrible moments like these.

Any time I am feeling at all complacent... any time I feel any doubt about the Bush Doctrine... I look at those pictures, and I try to imagine for a moment, the horror of those passenger on the second jet in those final seconds, as they realized they were all going to die.

I try to imagine what it must been like for those in the WTC stuck above the flames, faced with only one last choice: How will I die today?

We owe it to those who died that day, to all those who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most importantly to our children facing a world of dangers undreamed of by those whose crystallized moment of shared consciousness was November 22, 1963 , to never forget, and to never, ever relent in our pursuit of justice and our focus to try to eradicate the threat of terrorism.

Maybe, if we are resolute, and if we are strong, the toughest choice our children will ever face will be: How will I live today?

And just maybe, just maybe, when asked "Where were you on September 11, 2001", they will look at the questioner with the sort of pinched-brow incomprehensibility that comes from living in a world where the answer to such a question has no context.