11 September 2001:
A 21st-century day of infamy

A rambling by Tom Knapp

At 8 a.m., I picked up my grandmother for an excursion to Cape May, N.J., where we were visiting my vacationing parents for the day.

About 45 minutes later, a hijacked airplane carrying 92 people slammed into one of the two World Trade Center towers in downtown Manhattan. Before the morning was over, two more hijacked planes would strike, colliding with the second tower in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. A fourth hijacked airliner went down near Pittsburgh.

Thousands of people dead. A senseless, horrible tragedy.

My grandmother and I, chatting about normal things over a backdrop of Irish music, knew nothing of this as we drove southeast through bits of Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. We arrived in Cape May, eager to find my parents and enjoy an afternoon at the beach. My father broke the news to me standing on Cape May's sandy shore; the crashing waves behind me, the screaming gulls and the blankets and umbrellas spread around me by vacationing sunbathers made his words seem unreal.

We soon were glued to the television in my parents' hotel room, watching the oft-repeated footage and listening to commentators piece together scant bits of information.

Stunned, we wandered back to the beach. Around us, amid the usual scenes of people engaged in seashore recreation, were definite signs that something major had shaken their world. Men on blankets spoke urgently into cellphones, finding and disseminating information as fast as they could. Couples strolled along the promenade clutching radios, heads ducked close to listen to the latest reports. Those same reports blared from shops along the beachfront, played on stereos usually reserved for the latest pop music. In restaurants and bars, people gathered around televisions. Church bells rang, and crowds of people lined up to get inside and pray.

Floating neck-deep in the ocean despite choppy waves, a young woman said she felt peaceful in the water. It was surreal, she told me, to think of what had happened such a short distance away.

All day long, we wondered how many were dead in those buildings and planes. We listened for someone to cast definitive blame and let us know who was responsible for this terrible act. We dreaded news of further attacks. We waited to see if America was going to war.

New York's famous skyline is forever changed. America's confidence in its security is shaken. People around the world are uncertain when they'll feel safe again. And even those most opposed to war and violence seem eager to see someone pay for this -- not so much revenge as retribution, a reckoning for unspeakable evil.

It is hard to describe the shock, the sadness or the rage that greets news such as this. If it had been a normal day, I'd have followed events as they unfolded from the newsroom where I work, exposed to a constant barrage of updates on every aspect of the story. Instead, I was supposed to be enjoying a day off, soaking up an afternoon's sun and relaxation in a quiet, picturesque coastal town.

It didn't seem possible that these stories were true. This sort of thing shouldn't happen in our society.

The world is not the same place it was when I woke up that sunny Tuesday morning and set out for a day's quiet pleasures. I am still struggling to resolve images of large-scale death and destruction with people playing in the rolling sea, loafing on the hot sand and savoring a perfect day at the beach.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 15 September 2001