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Remembering September 11, 2001

The big uneasy

A reporter remembers the terrible feeling that separated 9/11 from other tragedies

By Neil Swidey
September 11, 2011

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September 11th has become the lawn furniture of our minds, dragged out through the bulkhead and dusted off, seasonally and situationally, for anniversaries and for manufactured ferment about mosque construction and full-body scans. Although we continually remind one another that we’ll never forget that dreadful day, by now the memories can feel more rote than raw. Yet if we force ourselves to excavate our true feelings from that cloudless morning 10 years ago, we’ll find the real reason why this day will never really leave our consciousness.

Two questions can reliably transport our minds back: Where were you when you first heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center? And when did you realize that September 11 would become “the day that changed everything” (to borrow the phrasing preferred by headline writers)?

I was scheduled to work a later shift that day as an editor on the Globe’s Metro desk, so I was still at home, playing on the carpet with my toddler daughter, when my brother called and told me to turn on the TV. Watching the surreal footage of the plane slicing through the south tower while I listened to Peter Jennings’s calm narration, I realized I needed to get to the office right away. But my mind had yet to absorb the magnitude of what was happening. My primary thought was a selfish one: This is going to be a long day.

For anyone looking to put off the process of grappling with the emotional side of a tragedy, a newsroom is a pretty safe destination. Immediately and instinctively, and out of necessity, the place shifts into a mode that favors action over reflection. Before long, I had tracked down a New York lawyer who had been trapped on the 13th floor of the World Trade Center when it had been bombed back in 1993. As I listened to him recall his horror at being surrounded by smoke and smashing a window to toss out a note with his cellphone number scribbled onto it, I raced to get down his every word. Only after I hung up the phone did I begin to wrestle with what had been so unsettling about his predicament. Even though he had ultimately survived that attack from eight years earlier, at the time, terror was all around him, and he had no way of knowing how much worse it might get.

That, I realized later, captured what was so existentially awful about 9/11. In one morning, the Twin Towers had crumbled, the Pentagon had been badly hit, and either the US Capitol or the White House had been spared only on account of the brave Flight 93 passengers who sacrificed themselves to force an early crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Still, as the hours passed that day, none of us had any idea whether we had just witnessed the end of a real-life horror movie or simply the opening scene. Whatever our politics, we were all feeling as rudderless as President Bush looked that morning, staring blankly at those Florida school kids after his chief of staff whispered in his ear the news that “America is under attack.”

That sense of being unmoored, of not knowing where the bottom lies, is what transforms a tragedy into an epochal calamity. It’s what makes the sting of 9/11 more lasting than the slaughter of 168 in Oklahoma City or even those natural disasters that claimed far more lives than the nearly 3,000 lost on September 11. With those other events, we could reassure ourselves that only a single area would be affected for only a limited time. In contrast, the days that “live in infamy” are those that puncture our collective sense of the realm of possibility. The surprise attack by 353 Japanese aircraft that left 2,403 Americans dead and shredded the nation’s dominant isolationist instinct. The brazen slaying of a young president, captured on film, at the height of the Cold War. The twisted conversion of 157 airline passengers and crew into cruise missiles to take down the Twin Towers that stood as beacons of capitalism in the most densely populated corner of the country. The dates of these national traumas become the touchstone “Where were you?” questions we use to mark history.

Those who study post-traumatic stress disorder, the condition that often shadows survivors of terrorizing events, understand how a prolonged state of being unmoored can worsen the psychological damage. The researcher who laid the groundwork for PTSD in the 1970s was a former Marine and Vietnam veteran by the name of Charles Figley, a psychologist and the Kurzweg chair in disaster mental health at Tulane University’s School of Social Work. While he rejects claims made by some people that they suffered PTSD simply by watching the Twin Towers collapse on television, Figley says there’s no doubt that 9/11 left a permanent mark on our society. The scale of the slaughter, the unthinkable nature of the attacks, and the uneasiness of not knowing when they would end or how much damage they would inflict – all these factors combined to imprint every American in a fundamental way. “It permeates our culture,” Figley says. “Everyone was touched; therefore, everyone can be touched in the future.”

Yet when there were no further attacks in the days and weeks after the towers fell, those of us who hadn’t suffered a personal loss began re-anchoring ourselves, returning to our normal lives.

Three weeks after 9/11, I found myself sitting across the table from Osama bin Laden’s brother. It was Abdullah Binladin’s first interview with any media, and the first time a member of the terrorist’s family had spoken publicly about the attacks. The 35-year-old Binladin furtively led me and my Globe colleague Marcella Bombardieri from his understated Cambridge apartment to a nearby restaurant. The place had dim lighting and was appointed with Persian carpets and a wood-burning bread oven. At that point, we were still days away from the start of the US war in Afghanistan, so the significance of his choice in eateries, Helmand, escaped me. Yet here I was interviewing the youngest brother of Osama bin Laden at a Cambridge restaurant owned by the older brother of Hamid Karzai.

Some two years later, I found myself sitting in a cream-colored conference room on the 31st floor of a Manhattan office building. I stared at the tissue box at the center of the table, struggling to maintain my journalistic distance and avoid welling up with tears as a sad-eyed immigrant who had lost his wife in the World Trade Center spoke in halting English. He recounted how, one month before 9/11, he and his wife had received devastating test results that indicated two of their young children would develop a debilitating disease. The destruction of the Twin Towers robbed him not only of his wife and their family’s main source of income, but also of any sense of hope he had inside him. This wrenching hearing was part of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, the federal program to provide support to the families of those injured or killed in the attacks. These hearings were closed to outsiders, but, with the permission of the families, I was allowed to observe nearly a dozen of them for an article I was writing on Ken Feinberg, the Brockton native who served as the fund’s special master. I was hardly the only person in the room straining to maintain my composure. At one point, I glanced over and saw the stenographer rest her fingers on her keyboard and begin weeping, silently but uncontrollably. After one of the hearings, Feinberg told me, “Those are the ones that you just want to say: ‘How much do you want? You write out the check, and I’ll sign it.’ ”

These two poles frame my most intimate September 11 memories, the families left helpless and hopeless by the warped campaign of a megalomaniacal terrorist, and the terrorist’s brother whose life was also upended. After all, Abdullah Binladin was a westernized Harvard Law School graduate who had fallen in love with Boston, and Osama’s first war had been with his own family (which favors a different surname spelling) and its links to the West. The Binladin family business had won big contracts in the early 1990s to build military support facilities for US forces on sacred soil after the Saudi king had spurned Osama’s offer to protect the Prophet Mohammed’s birthplace from Saddam Hussein’s aggression and instead handed that job to the Americans. Of course, any disruption suffered by the youngest Binladin, who returned to Saudi Arabia not long after our interview, paled in comparison with the torment endured by those who lost loved ones on 9/11. For them, the sting may never subside.

If it seems as though the rest of us are going through the motions with our remembrances, I suppose that’s a good thing. It testifies to our adaptive nature and our confidence in knowing that, no matter how bleak things get, there is always a bottom where we can regain our footing. Still, if today’s reflections strike you as too routine, try scratching a bit deeper to remind yourself of what you were feeling on that cloudless morning a decade ago. You’ll probably find some rawness still there.

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.

READ THE STORIES Find links to Neil Swidey’s 9/11 reporting on our website, http://www.boston.com.

(Illustration by Brian Stauffer)