Happy Birthday, this is the end

MONDAY NIGHT I didn't sleep well, which sounds prophetic now. Tuesday was a restless morning. I looked at the clock around six a.m.—nine o'clock New York time. I didn't get up.

The synchronicity is surreal.

Tuesday, Sept. 11, was my 21st birthday. Twenty-one years to the hour after I was born in an Air Force hospital in the middle of America, a hijacked American Airlines plane packed with passengers slammed into a high-rise packed with American people.

That happened while I slept. I woke up, two hours later, to what I thought was a birthday phone call.

The scene I had to see for myself. The image on TV—an endlessly looping few seconds of footage of the second plane crashing through the second tower— conjured a cold childhood memory of the Challenger explosion, my earliest recollection of a national news event. Jan. 28, 1986, I was five. My mother didn't know how to explain it.

She watched the news for days. That footage was incredible. And yet that was a clean catastrophe: mechanical, not maniacal. The crew who died on that shuttle had expected they might. They knew, all too well, the risks.

But people getting coffee, going to work? And Tuesday's damage wasn't done after the first plane collided and exploded, or after the second. The chronology exacerbated the chaos: The life-saving crews who were most responsive to the first blast were buried to death by those buildings. Knowing that makes it worse.

Seeing it makes it worse, too, though the images are not really new. We've seen this scene before. We've seen Manhattan screaming, and we've enjoyed it. Scattering pedestrians, hijacked planes, buildings aflame and asunder—that's a night's fun at the movies: Airport plus Towering Inferno plus Independence Day.

We watch the news as if it's imagined, like we expect the possibility of an alternate ending: the plane to miss the mark, to fly between the buildings, to be diverted or shot down. That another plane was shot down over Pittsburgh because it had to be seems, similarly, unreal: If Jack Ryan or James Bond cleverly stole control of the cockpit, somehow that would seem, in a strange way, more believable.

I wonder what the 5-year-olds understand, what they've seen and what their mothers are telling them. They can count to 10, but to 10,000? What, exactly, is going on? A building bursting at its seams, an airplane in flames, a city in pandemonium and panic. There's the endless loop of footage, but it doesn't have the answers. And the terror, like the footage, won't rest.

On Tuesday, I grew up, and so did we. Surely and symbolically, neither are the same. The maturation of a lucky young man and of an arrogant America, from so-sure-of-it-ness to humility and apprehension. We're fine, which makes this all the more otherworldly. Our luck is just as senseless, just as shocking.

Together, we've crossed some kind of threshold. The landscape has changed. The country cannot sleep. The buildings are not standing. The center did not hold.


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