I didn’t know what they were, although I’d grown up with them. They were the last little bit of wild glory before winter came, spreading across the ground like moons in the sunlight. September is one of the finest seasons in Flagstaff, Arizona: the thunderstorms of the monsoons are over, the late August heat mellowed, and the sun spills honey yellow light down from the bluest skies on earth. Other, taller wildflowers put out their last bursts of color in the little patch of Ponderosa forest beside my apartment. Warm, dry earth, vanilla-sweet bark, slightly acerbic pine needles, and those flowers turn the air into a subtle symphony.
I don’t know why I was hyper-aware of it walking to work that afternoon. I lived in an apartment with no cable, internet or telephone. But I knew winter was coming, the dying season, and this day seemed cheerfully defiant. Migrating birds sang up in the trees. The sun blazed as if it had never heard of any such thing as a cloud. And those ground-hugging flowers had taken over the beauty bark on the gym’s landscaping, sending out runners that scampered right up to the sidewalk. I stopped, bent down to smell them, marveled at their symmetry. I remember feeling perfectly, blissfully content. Writing was going well, the weather was perfect, and the world felt like the grandest place in the universe to be. And there were my favorite flowers, my childhood friends, delightfully sprawled everywhere.
Cliche? Maybe. But I did have a spring in my step as I continued on to work. It was a perfect moment, frozen in time. I’ll never forget it.
I was practically humming as I crossed the parking lot to the building, a silly little smile plastered on my face. I was too happy to notice Tobi’s expression. She was sitting on the smoker’s bench, staring at the street and the trees, and watching me approach. I got slammed by two dark eyes in a stark white face, and before I could say anything, she stated, “We’re at war.”
I stopped. Those three words, laid down like hammerblows, didn’t penetrate. I thought she was joking. “What?”
“The Towers are gone,” she said, every word emphasized. “We’re at war.” It was all she could say.
The sun still shone. I could still hear the birds from a vast distance. The flowers continued to bloom behind me. And I felt cold. There’s a reason why things become cliches: this is what happens when you hear those words, and you go from bright sunlight into the dim, cool building, and you hear televisions chattering and hushed voices speaking in fragmented sentences.
We never had televisions on in the call center in the middle of a week day. Never on the floor. But I could hear one from the breakroom, and one from the work area. I could tell from the staccato dialogue that they were tuned to news broadcasts.
And yes, my feet were numb as I walked into the work area. My whole body was numb. My mind was silent, listening, on full alert. I’d stopped thinking Tobi was having me on. But I still couldn’t believe she wasn’t exaggerating. Until I got to the queue manager’s desk, and turned to the television there, and saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center and become a fireball.
I remember grasping the top of the cubicle wall and watching the future come crashing down. I knew. I knew without CNN telling me exactly what was happening, because I saw a second plane loop around and hit the second Tower, and those things don’t happen by accident. I knew it was terrorism, and I knew this was an act we couldn’t ignore, and I knew that Tobi was right. We were at war.
I knew that war would consume us.
I knew the United States would respond with bombs and aircraft carriers and soldiers, and I knew we couldn’t win that way. We’d respond with overwhelming force, and only breed more terrorists. I knew Muslim Americans would find themselves persecuted. I knew we’d destroy ourselves for vengeance.
All of those things I knew in that instant. And I felt the world end. I felt the future die. I clung to the cubicle wall, shaking, and watched the world come down.
“It’s all right,” a faint voice said. “We survived.”
I held my breath, straining to hear the voice of my main character. Some people reach for gods when tragedies strike, some reach for friends and family: as a writer, I’ve always reached for my characters.
“We survive,” her voice rang out. “We survive this. It’s all right.”
I took my hand from the cubicle wall. I told the queue manager, who was explaining that if I didn’t feel up to work I could go home, that I’d stay.
That night, I took a call from a business customer in Manhattan. He sounded shocky, brittle, overwhelmed as we all were. He was close enough to ground zero to smell the jet fuel and the burned bodies. Ash was flying in through his window. He was ordering forms for his business because he needed that one ordinary act to counter the chaos that had been unleashed down the street, in his city. He and I stayed calm together, reassured each other: yes, this is horrible. We will survive it. Our country will survive.
The skies were deafeningly silent as I walked home. For days, not a single plane flew overhead. Their absence jarred.
Condolences poured in from around the world, even from Libya. For a little while, we didn’t respond as I’d feared: it seemed we wouldn’t strike out in a blind rage, but build a coalition, come together as one against the few who had been vicious enough to murder three thousand people, that we would use this not only to punish, but to create a better world. We would forge closer ties. We would eradicate terrorism not just through force, but through decency. Finally, there would be the will to understand one another, put petty differences aside, find diplomatic solutions to problems between nations, and eradicate the conditions that drove some people to extremes of violence. There would always be the fanatical few among us, but one world united was more than strong enough to handle them.
I saw people come together in ways I’d never thought possible. I saw not only courage and heroism, but compassion, caring, a unity I’d never witnessed. The boundaries between us and them dissolved for just that little while. I thought, finally, we had a chance to truly become united nations.
It didn’t last.
We all know what happened next. Patriotism turned rabid and shut down reason. Shock turned to hatred. Who wasn’t with us was against us. We tore down when we could have built. And we went to war.
We were lied to.
We were manipulated.
What terrorists couldn’t take from us, our government did.
And now we know it didn’t need to happen.
Too many people act as if this came from nowhere, as if no one could have possibly known, but klaxons were screaming all throughout the intelligence agencies in those late summer days when the last flowers were bursting into bloom. The information gathered was accurate enough and the threat clear enough that a CIA analyst flew to Crawford, Texas to put a briefing in George Bush’s hands. “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the briefing stated.
“All right,” Bush said after reading it. “You’ve covered your ass now.” And then he went fishing.
We had the names of the hijackers. We knew enough specific detail at that point that the attacks could have been prevented. Read two documents if you don’t believe me: The Markle Foundation Task Force’s “Protecti
ng America’s Freedom in the Information Age(pdf),” specifically page 32, where a case study lays out exactly what information was available and how it could have identified the hijackers; and The 9/11 Commission Report.
We knew enough to stop this. It didn’t need to happen.
On September 11th, I remember flowers. I remember that last, innocent moment watching field bindweed spread across the ground. I remember the sheer perfection of that instant before the ordinary world came crashing down, and I learned just how drastically a president can fail his country and the world. I remember the people who died, and the opportunities we squandered. I remember the importance of hope in the face of catastrophe, and the necessity of vigilance against those who would use tragedy to manipulate and exploit us.
And I remember that the world contains too much beauty to give up on even in the face of so much horror.
I will never forget.