On the tarmac
I was sitting in a plane on the tarmac at the San Francisco International Airport at 5:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 getting ready for take-off to Minneapolis. It had been an unusually early morning for me and I wasn’t really properly awake. The sun wasn’t even up yet. Most people were still in bed, where I wanted to be.
The passengers on our flight were business people — me included. My briefcase was under the seat in front of me. I had a New York Times tucked into the seat pocket, and I was thinking in a fuzzy nonspecific way about the conference on “electronic waste” in the Twin Cities where I’d be meeting other colleagues working on issues related to computer recycling. I was sipping coffee.
Then American Airlines Flight 11 hit the tower. One guy a couple rows ahead of me had a cell phone and the news started ricocheting around the mostly empty plane — there were only 30 or so of us scattered here and there in our own rows. What could have happened to cause such a horrific accident? It was baffling and unnerving. But we were still naïve, confident Americans. Life would go on.
When the next plane — United Airlines Flight 175 — hit the second tower at 6:03 a.m., of course we knew. Everything had changed.
The pilot put his radio frequency on the plane speakers as the drama unfolded. Were we at war? What was going on? Thoughts in a full spectrum of possibility were voiced from seat to seat while we sat on the runway. At 6:25 a.m. the entire airspace over the United States was closed down by Federal Aviation Administration national operations director Ben Sliney — on his first day in office. Now what?
We sat in that plane on the tarmac with enough time to entertain a full spectrum of fearful and incredulous thoughts while the sun rose and it became, in an astounding order of contrast, a beautiful Bay Area morning. Not even any fog in the air. Finally our pilot talked to us: our plane taxied back to the gate and we were released into a newly disordered world.
The fellow with the cell phone and I had formed a unit. We rushed back through the terminal as so many people continued to rush in, not yet knowing. We didn’t stop to tell them anything. And anyway, what did we know? We just knew we wanted, needed to get home as soon as possible, to get back to some familiar and, we hoped, safe place.
Both of us had the same thought — we were totally self-focused — grab a taxi now because soon there weren’t going to be enough. We hopped into the same one and drove over the Bay Bridge. I got dropped off first in Berkeley; he was going on to Orinda. Such a gentleman, he said, “I’ll pay for the ride.” “Thanks, be safe.” The rest of the day I sat in a daze in front of the television watching the Towers fall over and over and over again.
For three days following, my home in Berkeley was unusually silent. With no air traffic jetting over the Bay, the backyard was changed. The natural world was buzzing and alive. Bees were bobbing and dancing on the onion blooms, bird song rang out. It felt as if we’d gone back in time to a slower, quieter place. The human sphere was on pause, though no doubt at the central decision-making hive at the White House (or wherever these decisions are made) minds were abuzz.
The Pentagon was wounded and still smoking. And in the rural township of Stonycreek, Pennsylvania there was a 50-foot wide, 10-foot deep crater where Flight 93 dove into the earth upside down at 563 miles per hour.
I got calls and emails from friends checking in about who was safe, who might be lost. My Parisian amies were especially tender and sympathetic. America — the beloved home of jeans and jazz — had suffered an unthinkable wound. How can we help? What can we do?
Meanwhile, in our military industrial complex, gears were turning. The beast had been poked, and it was angry. Intelligence proving the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq was being concocted. Colin Powell, secretary of state under President George W. Bush, was being manipulated into delivering a series of lies to the United Nations.
In his book on leadership, “It Has Worked for Me,” Powell writes, “A failure will always be attached to me and my U.N. presentation. I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me. But why did no one stand up and speak out during the intense hours we worked on the speech. Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I have relied on such deeply flawed evidence.”
He goes on to say there would have been no war in Iraq if Bush and his advisers understood that Hussein did not have any functioning WMD. Powell did seem proud though that “under Bush we got rid of the horrific Hussein government” and toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. (Wonder what he thinks now that the Taliban strolled back into Afghanistan without a fight?)
Milestones require introspection
In the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden (May 2, 2011), living right under the nose of the Pakistan military, many papers, computer info and intel were scooped up. These reveal that bin Laden thought that the 9/11 attack would provoke such fierce peace demonstrations in the U.S. that our forces would leave the Middle East. Why did he think his war plan and the massive killing of Americans on American soil would catalyze peace? Was it perhaps the same reasoning that led our generals to think that fighting a broader, more lethal war in Afghanistan and Iraq could create viable democracies in the Middle East?
Human folly is immeasurable. Many analysts think our current U.S. state of affairs — our deeply divisive politics, increase of homegrown terrorism, blatant disregard for facts, inability to rationally cope with a pandemic, and (I think) the irrefutable downward trajectory of our country on the world stage — begins from the day those towers crumbled.
I too feel we have lost our way as a nation. We have one party still unaware that our country’s glory days are over and another unable to embrace a truth. We have lost our capacity for kindness and empathy — so clearly demonstrated by Texas’ recent abortion law which rewards vigilantism. (Have we forgotten how neighbors were turned on neighbors by 20th century authoritarians?)
I typically end my columns by returning to the natural world for comfort. And perhaps I do need that respite again. But I don’t know how sitting on my porch watching the bay will contribute to the changes our world so desperately needs. Is it simply time for us elders to while away our days and leave these problems to the younger generations, just hoping we have enough resources to individually weather the inevitable — and increasingly dangerous — storms of this next decade? I do not have an answer this time.
But next week, I promise, I’ll return my wandering thoughts to our sweet home and point to some actions we can take in our own backyards to make life better. Yep, it’s think globally, act locally time.