9/11 Headlines

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since the devastating terror attack on September 11, 2001. The memories seem so fresh. But are they?

In this episode you’ll hear my memories, a listener’s memories, and a Romanian’s ruminations on how we came together in the days following.

Mentioned links:

One man’s ‘mirror for America’ (November 6th, 2001)

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Show transcript

“They weren’t Canadian.”

These were the first words that I heard when I picked up the phone in my cubicle and said, “Hello, Doug Payton.” I recognized the voice as someone from our Canadian office. “What?”, I stammered, taken a little aback at the unusual greeting.

“They weren’t Canadian.” he repeated. “What weren’t Canadian?” I asked. “The planes.” he replied. “What planes?” I asked. And that’s when I found out that something was disastrously wrong. By this time, both towers had been hit. I tried to bring up various news sites on the web to find out what was happening, but apparently everyone else in the country, and much of the world, was doing the same thing. My web browser just showed me error after error. At one point I managed to get the top portion of The Drudge Report to load, and his headline screamed, “Who did this?”

I remember the voice mail I got at the office from my wife telling me to listen to the news. I remember hearing people in other cubicles relay news reported to them from spouses or friends over the phone (some of which turned out to be wrong). I remember thinking that when the towers came down the death toll could reach into 5 figures. (I remember being so grateful later on that it wasn’t.) I remember my boss telling everyone to go home. I remember watching TV pretty much the rest of the day. I remember when my kids got home from school and we talked about what had happened.

My kids took it well. They asked questions, and I answered them the best that I could. I’ve always tried to instill a sense of history in them when interesting things happened (we talked a lot about the 2000 election debacle), but in this case there was history mixed with a sadness, even a reverence, for those who just went to work that day and never came home.

One of my daughters was studying the state of New York in school and had recently decided to do a diorama of New York City. When it came time to do the buildings, I was going to print out a picture of the skyline, which we’d cut up and give a 3-D look to. When we asked her whether she wanted the Twin Towers there or not, she thought for a second and decided that she wanted them to be in there. She and her sister had visited the Twin Towers a couple years earlier with their aunt from Queens, and they remember looking out from the top.

Sometime after the clean-up at Ground Zero was finished, I took my 3 oldest kids there. I have some pictures of them there, as well as the perfectly-proportioned cross made of steel beams that was found in the wreckage, standing tall in the midst of what should have been two tall towers and thousands of people. Again, I was trying to instill a sense of the historic in them.

I have a lot of memories from 9/11, but not nearly as many as others. One of my brothers-in-law was stuck in downtown Manhattan for 3 straight days. He did maintenance work at a hospital, and for him to leave would have meant putting patients in peril, so he stayed. When he did come home, he ate, slept, and went right back. You want memories? He’s got ’em, and they’re far more emotional than mine.

So 20 years on, we’re remembering the day, each in our own way, based on our own memories. But we, as a nation, have a corporate memory as well; the sum total of all of our thoughts and experiences. This national memory sometimes fades, in and out, especially as the time passes. We were so patriotic in the days after 9/11, but where has that gone now? Some of us still are. But flag decals on your car don’t make you patriotic. I think standing up for your country when you believe your country is right is nothing to be ashamed of. I also think criticizing your country, in an honest manner, when you believe your country is wrong is nothing to be ashamed of, either.

So I believe that criticizing a war you think is wrong is patriotic, but I don’t think that marching in the street complaining of a tyrannical government that is worse than al Qaeda is, or is somehow dictatorial, is an honest criticism. If they were tyrannical, if they were stifling dissent, you couldn’t be marching in the street against them.

In one episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9”, Captain Sisko noted the problem between how Earth was handling a situation and how he thought it should be handled. His complaint was that Earth itself was the problem. [The Problem is Earth audio] In a similar fashion, I think we in the U.S. don’t really understand how good we’ve got it. We’ve forgotten, as a nation, what it felt like that fall morning when 3,000 died and our notion of impenetrability was shattered.

Hopefully, today will remind some folks about what is really going on in the world. Seeing people who have more of an emotional attachment to their 9/11 memories might awaken in others the real reason we can’t wait for the rest of the world to agree that our country needs defending. Today is not just an occasion to light some candles. It’s not just for comforting those who’ve lost loved ones. It is those things, but it is also one thing above all.

This is a day to remember.


I put out the call for listeners to let me know what they felt and experienced that day 20 years ago. Here is what listener Barb had to say.

[Barb Rankin audio]

Make a difference, where you can, when you can. This is similar to advice I’ve heard elsewhere. If you want to change the world, start with changing yourself by, indeed, making a difference where you can when you can. If you can’t do that, the world is certainly too far a stretch.

Thanks Barb for your thoughts.

Naturally, Cornel Nistorescu writes his column in Romanian – he is, after all, managing director of News of the Day, an influential newspaper in Romania.

So he was more than a little startled when he started getting e-mails from the United States about a column he wrote in late September 2001, soon after 9/11. He wrote the column after watching a telethon, broadcast from Los Angeles, to raise money for victims of the terrorist attacks.

