Before and after 9/11

Posted: Sep 13, 2006 12:01 AM
Before and after 9/11

Flipping through channels on Sept. 11 was like rummaging through a box of old photographs. You see things you hadn't noticed before and ordinary images seem suddenly extraordinary.

Of all the recaps, memorials and tributes, the one I found most riveting was the real-time replay of NBC's ``Today'' show from five years ago.

We often wish we could return to the past with the knowledge and wisdom we've gained in the interim. Monday we got that chance. Minute-by-minute, we were able to re-experience 9/11, this time knowing what we know.

It was chilling not only because of the obvious horror, but because of our utter inability to fathom what was happening. That lost innocence we keep hearing about was manifest as reporters delivered scraps of news and Katie Couric and Matt Lauer narrated.

Snapshot: After the first plane has hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m., they wonder whether there might be air traffic problems. At 9:03 a.m., the second plane hits the South Tower and the word ``deliberate'' finds its way into the conversation.

Couric asks, ``What are the odds of two planes hitting ... ?'' Still unknowing at 9:59, Tom Brokaw notes the extensive damage to the World Trade Center and innocently remarks, ``Those buildings will probably have to be brought down.''

What was impossible to imagine then is starkly clear now. What is also clear is that no one should have been surprised by 9/11, least of all our leaders. Our enemies had declared themselves and demonstrated their intentions -- repeatedly -- yet we seemed locked in blind denial.

We didn't need a five-hour docudrama to remind us of the horror of 9/11, but ABC's ``The Path to 9/11'' provided a useful chronology of events, beginning with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and continuing with other attacks on American interests.

When terrorists blow up a car here or an embassy there over a period of years, these events can seem random and disconnected. This is probably owing to our American sense of insta-time. While we're on motordrive, our enemies are content with a much slower shutter speed. Century time.

Viewed through their lens, those scattered events don't seem random at all, but are pieces of a choreographed plan for the West's demise.

Notwithstanding justifiable complaints from Clinton administration officials that the ABC production misrepresented people and events, the drama served well as a capsulated rendering of American indecision and inaction in the face of a known foe.

We did know Osama bin Laden's purposes; we did fail to stop him. That much is undeniable and irrevocable.

Another bit of footage I revisited during the 9/11 cycle was the video of President Bush sitting in that Florida classroom. Watching it again five years later, Bush looks boyish and uncomfortable, as though someone had put too much starch in his clothes.

He was not reading ``My Pet Goat,'' as was so often reported. Worse, he was listening to a classroom of 16 second-graders reading ``My Pet Goat'' aloud to the torturously numbing, metronomic thumping of someone rapping in time on a desk top.

Snapshot: Andrew Card steps into the frame to tell the president that a second plane has hit the other tower. The president seems briefly stunned, and then the children begin reading.

For five interminable minutes.

Bush's mind must be racing. Ours is. We know what he knows, and yet he sits. And sits. And sits.

Snapshot: Three days later, Bush is at Ground Zero rallying first responders. He lifts a megaphone to his mouth and utters those now-immortal words: ``I can hear you (applause). The rest of the world hears you (applause). And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon (applause).''

Then Bush drapes his arm over the shoulder of the fire chief standing next to him. For the first time I notice that Bush is basking. The amiable clown is suddenly transformed, from playing president to being president.

In that moment, we are all transformed. No longer innocent, no longer in denial, we're all grown up now.

In the past five years, we've learned a great deal about our enemies and ourselves. We are wiser and smarter now. It is a good thing, too, because our enemies are also wiser and smarter.

And they're on century time.

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