For Americans there will always be the time before September 11 and the time after. The late assassin Osama bin Laden, son of Alia Ghanem and Muhammad bin Laden, got at least that, of all the things he wanted…”
by brian doyle
We watched the towers fall on television. Perhaps a billion people watched. We all saw the same thing at the same time and have the same twin scars burnt into our brains. The burning and then another burning and then the incredible collapse and then another collapse and meanwhile people jumping out of windows and being crushed by concrete chunks the size of trucks and choked to death by ash so dense that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and firemen sprinting up the stairs as people sprinted down, and the picture on the television cutting back and forth from New York City to the burning Pentagon, and then there was the news of the plane that the passengers forced to crash in a field so it wouldn’t kill their countrymen, the plane in which the passengers, led by dads and college kids and a rugby player, stormed the pilots’ cabin where the murderers had slit the throat of a stewardess.
Right about then we turned the television’s sound off and just sat there staring. All the rest of my life I will remember my children’s faces staring and outside the sound of blue jays as the bright morning began in the West. It was the most brilliant crisp clear morning ever; I remember that.
For Americans there will always be the time before September 11 and the time after. The late assassin Osama bin Laden, son of Alia Ghanem and Muhammad bin Laden, got at least that, of all the things he wanted. He didn’t get his holy war between East and West, he didn’t get a world where women are enslaved and education is a crime, he didn’t get a world where his idea of God was forced upon everyone, but least he delivered a blow that will never be forgotten, not in America.
People from other countries have asked me quietly sometimes, in the ten years since that morning, if maybe Americans are a little . . . self-absorbed, so to speak, about September 11, I mean in the end only three thousand people were killed, tsunamis and your bombs have killed many more than that, and they say this gently, not accusingly, just a little puzzled that it’s such a ragged raw wound for Americans; but it is. We were attacked, literally out of the blue, by a brilliant thug with squirming dreams of blood, and he caused children to roast, and moms and dads, and a baby in her mom’s lap, and he cackled over their deaths, he laughed out loud, he chortled in his dank cave when he heard the news. I won’t forget that chortle, either, not as long as I live.
To remember is to pray, says my dad, and who will gainsay my dad, age ninety, who served in two wars? Not I. The lieutenant knows whereof he speaks. He says that if we forget, that is a sin. He says that remembering the incredible grace and roaring courage that day is the way to remember. He says to remember the roaring courage of the people who rushed to help, and the people who helped others out of the fire and ash, and the people who used their last minutes on earth to call their families and say I love you I love you I will love you forever, is to pray for them and us and even for the poor silly murderers, themselves just lanky frightened children, in the end, bloody boys terrified of a free world. He says to remember the greatness that day, the raging love and unimaginable courage, the firemen who ran up knowing they would never come down, the passengers storming the cockpit, the sergeant who ran out of the Pentagon to catch women leaping from high windows, is the way to erase the name of the chief murderer. He says that if we remember right, if we pray with our hearts in our mouths, maybe someday no one will remember the architect of ruin, but everyone will remember a day that the courage and mercy and glory of human beings rose to such a tide that no one will ever forget. That could happen, says my dad, and who will gainsay my dad? Not I. The lieutenant knows whereof he speaks.
(illustration: trevor richen • 9/12/2001)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.