There 246 victims on the four airplanes, 2,606 in New York City, and 125 at the Pentagon.
343 firefighters died that day.
U.S. Navy/Jim Watson
We lost the World Trade Center. We lost 3,000 people. Black people, white people, Asian people, Middle Eastern people. People we didn't even think were at risk.
My girlfriend called me to say that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center. "That's happened before at the Empire State Building," I replied. "It'll be fine."
It was another half hour before I turned on a TV and saw it was a passenger jet, not the crop duster I was expecting. I'm a lawyer, and I was just about to run out the door to court when my partner attorney told me a second jet hit the other tower, and in a split second it became crystal clear that it wasn't an accident.
I was still wrestling with the news as I ran in to court and sat down on the attorney bench listening to the cops in front of me talking about the Pentagon. I corrected them saying, "No, it wasn't the Pentagon; it was the World Trade Center." One of them turned around and said, "It was the Pentagon and the World Trade Center!"
My disbelief was growing by the second– maybe the biggest part of it being, "Why are we still sitting in here doing traffic tickets and whatnot like the world is still normal?" As I waited for my case to be called, I kept running back and forth into the clerk's office where they had a TV set up, and I saw the first big chunk collapse.
I finished my case and raced back to the office to turn on the TV again, and by the time I got there, the first tower had entirely collapsed like it had never been there. The second fell shortly thereafter.
The most profound newspaper cover I saw of the whole thing was Punchline, a Richmond newspaper usually devoted to humor, which showed usually unflappable New York City business people standing up out of cabs, briefcases in hand, looking down the street at smoke pouring from the architectural icon of the business district. This is what it takes to make a New Yorker finally stop and look up. It mocked them and praised them at the same time. I think it was the last issue of Punchline I ever saw, as it folded a little over a year later in the ensuing economic recession.
The Senators– all the Senators, Democratic and Republican– gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to sing "God Bless America." In short order, emergency personnel were picking through the rubble looking for survivors. Someone fashioned a couple of beams from the wreckage into a cross and set it up at the site. People dug and dug and dug, and coughed, and cut themselves, and dug some more.
A college professor wondered why this happened and wrote a paper suggesting why the terrorists were angry at us. He was promptly fired, although his paper hadn't given the slightest approbation to their actions. "We don't need to know the why," seemed to be the public sentiment. "Just tell us where to aim the missiles."
And we did find a man we could point to, but it wasn't who we'd been wanting to go after. It was an inconvenient truth. So we sent a half-hearted mission after him and aimed the missiles elsewhere– at people who had had nothing to do with it.
And we started a war, a war that has ended up costing us more people than we lost in the World Trade Center. France tried to warn us that this war was the wrong front, but it wasn't what we wanted to hear, so we erased their name from our French fries and replaced it with "freedom," as if this were something the French didn't understand. We turned our backs on the people who gave us the Statue of Liberty.
We talked about trying to help the people who ruined their lungs trying to dig people out of the rubble. People called them "moochers" and called the families of the dead "greedy." It took us ten years to pass a law that provided some federal money to help out the first responders, and the last kick-in-the-teeth built into the law was that their cancer treatment would only be covered if they could prove that it was caused by the WTC site because we don't want to accidentally treat a hero's pre-existing cancer. (And we all know how easy it is to prove how one event caused cancer.)
We passed new laws that allowed our government to spy on us, American citizens. Without a warrant. Without probable cause. Without being allowed to know that it was happening, or being allowed to know, even after the fact, that it had happened. We already had a system set up allowing essentially that, but it did require the single inconvenient step of having one secret judge in one secret court give it the okay before the spying commenced, and that secret judge had reportedly never turned down a wiretap request.
But our government felt it shouldn't have to ask anybody for permission. So employees of telecommunications companies saw small offices and work closets being re-purposed into private rooms where they weren't allowed, and saw splitters being installed on data lines that sent all Internet and telecommunications data in two directions– one where it always used to go, and the other into the secret room: a copy of every email you've ever sent or read, every syllable you've ever uttered on a phone– into a government computer.
We stopped allowing illegal aliens to get a driver's license. Even though the changes we have implemented would not have stopped any of the 9/11 terrorists, who were here completely legally. Even though none of the terrorists were illegal immigrants. After the crackdown on licensure, I saw more and more hit-and-runs in the illegal immigrant community, as errant drivers were scared that a fender bender would get them thrown in prison for years. So we were no longer keeping track of who was on our roadways. Even though a driver's license in no way had ever been used to imply that a person was here legally, we somehow felt we were better off having less information about who was driving on our highways than run the risk of making an immigrant feel comfortable, given that it was "immigrants" of some form who had attacked us.
Then came the xenophobia. People started emphasizing the next president's middle name: "Hussein!" They started calling him a secret Muslim, as if being an overt Muslim would disqualify him from the office. They maligned him for not wearing a flag pin during his candidacy. A Muslim was elected to the House of Representatives and was sworn in on the Koran, and another Representative told America to "wake up," or more Muslims might get elected. Muslims tried to build a community center in New York City but were told it was sacrilegious to build it close to Ground Zero, but there didn't seem to be a problem with dildo shops that were even closer.
The 9/11 memorial was planned. A welded crucifix of beams would be part of the publicly funded memorial. No symbol from any other religion was welcome.
I sent a passage to the WTC Memorial commission, written by Charles Dickens, that I thought would be a perfect concluding word on the tragedy as we look to our future. I doubt that human eyes really ever read it, as the response was clearly a form letter. But I still think it would have been perfect:
Oh! it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach, but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty universal Truth. When Death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of mercy, charity, and love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the Destroyer's steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to Heaven.
Perhaps it's just as well. I never saw those hundred virtues rise. I never saw the mercy, charity and love. I didn't see the gentler nature or the bright creations, and that way of light never appeared. These would have been nice things to see, but we chose as a nation not to make them happen.
The price of fuel skyrocketed and never went back down, tightening the screws on most Americans. The economy collapsed; we spent ourselves into oblivion, and the watershed moment of all of it was two buildings falling down.
Since we are a country obsessed with defining who won and who lost wars, I would have to say that we lost. We lost 3,000 people– but so much more. Many will mourn those 3,000 souls on the 10-year anniversary of this tragedy. I will too, but I'll also be mourning the bigger things that we have lost since that horrible day. I'll be out of the country on that day. I'll be in France.
Adam Rhea is an attorney in private practice in Charlottesville.