A lesson in terror

Posted: Sep 13, 2001 12:00 AM
Two hijacked planes had just smashed into the World Trade Center. The gruesome scene: smoke billowing from the World Trade Center, both towers broken apart like toy models. Below, twisted fragments of the 110-story building were strewn across the ground. Huge clouds of smoke enveloping Manhattan Island. On live television, we witnessed the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. The images seemed so foreign. An hour after the first attack, plumes of smoke billow from the Pentagon. In Washington, another hijacked plane crashed on the Pentagon's helipad. We came to a grim realization: The attacks were coming in waves. CNN was reporting that all U.S. flights had been suspended; this never occurred before. An employee in our office received a phone call form his mother. She works at Fort Meade, just minutes from The National Security Administration (NSA). Her voice quivered with fear: "If they can fly into the Pentagon, they can fly into NSA." "I love you." She told her son. A voice bellowed down the hall: "The State Department has been hit!" Nightly, we regard visions of human wreckage in other lands with dull expressions. There is never a sense that here, in the heart of America, we could be made to feel so vulnerable. In that moment, we realized just how quickly our huge storehouse of experience, our sense of possibility, our lives, could dissolve. On the television there were shrieks of agony. A woman, tears streaming down her cheeks, sobbed, "People are on fire, they're jumping out of the windows. ... If you go over there, you can see people are jumping out of the World Trade Center right now trying to save themselves." She pointed grimly down the road. Minutes later, the twin towers were collapsing into themselves, disappearing beneath twisting tubes of smoke. These structures, which once extended upward in defiance of gravity, now cease to exist. A thick cloud of smoke covers Lower Manhattan. News reports were scattershot. ... Reports of a car bombing at the State Department ... another plane downed in Pennsylvania crashing just north of the Somerset County Airport ... parts of the Pentagon are collapsing ... an unexploded bomb found at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Associated Press was reporting that a second plane was headed toward the Pentagon. The sounds of an engine screaming overhead caused us to peer out the window in panic. U.S. fighter jets circled Manhattan and D.C. On TV, countless Palestinians were shown cheering in their homeland. They were handing out candy to passersby and chanting that God is good. We do not know what will follow. A former member of the FBI was on Fox News explaining how the real intent of all terrorists' attacks was psychological damage. The television cut to the rubble where 50,000 people used to work. All of America now confronts the saddest fact of our existence: that people die for what often appears to be no reason at all. Healing comes in embracing this fact, then moving forward. The alternative is to forfeit one's life to fear.