Flying Blind

We had a Sept. 11 again, like we do at this time every year.

We had a Department of Homeland Security threat level of Code Orange, like we've had since . . . wow, was it only last month that they broke up that plot to blow up planes headed from London to the United States? So, since then.

We had a full day of solemn memorializing, opportunistic politicization and based-on-true-events dramatization of the five-year anniversary of the day commercial airliners were used to attack the symbols of America's economic, military and political dominance.

Then I had to get home from Chicago. Finishing off this Sept. 11 with a three-and-a-half-hour flight struck me as equal parts poignant, thrilling, fascinating and silly, you know, besides being pretty much unavoidable. I'd stretched a weekend in Chicago with my girlfriend as far as I could. I had to work the next morning. And I must say the journey had its moments.

I accidentally screwed up the computerized self-ticketing at O'Hare Airport by failing to touch the part of the screen that indicated I had a suitcase to check. I was sure it would arouse the suspicion of the agent at the counter when she had to re-ticket me and check my bag. Nope . . . unless one of those buttons she pressed was the reason the guy sitting a seat away from me looked like Peter Sarsgaard—the guy who played the evil sky marshal opposite Jodie Foster in Flightplan.

I deliberately violated the new ban on bringing "gel" aboard the plane by leaving a squeezy tube of Carmex in my briefcase—it passed through security screening without a mention—and surreptitiously applying it to my lips three times during the flight. In your face, Sarsgaard!

But when I wasn't trying to ratchet up my 9/11 adventure with self-serving little plot devices—like choosing what seemed like the most unlucky seat (row 13, seat F) on a plane with the word "American" painted on it—the sensation was sadly and pathetically draining.

*   *   *

Five years after history presented the United States with a pivot point—an opportunity to stop, reconsider our path and our mission, and select a new direction—we're just spinning in place. The first thing I heard when I turned on the television Monday morning was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which calls us to blindly righteous Christian warfare with a rollicking glory, glory, hallelujah. Mourners were singing it in the open field near Shanksville, PA, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed to earth, in tribute to the people who died there, and as a promise of retribution for them too.

It brought me back to the night of Sept. 15, 2001, when I fell asleep during the round-the-clock coverage of the disaster's aftermath, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by the apocalyptic sound of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" being sung by a choir and standing-room-only crowd in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It was a rerun of a ceremony from the night before. I reached for my journal, noted the date and time—Sept. 16 at 2:42 a.m.—and my sense of doom:

"Awoke after a few hours' sleep to the 'Battle Hymn of the Republic,' and it is terrifying. Looks like a variation on the Hitler-Germany musical rallies. Last night was a National Night of Prayer, but by now, a few days after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were slammed, people have already lost sight of the purpose. They are wearing corny red, white and blue headdresses and whooping it up. We're on our way to war."

So we were, and so we are, for a variety of rationales—bringing terrorists to justice, disarming weapons of mass destruction, ridding the world of evildoers who hate freedom, fighting our enemies there so that we won't have to fight them here—that are remarkable testimony to the power of simplistically self-serving generalities, profound self-pity and relentless self-centeredness. Never mind that the rallying cry of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" goes against the essence of Christianity, which unequivocally forbids violence for any reason, including self-defense.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, I put in the two-hour penance everybody pays these days for taking a flight, wandering from newsstand to food court to TV to TV to TV, sipping on a Starbucks coffee, chewing on a McDonald's cheeseburger and stewing over their outrageous airport prices, wondering whether the just-announced half-hour delay in my departure had anything to do with . . . uhhhhh, you know.

After all, that was the question of the day. Reporter after reporter prefaced it that way: Are we safer now?

The answer, invariably, was, "Yeah, but . . ." And the discussion would trail off into analyses and debates over security plans, the abridgement of rights, the application of "alternative questioning methods."

Which is why, on the five-year anniversary of America's incredible tragedy, most of the airport TVs ended up tuned to the Monday Night Football game, a game that satisfied its 9/11 responsibility with a neat little halftime tribute to the patriotism of the professional players who refuse to let terrorists interrupt their season, instead taking the field carrying American flags, wearing New York Fire Department caps, saluting during the national anthem and shedding a big ol' teddy-bear tear.

The rest of the airport TVs were tuned to a dramatically licentious assigning of blame for the 9/11 attacks, which was interrupted for a presidential address that made the case for more war and abridgement of rights, which was sometimes hard for me to hear because of the endless-loop messages advising passengers to keep their baggage close to them and report any suspicious behavior by other travelers.

I made a couple of phone calls and wondered whether they were being monitored.

*   *   *

My flight wasn't full, and I appreciated the empty seat between me and the Sarsgaardian guy. But the plane wasn't empty, either, and plenty of people had stepped forward when they started calling names from the standby list. Most people were chatting it up pretty good—I would have appreciated a little less of that from the two loud women behind me—but I didn't hear anybody mention 9/11.

It was on my mind, however, and despite my best logic and bluster, flying on this day did give me pause to consider the possibility that tragedy might be imminent, maybe as close as the next minute.

But that's how the whole world lives, and in most places the odds and the consequences are much worse. They always have been. That's a point that seems lost in our anniversary observations of 9/11—how totally out-of-proportion we see the attack that, while spectacular, took fewer than 3,000 lives, and how totally misdirected our reaction continues to be.


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