Memories of 9-11
By Ken K. Gourdin
Author’s Note: Since yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of that fateful day, I thought it fitting to pause and record some of my recollections of it. This piece is dedicated to the nearly 3,000 of my fellow U.S. citizens and residents who perished that day, especially to the first responders who demonstrated uncommon heroism even for those who are called upon regularly to risk their safety for others.
I was in law school on September 11, 2001. I was going to get up early so that I could study a subject which is the bane of many a law student’s existence (and for that matter, the bane of many a lawyer’s existence, as well), civil procedure. When my alarm went off, though, I turned it off. I got up in just enough time to get ready for (and to make it on time to) my first class (contracts, I think it was).
I got into my car and heard longtime Salt Lake City KSL radio host Doug Wright announce the news that a passenger aircraft (American Airlines Flight 11, originally en route to Los Angeles from Boston) had hit Tower One of the World Trade Center. I heard a report that the weather in New York City that day was ideal—clear and temperate—and I asked myself, “How does a plane collide with a skyscraper on a clear day?”
Then I thought, “This surely will go down as one of the most serious accidents in aviation history,” since, while (as regrettable as it is) it is not uncommon to hear of death tolls in the hundreds when passenger aircraft crash, the loss of life in this instance would be magnified well beyond the totals common in such accidents by the fact that hundreds (if not thousands) of people in the building surely had perished, as well.
Then, as I was on my way to law school, the radio station got word that a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175 (also originally headed to Los Angeles from Boston) crashed into the World Trade Center’s Tower Two. In a matter of moments, my thoughts turned from regret over the loss of life involved in a barely-fathomable-but-still-unfortunate accident to utter disbelief that anyone could harbor such hatred for America and for her citizens as to perpetrate such an unthinkable act.
Almost nothing deters law professors from engaging their students in the sometimes-torturous pastime of facilitating Socratic discussion, that quasi-learning exercise in which questions abound while definitive answers seemingly are scarce. The tragic events of September 11, 2001, however, comprised such a rare occasion. The professor directed a question at one of my student colleagues. If it wasn’t apparent when she first directed the question to him, the fact that his attention was elsewhere became quite apparent very quickly afterward when he asked her to repeat the question, then finally confessed, “I’m sorry. I’m a little distracted. I’ve got friends in New York . . .” and his voice trailed off. To say that it was difficult to conduct a typical law school discussion in such an atmosphere would be an understatement of gigantic proportions.
Yet the full measure of these cowardly, abhorrent acts was still unfolding even while we were in class. We learned later that day that a third passenger airliner had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC, while still a fourth airliner (which officials later deduced had also been en route to Washington DC, which the hijackers had intended to crash into the Capitol building) had crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers intervened to thwart the hijackers’ plans. The mood around the law school was somber and subdued for days afterward, with few exceptions. Another of my student-colleagues expressed elation upon learning that a relative (I believe it was her mom) had escaped injury when the relative had not gone into work as scheduled at the Pentagon that morning.
My brother was airborne that day as these events unfolded, originally en route to New Orleans for a conference for his work. He was part of a singular event in aviation history: the grounding of all domestic passenger aircraft (and the rerouting of all foreign aircraft whose route would have taken them through U.S. airspace). This undertaking, a Herculean feat never before attempted in the history of U.S. aviation, is accomplished in less than two hours. Most importantly, it is accomplished with no harm to aircraft or their occupants other than the ones which were hijacked. As travelers feverishly attempted to rearrange disrupted plans (and thereby overwhelmed the capacities of businesses offering various forms of ground transport), miraculously, my brother and a coworker were able to rent one of the last vehicles available (it may have been the last vehicle available) after their unscheduled stop in Denver in order to drive home. Mom commented on the fact that streets and stores which usually were alive with pedestrian and vehicular traffic bordered on deserted on 9/11 as she attempted to go about her normal business, and what few people joined her were unusually subdued and quiet.
My family and I have been ardent fans of the National Basketball Association’s Utah Jazz since shortly after they moved to Salt Lake City. Mom said she craved the opportunity to engage in normal activities following the attacks, and (as strange as it may sound) one such activity was to be able to watch a Jazz game. For her, it was a sign that, as much as the world might have shifted on its axis after the attacks, there were still small things—simple pleasures—that could be counted on as normal parts of life. As much as sports have the ability to divide us, as you root for your team and I root for its arch rival (or vice-versa), in the days and weeks following the attacks, sporting events were a uniting (and healing) force. At sporting events in the days and weeks following 9/11, the singing of the National Anthem morphed from a perfunctory pregame ritual to be dispensed with so that we could get on with what everyone really was there for into a heartfelt sign of national unity and patriotism (however short-lived).
