On the morning of 9/11 I was deeply involved in my newly brewed coffee, at the kitchen table with the TV on, watching Katie when the news hit.
The next day, September 12, I took a bike ride on the C&O Canal (see C&O Canal), a canal that runs parallel to the Potomac River. From my house, it’s an 8-mile ride east to DC on the canal and maybe another 8 miles to the Pentagon. I would ride into town and see the Pentagon.
What I saw that day was surreal. Riding the canal was eerily peaceful. Usually filled with dog walkers, an occasional goat walker, joggers, and bikers, the canal was empty that day. The landing and takeoff path for planes coming in and out of the National Airport runs right down the river. The jet noise wasn’t heard that day except when a new sight, a fighter squadron, flew over. This wooded trail could have easily been in some uncharted wilderness instead of a few miles from the capital of the United States.
As I left the Canal and entered the Georgetown Section of DC, the usual bustling streets were greatly reduced by car and pedestrian traffic. Humvees blocking roads, Soldiers in camouflage fatigues holding semi-automatic rifles. Police cars and motorcycles are parked in the middle of the streets, with many Police Officers standing in groups. It felt like something from a movie, like Marshal Law had been declared, like the Aliens had attacked and were coming back, like a scene from “War of the Worlds.” The lead actor in this production wasn’t jumping on Oprah’s couch. He was making recorded speeches in a cave in Afghanistan.
As I crossed the Memorial Bridge from DC to Virginia, about a mile from the Pentagon, I started to encounter more and more bike riders. Others had the same idea I had, and we began to collect in groups. We weren’t able to get very close but could see the damaged area from about ¼ mile away. There were cranes and rescue workers. No smoke. It was surprising how quickly the site was cleared and organized.
The group standing there watching…. pedestrians and bikers were quiet, respectful, almost like mourners at a funeral. The group that stood there were Americans that day, Not individuals cutting in line, cutting off fellow drivers, stealing parking places, fffing this, or fffing that. The group, racially and socioeconomically diverse; some of them were employed, others were “consultants” like me, sat there quietly together. No one gave the other the finger, no name-calling. That day and for some days later, we, like the rest of the country, were Americans. We were family. We were mourners, mourning the lost innocence of our youth, the senseless death. We were innocents in awe of a hatred directed at our country and our faith. The hatred that we couldn’t at the time fathom but have come to understand today.
Cycling back home that day, reflecting, remembering the quiet peacefulness of the Canal, the ghostly emptiness of the city, the somber masses at the Pentagon, I thought the world would never be the same again. That innocence would be lost forever. That this would unite this country forever.
We now recognize the hatred; we have lost the innocence of believing that we are seen around the world as defenders of righteousness. We enter planes, trains, and buses, suspiciously eyeing our fellow passenger’s packages. But in many ways, we are where we were before that day. After a very brief respite, the middle finger is back in style. I see it in traffic. We go about our business except for a brief moment each year on September 11, when we remember the wake-up call.
We all become one again. No red state, blue state. No, us versus them. On 9/11, we all remember that all of us were attacked, and we are Americans.