by Nick Aliffi The lens does not lie.
As we face yet another anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we are faced with a few familiar refrains.
“We have forgotten!”
“Why can’t we be like we were on 9/12?”
“How can people just move on?”
I was in El Paso, Texas on September 11th, 2001.It was about as far away from New York as you could be both geographically and culturally. After joining the Marines in March of the same year, I was now attending Low Altitude Air Defense school at Fort Bliss. I was sound asleep in my rack when a Marine burst through the door screaming that someone “Landed a plane on the World Trade Center.”
Me: “Uh, that’s not possible. I’ve been to the top of the towers. You can’t land a plane there. Do you mean someone crashed into it?
Marine: “Yeah! Someone crashed into it! WAKE UP.”
Instantly my mind filled with images of the towers with a burning hole. After all, this wasn’t the first time a plane had crashed into an NYC skyscraper. In 1945, a Mitchell B-25 slammed into the Empire State Building.The plane made a wrong turn in the fog, and tragically, all hands were lost. If you’ve ever flown out of LaGuardia, you know that such an incident isn’t completely out of the question. Catastrophic guidance system failure, bad weather, and bam.
Open and shut case.
We turn on the TV and there is the standard two-shot breaking news set up. Talking head in a smaller frame, the image of a burning tower in the other. Matt Lauer is repeating the same talking points every couple of minutes when the second plane hits.
The talking heads go silent. Their eyes start looking off camera,speechless. You can see them running the timeline in their heads. It is quite clear that this is a coordinated event. But once Matt Lauer says it, it’s real. He knows this. Peter Jennings knows this. And every anchor at every news desk in the United States knows this.
As the images shoot across the screen, I start to do a mental roll call. “Was Pops in New York?” He traveled weekly, but my gut is telling me he was supposed to be in New York for meetings. I want to pick up the phone to call him but can’t. If I call, and he doesn’t answer, he’s as good as dead. It takes me three days to finally call him. It is, without question, the most cowardly moment in my life.
We’re told to sit tight. Fort Bliss Command is sweeping the base and removing all civilians. It’s a total lock-down.
The people in the World Trade Center are now jumping to their deaths.
The Pentagon is hit.
From below the flames on the South Tower, I see dust and debris falling. It goes from a trickle to a stream to a torrent.
“My God, it’s coming down.”
The South Tower collapses.
My dad took me to the World Trade Center. The South Tower had an observation deck. It was open air, and the wind whipped like a hurricane. It’s 1995 and I have a bowl-cut, baggy shorts, and my trademark Adidas Gazelles. The sun feels like it’s exactly two and a half feet above your head. It’s a cloudless day and you can see for miles. It’s as close to heaven as you can get. I’m leaning against the guardrail as Dad snaps the picture.
Back in El Paso, I can’t help but wonder if some poor soul went to the deck and had one last look at the horizon before it all came down. In their shoes, it’s probably what I would’ve done.
Flight 93 goes down.
Peter Jennings is choked up. He’s our Walter Cronkite. An unflappable newsman who was the definition of credible journalist.
The North Tower’s flames have grown. The familiar trickle of dust.
“Come on baby, stay up.”
The prayer goes unanswered. The North Tower falls.
We’re ushered outside and told we are going to the schoolhouse.We get in formation and begin marching. While our class only had around 12 Marines, on that day we sounded like a battalion. Every fist clinched, every heel striking the ground as if we were digging for oil. I’ll never forget it.
At the schoolhouse, we are asked if anyone has family in New York. I raise my hand.
“Do you need to step out and make a call?”
A coward’s answer.
We’re taken to our training room. Inside there are simulators for our vehicle-variant weapon system. It’s called “The Avenger”.The simulation is set in a city with massive buildings. The aircraft we are to engage are all cargo planes. “Condition Red, Weapons Free” comes the call. This is LAAD speak for “Kill anything with wings.”
In Cab 4, me and my dear friend Josh are exceedingly ruthless. We normally put down north of 40 aircraft in a session. This time, we were north of 60.
We were at war.
Our headsets crackle with an announcement: “We’re hearing that Afghanistan is responsible. These are all now Afghani aircraft.”
Wait a minute. Afghanistan didn’t have a standing air force as I recall. This didn’t make any sense. I guess they had to say something to cover for the fact that we were targeting civilian aircraft, civilian aircraft that were most likely filled with actual civilians.
We’re moved to a warehouse with a group of soldiers. Their leadership has elected to deny them the ability to call home. In their defense,the information was coming in hot and with little authentication. 60,000 dead, 30,000 dead, 3,000 dead, 15,000 dead. The casualty numbers were changing every few minutes, and they couldn’t risk a junior-enlisted soldier dialing up the media and offering timely advice like “KILL ‘EM ALL AND LET GOD SORT ‘EM OUT.”
I observe a soldier who is a shade a gray that I’ve only witnessed on police show murder victims.
Me: “You ok, bro?”
Soldier: “Nah. I’m from New York and these assholes won’t let me call my parents.”
Me: “Fuck that. Here, use my phone and call them. But make it quick. I lived in Jersey, we gotta stick together.”
Color returns to his face and he looks like a kid at Christmas. He takes my phone, hurriedly dials up his mom. Miraculously, he gets through. “Mom and Dad are safe, unsure about the rest of the family, will talk later.”
“HEY SOLDIER! IS THAT A CELL PHONE IN YOUR HAND?!?”
In a prison-style hand off, I regain possession of my phone.It’s a Sergeant First Class, and he’s not pleased about the potential breakdown in security.
Me: “I’m a Marine, and this is my phone. Our command allows it.”
SFC: “I don’t care. MY soldiers won’t be makin’ no calls.”
I laugh, and the SFC’s face turns a unique shade of purple.
SFC: “Get away from my soldiers”
Me: “Roger that.”
As I walk away, I glance back at the soldier from New York. He’s getting chewed out by SFC Asshat, but we still manage to give each other a subtle nod.
Maybe this makes up for not calling Dad.
Three days later I finally call my dad. I can tell he’s hurt that I didn’t check in earlier. I try to play it off.
Me: “Hey Pops, where are you?
Dad: “New York.”
Me: “You OK?”
Dad: “Yeah, yeah. I’m ok.”
Me: “I was worried you’d be downtown.”
Dad: “I was supposed to be. Ran late.”
It hits my guts like a heavyweight’s punch. In a way, it still does. It’ll never go away fully. We have endless photos, videos, towers of light, all there to remind us who we lost and what happened. I was fully invested in the anger and pain of that day. Unlike many who were in their homes wondering how they could exact revenge on this new enemy, I had the means. We all, down to the very worst Marine in our class, had one goal: Vengeance.
Now, officially in my 40’s, that drive for vengeance has passed. There are so many lenses in which one can view September 11th,2001. The photos, the videos, the tributes, all allow us the chance to revisit that day in excruciating detail. The lens that we view this event through is different for each of us. My lens is that of a person who watched the events unfold from both the television, and as a participant in the government’s response. Your lens may be different. Not more. Not less. You saw what you saw, and your lens did not lie. It never does. But one thing the lens cannot do, is make everyone feel exactly as they did on that day. We’re almost two decades past that fateful day. While it is good for us to remember who and what we lost, we can’t expect everyone to carry the same reverence as those of us who lived it.
Dear Reader, are you open to a bit of advice?
Observe today with reverence. Wish for the unity that followed.But be kind to those who have moved on.
They are seeing the world through an entirely different lens than you and I.