It’s true that to the best of my knowledge, none of my relatives, friends, or acquaintances perished, was injured, or suffered any other adverse consequences on September 11, 2001. I, myself, suffered no adverse consequences, at least, not directly. Still, images from that day as captured forever in news footage—the collision of the first plane with Tower One, and then the collision of the second plane with Tower Two (both flying straight, level, and with purpose directly into the buildings, as though the collisions simply were part of their flight plans); people running for their lives as buildings over a hundred stories tall collapsed into heaps of rubble and produce enormous clouds of dust—are forever seared into my memory.
And for years afterward, whenever that unwelcome anniversary rolled around I found myself seized upon by a feeling that is difficult to explain. On the first anniversary of the attacks I didn’t go to class, more-or-less hiding, instead, in my apartment. I suffered a similar reaction on the anniversary for years afterward. One year, Mom and I went to a Salt Lake City water park, Raging Waters, on that day, and I confessed my difficulty on the anniversary of 9/11 to her. I told her that as incongruous as it might seem (and as much sympathy as I have for those who lost loved ones on that day), I preferred to be where I was, spending the day with whom I spent it, than to pass the anniversary of 9/11 as I had on some previous occasions.
The full impact of the attacks had barely begun to dawn in our collective national consciousness before conspiracy theorists began to toss around alternative explanations for the attacks—explanations which not only doubt the official story, but which posit complicity of national leaders in those events. It’s one thing to disagree—even vehemently—with people on the far opposite end of the political spectrum. It’s quite another, however, to posit that national leaders were complicit in the awful events of that terrible day. Could the attacks have been prevented if information that had been available before they occurred been used to “connect enough dots”? Yes. Could they have been prevented if the right people had used that information to coordinate an effective response? Yes.
But even answering the two foregoing questions in the affirmative is a far cry from positing that such a failure was deliberate, malicious, and intended to further government conspirators’ cynical political ends, as many conspiracy theorists have done. Even the smallest possible conspiracies—conspiracies involving but two people—tend, eventually, to collapse under their own weight. Still, 9/11 conspiracy theorists would have us believe that a conspiracy which would have to be hundreds (even thousands) of times larger than that somehow avoided collapsing long enough to kill thousands of Americans. I finally lost patience with a late-night radio program to which I used to listen on sleepless nights when its host credibly entertained the crackpot speculations of one too many such theorists. <a title=”” href=”#_endn1″></a>
In a piece discussing the ramifications of the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden by U.S. special operators, I wrote the following about the national mood following the attacks:
Granted, it is healthy neither for nations nor for individuals to live in a perpetual state of hypervigilance like the one which prevailed in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Militant Islam’s mindset and institutional memory, however, are much different from our own. It is a mistake to think that the passage of time and the removal of key figures have weakened its resolve.
Our short individual and institutional memories stand in stark contrast to militant Islam’s mindset. That mindset is captured neatly in an old Pakistani proverb: “If it takes me ten centuries to avenge my enemy, I will wait a thousand years for revenge. Bin Laden’s death does nothing to change that mindset.
Unhealthiness of perpetual national hypervigilance notwithstanding, however, as I indicate above, our collective national attitude is too prone to swing in the polar opposite direction, to apathy. We can ill afford such apathy, however, in light of terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Egypt and Libya. The latter resulted in the death of (among others) U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. I seriously doubt that the timing of such attacks, close as they are to the anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, is a coincidence.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, editors of the University of Utah’s student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle, invited readers to submit letters expressing their feelings and opinions regarding the events of that terrible day. This piece was published in the newspaper on September 17, 2001 under the headline, “America Galvanized,” As of yesterday, when it was last accessed, it is still available on line, . It is also available elsewhere on this blog if the foregoing, end-noted link ever ceases to work, and I think it’s a fitting close to this piece:
Like so many others, I was angered and saddened by last Tuesday’s attack on my fellow citizens.
It frightens me that there are people on the planet who are more than willing to kill me simply because I am an American.
I hesitate to say that anything good can come from this awful tragedy, but if anything can, it is this: As horrible as this incident is, it has the potential to galvanize America and her citizens more than any incident since Pearl Harbor. I hope it does.
Although it sounds old fashioned, I believe more than ever that—despite her faults—America is great because she is good. Let’s remember that, although caution and vigilance are called for to prevent something like this from happening again, this is not a time for hate. Hate is what precipitated this event in the first place.
Evil may triumph in a few of its battles with good, but good will always win in the end.
 For an effective refutation (perhaps the definitive one) of many of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, see Editors (February 3, 2005), “Debunking the 9/11 Myths: Special Report,” Popular Mechanics, accessed on line at http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/military/news/1227842 on September 12, 2012.
 Ken K. Gourdin (circa May 2, 2011), “The man is dead, but the idea of bin Laden lives on,” http://www.greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/bin-laden-lives/, accessed September 12, 2012.
 Ken K. Gourdin (September 17, 2001), “America galvanized,” The Daily Chronicle (Salt Lake City: University of Utah), accessed on-line at http://www.dailyutahchronicle.com/?p=51080, accessed September 12, 2012.