Monday, September 11, 2006

Time for a Reprint

Here's my column from 13 September 2001, with a few added thoughts that the Potomac News wouldn't have published:
Suggested Title: Terror’s Day of Infamy

When the telephone rang at about 9:15 a.m., I was busy putting the finishing touches on this week’s column (something about Virginia’s state-wide races; stay tuned). It was my wife’s number identified on the caller ID. Having dropped me off so she could take the land yacht for an emissions inspection, I thought she was just called to let me know that she had arrived safely at work.

“Turn on the radio. The World Trade Center has been attacked again.” She was in tears. Later, she told me she’d always wanted to see it. My last two times in New York, I’d stayed at a hotel across the street. I’d had other choices for decent hotels near the Federal Courthouse, but the Millennium Hilton offered a magnificent view of the World Trade Center, the Financial District, Staten Island, and the Statue of Liberty. When in New York....

“Could’ve been an accident,” I responded. I told her that I remembered reading a story as a child about a B-25 hitting the Empire State Building. ‘Course, that was a prop plane. In fog.

“Two planes have hit. One on each tower.”

OK. So it wasn’t an accident. My assumption was, at the time, that it couldn’t have been anything much larger than a Cessna. In passing, I knew that one plane alone might have been a hijacked airliner. But two? No way.

Since there are public policy operations going on in our offices, a few people have cable feeds, with C-SPAN and CNN available. I went to the office of our VP for Legal Information, a fancy name for the Foundation’s PR guy. The pictures were, of course, incredible. By this time, footage of the second airliner hitting the South Tower were running. Some already there were in tears. More struggled to keep control. I was on deadline so, as difficult as it was, I returned to my labors.

It wasn’t the end, either.

Just before sitting down, I looked west from my office window, and heard a boom and felt a thud. Not entirely unusual, but it was already hardly a usual day. At that point, I half expected to be backlit by a flash of brilliant light, but resisted the urge to “duck and cover,” particularly since I was six stories up. Fat lot of good that would have done if it were anything reasonably powerful.

“What the hell was that?!?!” I hollered. Nobody else seemed to hear or feel it. Occasionally, things get dropped, like large boxes of union financial records. Was I just being paranoid? Could one “just be paranoid” on a day like today?

Returned to the television. “Anything new?” I asked. “There’s now a fire reported at the Pentagon.” “Open the shades. I just heard a bang and felt a thud.” Sure enough, in an otherwise cloudless sky on an otherwise magnificent morning, a plume of smoke arose. To the north-northeast. Looked to be about ten miles away. My God.

A number started running through my head: 2,403. It wasn’t until later that I remembered its significance — the number of American dead at Pearl Harbor. By nightfall, I found myself hoping against hope that we got off that “lucky.” And answering phone calls from nervous relatives, in-laws, and friends knowing of my frequent travels. And making a few myself.


The operation has to be admired for its elegance, execution, and effectiveness.

Four virtually simultaneous hijackings. At least four trained pilots to take over the controls, since any pilot I’ve ever known would take a bullet before willingly and purposefully drive his aircraft into a building, no matter how many passengers were executed before his eyes. Three hitting marquee targets; a fourth on the ground with only the deaths of those on the plane through probably nothing more than God’s grace. And absolute security precluding any kind of forewarning. Damn them.

One piece of precious good news: they didn’t have or use nukes. With the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, and little rogue states with nascent nuclear capability, this is a real threat. And wouldn’t it have been ironic to destroy with his subsequent handiwork (he was the military leader of the project to design and build the first atomic bomb) General Leslie R. Groves’ earlier and fame-building handiwork, the Pentagon? Maybe such historical ironies are lost on the types of barbarians who perpetrated Tuesday’s attack. But one has to believe, or devoutly hope, that the fact that they didn’t use one means they don’t have one.

But what’s next? After now 26 hours (as this is written) of non-stop coverage — MTV and VH-1 were running a CBS News feed; ESPN had ABC News; Speedvision ran Fox News Channel — what do Americans do?

President George W. Bush might have hit about the right tone, though one yearns for the eloquence of FDR on such an occasion. We find the dead. We mourn and bury them. We find those responsible. We denounce their crimes against civilization, America, Americans, and the Islamic faith they corrupt in pursuit of their own power.

And put more bluntly than a President can, we blow they and all who harbor them to the Hell they so richly deserve.

A staff attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Inc., Young lives with his wife and their two sons in Montclair. He is a long-standing member of the Prince William County Republican Committee, and is past Chairman of the Prince William County Young Republicans.
We got home early that day, and found ourselves wondering about the two daughters (one now at West Point) of one of our neighbors. Both worked at the Pentagon. Thankfully, neither was killed or injured.

But the full measure of our personal loss wouldn't be known until nearly a month later. A classmate at Hampden-Sydney lost his wife at the Pentagon, which we learned shortly before attending my 15th class reunion. Our class reunion was a month after September 11th, and Brenda sat next to him at dinner, spending most of the dinner holding his hand, having lost her mother at age ten. He worked across the street, and their two young children were in the Pentagon day care center. He described finding them as simultaneously the happiest moment of his life, and the worst, as he realized that his wife had been killed, because she wasn't there, too. I cannot imagine the strength he mustered to come to our reunion, but then again, perhaps it was the consolation of old friends.

And then, there's the call from my (now late) grandfather, then 86 years old. Like everyone else in our family, he hadn't called me directly at the office to make sure I wasn't traveling; they all merely called our receptionist, who assured all that I was in the office that day, and safe. His first words? "I thought I'd only have to live through this shit once." The reference, of course, was to Pearl Harbor, which occurred when he was 27 years old. I'd only ever known my grandfather to use more than "prime-time" cuss words one other time: when my grandmother had been harassed by thugs in New York City, and he was across the street. It wasn't typical for him, and indicated the measure of his outrage.

Gramps got it just about right.

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