I had utterly different thoughts in mind when I sat down to begin this ramble. The combined effects of retirement and living atop a remote, forested hill do not leave one keenly clued in to the calendar’s vagaries. But as soon as I realized that 9/11 had rolled around again, I couldn’t suppress a stream of memories.
I watched the first World Trade Tower smoke on the TV of a print-shop operator who was working up one of the first issues of Praesidium for me. (We still published printed editions in those days, whose contents I myself would laboriously bind by hand.) My son had been safely deposited in his first-grade class, it was a beautiful Tuesday morning (I believe) in East Texas, and my own professional status was so very part-time that Tuesdays and Thursdays were entirely free for tinkering with my ambitious Center for Literate Values. The smoking tower on the screen across the counter was certainly out of harmony with the day’s prevailing mood. My knee-jerk reflection was likely on the order of, “Too many planes, too many skyscrapers… too much progress.”
I think I may have returned home and powered on my own TV by the time the second tower was struck. I won’t pretend that the events are indelibly etched in my memory; but I do recall two things clearly. One is that I knew instantly upon the second impact that we were not watching a series of accidents play out, and that something much more consequential than another passenger jet downed by wind sheer—with hundreds of fatalities—was occurring.
The other recollection is of Peter Jennings’ pitifully inept commentary as Tower I came sliding down like an accordion. “And… what’s happening there?” he mused into his mic. “There’s a lot of dust…”. “The tower’s falling, idiot!” I grumbled uncharitably to myself. For some reason, I was annoyed that his sense of possibility was impeding him from seeing the event’s obvious, atrocious progress right before our millions of eyes.
That resistance to the obvious, as we know now, would paralyze the tongues of a lot more professional commentators than the late Mr. Jennings. The attitude of working (or semi-employed) stiffs like me, in contrast, could probably be well encapsulated in thoughts such as mine: “What do you need—a neon sign? It’s Islam in action—and, yes, they hate us. They hate each other, and they hate us, too.”
Of course, it was President Bush, the Thundering Avenger (or the son of Thundering Avenger), who would incongruously urge us in his mush-mouthed drawl (please believe that all Texans don’t talk that way) to recognize in Islam a religion of peace. We were to remember always that we were going in pursuit only of “turrurrrrishts”. Yeah, whatever. And the government bureaucracy which had done such a crackerjack job of screening suicide-killers from the passenger list would be entrusted with exacting our surgical revenge. Already in the early going, I was beginning to register a certain moody dissatisfaction with the smell around all that televised dust.
But, like everyone else, I was confused, most of all. I would need years to begin asking myself questions which remain unanswered for me today.
Now that I’m retired, I assure you that thoroughly reading the Popular Mechanics piece about how the three towers collapsed is working its way up my “to do” list. I should have done this years ago. The picture nags me and nags me. A missile enters a tall, slender structure about three-quarters of the way up its height, creating a gaping hole on one side but scarcely penetrating the far surface. It dumps a terrific amount of super-heated fuel into the chasm—but unevenly, of course, since the point of entry cuts in much lower and draws the flaming liquid down to its side. Yet metal fatigue occurs concurrently throughout a perfectly horizontal cross-section of the building, which soon proceeds to collapse floor by floor: boom, boom, boom.
Then precisely the same physical impossibility happens in the companion tower. Hours later, for good measure (why go light on impossibility?), the far more squat WTT 7 does the same accordion-collapse several blocks away and without even any super-heated fuel to cause instant conflagration. An ember is supposed to have ignited some furniture… cushions made of coagulated nitro-glycerin, I suppose. Boom, boom, boom.
If I have been retrograde in running to consult the PM article, which is said to be the last word on the subject, then it’s because I know that I won’t really find any closure there. No, I’m not an engineer, let alone a physicist—but every human being who has manipulated heavy objects in work or tossed about projectiles in play acquires a sense of how things move. If I push in one of your knees from behind, you don’t come down evenly on both knees. A house of cards from which one is quickly drawn doesn’t fold into a neat deck on the table. If a select body of engineers tells me otherwise and smirks at me for scratching my head… then I conclude that the select body of engineers is trying to feed me garbage and bully me into swallowing because… because they’re a select body of engineers. We all hate to put our ignorance on public display. What I hate more, however, is to be finessed into an ignorant position by someone who exploits my fear of seeming ignorant.
“But what are you saying? Are you saying that Dick Cheney deliberately slaughtered 3,000 innocent Americans to elevate Haliburton’s market value?” I hate that, too: being at once crowbarred into an unsavory or insane conclusion because I have questioned a shaky premise. I’m not a fan of Stalin, or even of socialism, just because I think that capitalism tends to erode taste and self-control in certain ways. Yet to the Thundering Avenger’s hordes of fire-breathing volunteers (virtually all of whom breathed their fire into microphones and never touched a trigger), writing what I have just written of how compromised structures collapse is tantamount to treason. “Oh, so you’re one of those… a truther!”
(Sidebar: nobody who cares about the truth would ever assist in circulating an analysis-shutdown word like “truther”. Another pejorative moniker in the Yahoo’s bag of sling-ready excrement: “conspiracy theorist”.)
I don’t suspect Dick Cheney of being a mass-murderer… but I do not for an instant believe that the whole truth about 9/11 has been divulged. And I would like to know why. I have no motive for the crime, and I’m not going to project one from my fancy upon the all-too-inadequate evidence. That’s exactly what Bush’s inveterate political enemies—his take-no-prisoner opponents in the culture wars—did on reflex; and, yes, it made them look like wackos and discredited their whole case. But establishing the fact of their wackiness does not clear up the dense film of incoherence still drifting about the evidence, seventeen years later.
This is a cold case now, and I don’t see it getting any warmer in an era when “investigative reporters” have given themselves over wholly to proselytizing and propagandizing. For me personally, though, 9/11 must remain a major reason for my inability ever again to trust “my government” (meaning any government) implicitly. I did some unpleasant but necessary growing up after those three towers came down.