On the morning of September 11, 2001, I drove my wife to the Nanuet train station. We said goodbye and she got on the train to begin her commute into Manhattan. I went home and took a shower.
Sometime later that morning I went downstairs to the basement of our townhouse, which doubled as my office. I started working on one of my projects. I can’t recall whether I was revising chapters of my dissertation or working on an article-length project. Although I almost never watched television in the morning, I decided to turn on the morning news and let it run as background noise. My wife often remarked to me that she found the Fox morning show amusing, so I put on channel five.
It didn’t take long for an announcer to report, with an incredulous tone, that a “small plane” had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I thought that this news sounded odd, but didn’t pay it much attention.
I was, in fact, working hard to prepare for my temporary move to Stanford University. About two weeks before I had gone to the American Political Science Association annual convention in San Francisco and brought a bunch of clothes and books in preparation for my time at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. I was a bit overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving New York, and my wife, for a year. I suggested to her that maybe I ought to fly out early, but she wanted me to stay as long as possible. I booked a ticket on United Flight 93 for the end of September
I did notice when the channel suddenly cut out and the television blared the unpleasant sound of static. I assumed our cable was down again. I turned off the set and went back to work.
My wife soon called me. “Turn on the television,” she said, “something bad is happening at the World Trade Center.”
The rest of the day proved a confusing mix of watching television, talking to my wife and to my mother, and generally wandering around the house. People at my wife’s office were in a state of shock. One of her co-workers thought that she had a friend who was supposed to leave on Flight 93 — but he turned out to be on another flight. My father was evacuated from his office; he worked, at the time, in the Hart Building.
My wife soon made the trek, along with thousands of others, from her midtown office to uptown Manhattan. Her stories of kindness and community deserve their own blog post. She stayed overnight with some friends of ours who still lived up by Columbia.
I went out into the courtyard of our development and talked to our neighbors. Some worried about friends in the towers. Others about the firefighters and police officers based in Rockland County.
At some point in the evening, I drove my car towards one of the local hospitals in an effort to “do something” by giving blood. I called the hospital, but the operator told me not to bother. No one knew what they would need and it would be better to wait until the next day.
I went home and called a friend from graduate school. We talked for a while about the strong emotional pull of “revenge” (to “bomb the hell out of the them”). I went to bed.
I awoke the next morning and checked my email. At 6:50 am Charles Tilly had begun an exchange on the topic, posted to the AMSOC listserv, which would eventually get him blacklisted (temporary) by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a group nominally headed by Lynn Cheney and Joe Lieberman.
The next day I drove across the Tappan Zee Bridge. This was the first time I got a clear view of the smoke rising over lower Manhattan and, from there, across the Hudson River. It was a terrible, heart-wrenching sight. I picked up my wife in Westchester, and we went home together.
Over the next week we attended a vigil in West Nyack, and like many other New Yorkers, Washingtonians, and Americans, went about our lives in a haze of shock and sorrow.
Never again did I felt a stronger sense of myself as a New Yorker. I remember when we attended, much later, a playoff game between the Yankees and Oakland, how the sense of collective effervescence–always so strong at important baseball games–still had a different and more intense flavor. The scene on the bridge in Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, as hokey and ham-handed as it is, captures an essential truth about New Yorkers. As divided and contentious as they can be, they also exhibit a strong sense of community. “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.”
My next clear memory is of watching Bush’s speech on 9/20. I thought it was a powerful speech, but it also left me deeply concerned. I called PTJ almost immediately afterwards. We engaged in a bit of discourse analysis. I focused on this passage:
Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes. Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes, visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success. We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place, until there is no refuge or no rest. And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. (Applause.) From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.
“Will this be remembered as the beginning of a new imperium?” I asked. “Either you clean up your act or we’ll send the legions in to do it for you?”
I flew the Newark-San Francisco route at least once a month during the 2001-2002 academic year. Each time the scarred landscape of Lower Manhattan grew a little less bleak, the changed skyline a bit more familiar. Events lose their presence and shift into the stream of history. Or they do, at least, for we voyeurs who feel a close, but not quite intimate, connection to tragedy.