He had called the column ‘An Ode to America’ (“Cintarea AmericiI”). And when he began getting e-mails from the United States about it, he realized it had been translated and put on the Internet.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Nistorescu, who was in Washington at the time. “It’s incredible how a text published in Romanian became a mirror for America.”

Moved by the spirit of the telethon, Nistorescu, who had been a newspaperman for 25 years at the time and writes on an old-fashioned typewriter, began trying to figure out for himself what America was all about. He described his conclusions in the “Ode to America”.

Ode to America

Why are Americans so united? They don’t resemble one another even if you paint them! They speak all the languages of the world and form an astonishing mixture of civilizations. Some of them are nearly extinct, others are incompatible with one another, and in matters of religious beliefs, not even God can count how many they are.

Still, the American tragedy turned three hundred million people into a hand put on the heart. Nobody rushed to accuse the White House, the army, the secret services, that they are only a bunch of losers. Nobody rushed to empty their bank accounts. Nobody rushed on the streets nearby to gape about. The Americans volunteered to donate blood and to give a helping hand. After the first moments of panic, they raised the flag on the smoking ruins, putting on T-shirts, caps and ties in the colors of the national flag. They placed flags on buildings and cars as if in every place and on every car a minister or the president was passing. On every occasion they started singing their traditional song: “God Bless America!”

Silent as a rock, I watched the charity concert broadcast on Saturday once, twice, three times, on different TV channels. There were Clint Eastwood, Willie Nelson, Robert de Niro, Julia Roberts, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, Sylvester Stallone, James Woods and many others whom no film or producers could ever bring together. The American’s solidarity spirit turned them into a choir.

Actually, choir is not the word. What you could hear was the heavy artillery of the American soul. What neither George W. Bush, nor Bill Clinton, nor Colin Powell could say without facing the risk of stumbling over words and sounds, was being heard in a great and unmistakable way in this charity concert.

I don’t know how it happened that all this obsessive singing of America didn’t sound croaky, nationalist or ostentatious! It made you green with envy because you weren’t able to sing for your country without running the risk of being considered chauvinist, ridiculous or suspected of who-knows-what mean interests. I watched the live broadcast and the rerun of its rerun for hours listening to the story of the guy who went down one hundred floors with a woman in a wheelchair without knowing who she was, or of the Californian hockey player who fought with the terrorists and prevented the plane from hitting a target that would have killed other hundreds or thousands of people.

How on earth were they able to bow before a fellow human? Imperceptibly, with every word and musical note, the memory of some turned into a modern myth of tragic heroes. And with every phone call, millions and millions of dollars were put in a collection aimed at rewarding not a man or a family, but a spirit which nothing can buy.

What on earth can unite the Americans in such a way? Their land? Their galloping history? Their economic power? Money? I tried for hours to find an answer, humming songs and murmuring phrases which risk sounding like commonplaces. I thought things over, but I reached only one conclusion.

Only FREEDOM can work such miracles!

I want to touch on one topic before finishing up here, and I want to begin with the last line of Cornel Nistorescu’s ode, “Only freedom can work such miracles!” We have been given such an amazing birthright by our Founding Fathers, but I fear too many don’t really grasp how important it is, even as it gets chipped away at by a bigger and more invasive government. Maybe people don’t understand it because it’s been chipped away so much.

You never miss what you never experienced. Colleges are full of kids who weren’t born on 9/11 or who are too young to remember it. While we have technology, which Mr. Zapruder could only dream of, that allows you to see and hear it happen, being there at that moment in time can never quite be communicated in words.

I am concerned, too, that the freedom that Mr. Nistorescu talked about is something that has been fading with the generations. This freedom, as much as it has been holding tight to life, has been slowly deteriorating. Every time the government spends millions or billions or trillions more that it takes in, we lose freedom to the ever-increasing debt. Every time fear causes us to inter our fellow citizens merely because of what they might be or do, we lose freedom to the idea that, yes, we did go there and run the risk of doing it again. Every time we censor speech merely because we take offense at it, we lose freedom to whoever can get the most offended.

Freedom is on its death bed. Who can revive it? The Founding Fathers understood from where this freedom came and they believed this so intently that they pledged their lives to defend, not just the idea of freedom, but the idea of where it came from. The document where they made that pledge begins this way.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

What they were defending was every individual’s right, given to them by God and not government, to be free. They may not have lived up to the ideal themselves, but they knew what the ideal was and where it came from. Here’s how one of them put it in the year prior to the Declaration of Independence.

The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasoning, is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind. Were you once to become acquainted with these, you could never entertain a thought, that all men are not, by nature, entitled to a parity of privileges. You would be convinced, that natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator, to the whole human race; and that civil liberty is founded in that; and cannot be wrested from any people, without the most manifest violation of justice.

So I would say to Mr. Nistorescu that what really happened here is that God worked such miracles through the freedom that he granted each of us, even through those who don’t believe in him. Freedom is like that. And hearing those words from Alexander Hamilton, I think he might look at us in 2021 and say, “Consider this.”

Filed under: War