Into the Smoke
September 11, 2006
I don't know why, but today is harder than previous years. It seems like logically, every year should be easier. It should be getting better. Right?
I started to write one of those minute-by-minute "where were you when the towers fell" entries but stopped halfway through and wiped the whole thing away with one long stroke of the backspace key. I don't know why. I've been reading the 2,996 project tributes all morning, and everything else is ringing kind of hollow right now.
I was stuck in traffic. I was close enough to the Pentagon to see wisps of black smoke on the horizon. It seemed to smoke for days afterwards and resembled a blown-out birthday candle. The smoke told me that what I was hearing on the radio must really be happening -- the planes and the towers and the car bombs at the Capitol and the fire at the USA Today building and Air Force One being shot down and the world is ending and we were all going to die.
I drove to work anyway. I didn't know what else to do. My boss told me to get a hotel room in Virginia -- he told me not to go home to the District because...well, he didn't know. None of us knew. We were all targets, we were all sitting ducks, we were all going to die.
I went home and watched CNN for three days straight, trying to simultaneously numb myself to the horror while desperately wanting to feel something -- anger, anxiety, sorrow -- any feeling that told me I was still alive.
I was never in any danger. I didn't know anyone who died. I played the same six degrees of tragedy separation game as everybody else -- endlessly retelling the same stories about close calls and near misses and my brother's roomate's friend's cousin and the smoke I saw from miles and miles away.
Five years later, I'm still doing it. I'm still struggling to give my feelings some kind of context.
I watched Spike Lee's documentary about Hurricane Katrina on HBO the other day. The whole thing runs over four hours, but I didn't even make it through the opening title sequence before fat tears of rage started to pour down my face. The sight of a parent handing over their baby to a rescuer was bad enough, but it was the realization that the baby was wearing a goddamned swim diaper that sent me into big heaving sobs.
And maybe that's part of why today seems harder. Why the events of 9/11 refuse to fade into the past but instead seem closer than ever. I have less faith in our government's ability to protect us, to capture the bad guys, to provide us with food or water, or simply to not strand us on a highway overpass for days on end.
Or maybe it's something much simpler than that.
Welcome to the human race, sweet man. I'm sorry we suck.