Sunday, September 11, 2011

Column: McCain recalls painful memories of 9/11 By Senator John McCain

Sept. 9, 2011 10:46 AM             

The sudden shock of realization that a terrible accident wasn't an accident but intentional mass murder. The ground trembling when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon. The confused evacuation of congressional office buildings. People unsure of where to go or what to do; running in different directions; driving their cars on the sidewalks; diving for cover, frightened by the sonic boom of the first Air Force jets scrambled to confront additional attacks.

Trying to follow the rapid succession of tragic events - the collapse of the Twin Towers; the crash of Flight 93 - on a black-and-white portable television in a young staffer's small Capitol Hill apartment because I couldn't return to my office or cross the Potomac to my apartment and I didn't know what else to do, either.

Reports of heartbreaking telephone calls to their loved ones from victims in the last moments of their lives. The sight of people, despairing of rescue, who had made a final choice to die by jumping from shattered windows rather than be burned to death; plummeting to earth silently against the bright, blue background of that incongruously beautiful morning.

Those are my first and still vivid memories of that terrible, fateful September day 10 years ago. They are no different from the memories thousands, millions of us, will carry for the rest of our lives. Those who were small children then will remember them as their first consciousness of the world beyond their home, a world that could be unexpectedly terrifying and cruel.

I have other memories of its aftermath, some sad and solemn, some inspiring and hopeful, some both, that I will recall all my life.

Attending a memorial service for one of the passengers of Flight 93, Mark Bingham, who helped bring down the plane before the depraved men who had seized it could fly it into their target - the White House or the Capitol, it's been surmised - and adding many more names to the list of 9/11 victims.

Rudy Giuliani's finest hour; his sad, calm, determined discharge of his public duties. Joining him at Yankee Stadium for the 2001 World Series games between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks, and for the last games in Phoenix, when the Diamondbacks prevailed, and Arizona fans welcomed the Yankees' most famous fan as a hero.

The Diamondbacks aware that almost all Americans who didn't live in Arizona were rooting for the Yankees, and not minding it, respecting it, appreciating it, while they did their jobs as well as they could. President George W. Bush's impromptu remarks at Ground Zero, leaning on a firefighter, holding a bullhorn, promising punishment for the perpetrators. The sense of solidarity that united most Americans and temporarily quelled the fractiousness and wrangling for partisan advantage that usually attend congressional debates over the relatively small differences that separate us.

So many questions were asked in those first months after the attacks. "Why?" the most frequent and important and, sadly, the easiest to answer. For the answer was, of course, the only one that ever explains cruelty on such a scale - hatred; pure, blind, overwhelming hatred; hatred of us, of the modern world, of humanity.

It is human beings' capacity for hatred that makes possible the most horrifying acts; shocking cruelty that causes us to despair that humanity will ever permanently subdue the worst impulses of our nature. It is our capacity for the most selfless love that encourages our faith that we will. And there were plenty of examples of that on Sept. 11, 2001, and the months and years that followed. For what causes someone to rush into a burning building they fear they will never leave alive in the faint hope of saving a stranger's life? Love. As selfless a love as any imaginable.

Another prevalent question of that time was whether Americans would ever feel normal again or what would pass for a new normalcy after our sense of security had been shattered so completely. That, too, has been answered. Yes. We would feel normal again.

Or at least our anxieties would be less a consequence of fears for our physical security than they would be attributable to more familiar causes: economic hardship; a sense of fewer opportunities for our personal success; dissatisfaction with our government's responses to the challenges of our time; worries about the future in a world that is changing rapidly.

But most Americans rightly sense we are prevailing in our war with the hate-consumed people who planned and welcomed the attacks of Sept. 11, and those who would, if they could, attack us again; a sense that was reaffirmed by the killing of Osama bin Laden by Americans.

To be sure, this war will not likely end anytime soon or will ever be declared to have been won decisively, permanently. We might yet be attacked again. But few are afraid anymore to take an elevator to the highest floors in tall buildings or fly or go to work with a sense of dread that some evil is lurking out of sight, waiting to destroy them. The heightened security we were forced to adopt continues and must continue, but it leaves few of us with any bigger regret than annoyance over the inconveniences it has made necessary.

The two wars begun after 9/11 continue, and brave Americans continue to die in them, partly because of mistakes made by policymakers in planning and managing them, and partly because they were harder to win than many of us assumed at the time.

Another president, a critic of the president who had the privilege and the awful burden of being in office in 2001, has been elected. Policies proposed to make us safer are still being refined, new ones proposed, others adapted to new circumstances and intelligence, and all of them debated, sometimes heatedly. Congress quickly returned to its pre-9/11 habits to the general consternation of the American people.

We are ourselves again; dissatisfied, restless, worried; and, as always, struggling along to make our lives and our country better than they were because we believe we are capable of such achievement. That is probably the best victory we can attain in a war with hatred we believe was begun 10 years ago but is as old as humanity itself.

John McCain is the senior U.S. senator from Arizona.

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