The dark anniversary of the largest terrorist attack in American history looms large every year. Does this year feel different?
Those of us who were alive during the devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, remember exactly where we were that morning.
It was a Tuesday. In New York, as in many other places that year, the morning dawned as beautiful and clear a fall morning as you could have wished. It was like every other September; the air was beginning to cool, with the autumn freshness of fall apples.
School had just started; for most people, their workdays were just getting started, too.
Unbeknownst to any of us in America that day, we were about to witness what philosophers in many ages have noted about the banality of evil.
Evil doesn’t look like a midnight black mass, held by horned devils in a spooky medieval graveyard on Halloween. It wasn’t wearing a William Shatner mask, or a hockey mask; it didn’t have razor blades for fingers. It wasn’t lurking under the bed, or in the attic, or hiding down in the cellar; it wasn’t wearing a mask made of human flesh and wielding a chainsaw.
Instead, evil visited this great nation one sunny morning on a random, idle Tuesday. It was a day like any other. Until it wasn’t.
In 2001, the internet was still in its clunky, unwieldy babyhood. Social media might as well have been a million years away. We got our news the old fashioned way in the antiquated days of yesteryear; newspapers, local nightly news reports, word of mouth.
When first hearing the news that a plane had hit one of the World Trade center towers in New York City, most people assumed it was an accident. A plane crash is tragic, surely; but seldom monstrous, almost never evil.
Only 17 minutes later, when the second plane- United Airlines Flight 175- hit the South World Trade center tower, it was televised around the world. The moment we saw that second plane hit, we all knew.
“I knew what was going to happen: I was going to witness hundreds of people die,” said Kelly Guenther, who snapped one of the most shattering 9/11 photos from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade the moment she saw the second plane coming.
“I remember thinking, ‘No, no, no!’,” Guenther recalled for a CNN photo-series on 9/11. “Then I took a deep breath and told myself, ‘Do your job.’ I put the camera to my face, framed the skyline in my viewfinder, and I waited for the plane to come into my frame on the left.”
Her photo appeared everywhere in the following days, often cropped together with other photos to show the second plane’s progress toward the South tower.
“But to me, it is the full frame image that tells the story: the perfect blue sky, the classic NYC skyline and a black plane, frozen in time, a second before the world changed,” said Guenther.
“My staff and I were watching in bewilderment at the first tower that was engulfed in smoke,” remembers Sara Schwittek, who also took one of the photographs featured in CNN’s moving photographic tribute to 9/11 and its victims. “We conjectured about the cause: Small airplane? Unfortunate accident? As soon as the second tower was hit, the clarity of the situation became enormously clear, and fear struck in a way I will never forget.”
No one needed a trend on Twitter, or a Facebook announcement, or a scrolling news feed to instantly feel the truth in their sinking stomach. One plane crash into the World Trade center twin towers could have been an accident; the news of two separate planes crashing into the towers could have meant only one thing. Everyone in America, and probably around the world, instantly came to the same conclusion even then being whispered into the ear of U.S. President George W. Bush by an aide.
“America is under attack.”
President Bush was famously reading to elementary school children when he heard those immortal words. The look in his eyes as a photographer caught the historic moment was something we all can still feel to this day.
Shock. Grief. Fear. Terrible sadness.
“I remember feeling completely bewildered by what was happening and desperately trying to make sense of it so that I could continue working,” says Associated Press photographer Suzanne Plunkett of her experience in Manhattan that day. “Even though I was in shock, I kept going, knowing that what had just happened needed to be documented.”
After the attack, Plunkett traveled to Afghanistan to report on the end of the Taliban reign.
“Those were hopeful days,” recalls Plunkett. “Girls were going to school for the first time. Women were learning to drive. I’m devastated at what has happened in Afghanistan now, and can’t help but feel that people there have been abandoned by the US and its allies.”
Peter Jennings’ voice on the radio the morning of 9/11, interrupting whatever radio program to bring breaking news, was the harbinger of a new reality.
“Two planes have now crashed into the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City,” the then-popular national news anchor told anxious Americans on their commutes to work or school. Hearing the seriousness in his voice, hearing his voice at that hour at all; we knew the news couldn’t have been good.
But we didn’t really understand until we saw the television, did we?
The visuals of the two towers burning against that bright blue New York City sky; photo stills, candid photographs, eyewitness accounts, and video footage taken at the scene will haunt those of us who bore witness forever.
We saw another plane- American Airlines flight 77- hit the Pentagon; we heard about yet another commercial airliner- United Airlines flight 93- which appeared to have been intentionally crashed in a lonely field in Pennsylvania.
Once is coincidence, twice is suspicious; three times is enemy action.
Who our collective foe was, we did not yet know in the earliest hours after the planes hit our nation. That America was under attack, we had no doubt.
The fear we all felt in the immediate aftermath made our new reality all too clear: Were the attacks finished? Were more planes about to hit targets on the ground? Would there be more acts of violence in the days to come?
As the days and weeks passed, our immediate fear began to wane a bit. We got answers, which were as unsatisfying as tragic answers always are. The banality of evil had sent us a number of sick, disaffected, dangerous and disturbed individuals perverted by an extremist fringe group to perpetrate mass murder against innocent strangers, civilians.
And our grief remained tantamount. For some, it was the photos; of desperate people jumping from burning buildings to their deaths, of bodies recovered from the wreckage, of the devastation left in NYC, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
Others were consumed with grief for the families who had lost loved ones that day; those gut-wrenching phone calls from the doomed flights, saying goodbye to loved ones, leaving one last message.
Back in those days, perhaps the media was a bit more responsible than the one click-bait journalism has delivered us.
After over a month of nonstop news coverage, some compassionate media personalities and even entire networks stopped airing the horrifying video footage over and over again. Some even went as far as telling us to stop watching the towers fall.
Such a thing wasn’t healthy, certainly; and it was nice of media companies to put our individual, national, and collective mental health above advertiser profits for a moment of silence.
Watching people fall or jump from the towers, watching the twin towers collapse over and over; listening to all those goodbye calls wasn’t going to bring anyone back; and it certainly wasn’t good for us.
All these many years later, those of us who lived near where the attacks occurred don’t need photos, videos, or anything else to remember that day vividly.
We will never, ever forget.
Many things might have changed in the 21 long years since the twin towers fell in Manhattan; some things never will.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)