...continued from page 1
Time passed, and the trauma of both attacks wore off. Then, as if truly evil luck must come in threes, the Beltway Sniper began murdering in October 2002. That is another round of deaths that seems to have been forgotten elsewhere. Ten people died and three others were wounded throughout the Washington area, mostly in the suburbs.
The police and the FBI brought in criminal profilers charlatans practicing a trade no more scientific than palm reading. Police promptly declared the killings the work of one disgruntled middle-aged white male driving a white van. Almost everyone who owned a white van was stopped and searched in the ensuing days.
Washingtonians, who by then had developed a certain gallows humor, joked that at least parking was easy to find. Few suburbanites who could get out of leaving the house did, and for once, you could park in front of your favorite Dupont Circle restaurant.
The snipers turned out to be two black males, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, driving a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice sedan and shooting from its trunk at unsuspecting victims. So much for profilers.
All pain fades over time, which is perhaps God's greatest blessing to men. Eventually, the immediacy of 9/11 and the subsequent killings faded. But my travels between Washington and New York kept kicking up unexpected connections, and undesired reminders.
Washington is a company town, and that company is the government. I kept running into people who had connections with the attack on the Pentagon. They were either in the building during the attack, or were supposed to be, or knew someone who was. Unlike New York, Washington is still a fairly small town. The killing of 190 people in a city of a half-million strikes as many sparks as the killing of 3,000 people in a city of 8.2 million. Connections to 9/11 and its aftermath kept popping up, uninvited, everywhere.
One friend, I discovered, had been driving on Jefferson Davis Highway and had seen Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.
A wrong turn during an unrelated driving trip to Pentagon City Mall, near the Pentagon, put me in the normally secured Pentagon parking lot, where repairs were still underway. I parked and walked up to the huge hole in the wounded building. No photograph or video does justice to the size of the Pentagon, which beggars belief or to the size of the hole the doomed airliner smashed into it.
One acquaintance had been halfway up the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and escaped with her life only minutes before its collapse.
Talking another acquaintance through grief over her husband's death months later, I realized with a sudden shock that he had been the pilot of Flight 77 who died when his plane was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon.
All memories, and all stories, have to end somewhere. As good a place to cut off this memory is in Brooklyn months after 9/11.
Sometimes, when visiting Manhattan, the magazine company for which I worked put me up in Midtown hotels. Sometimes I preferred to stay with an old friend only a few subway stops away in historic Brooklyn Heights, facing Manhattan's Financial District.
My friend told me that, for days after 9/11, residents of the trendy Brooklyn Heights townhouses went into their yards, or onto their fire escapes, to find what looked like, but weren't, snowdrifts.
Looking closer, they discovered that the drifts of white were paper hundreds and hundreds of routine business documents that had floated across the East River on the volcanic plumes of hot air from the dying Twin Towers. In Brooklyn, they landed in yards and on fire escapes, concrete proof, yet inadequate explanation, of the great gaping holes in the Manhattan skyline seen from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.
She showed me some of the papers unassuming business letters, some still in folders, now without any context to give them meaning.
Have Washington and New York changed since 9/11? Washington is a lot less fun for a reporter. The formerly casual and open relationship between reporters and congressmen is now mediated by new layers of security. In Washington, which had not been attacked by a foreign power since 1812, overreaction, most of it ineffective, was inevitable.
And New York? New York remains changeless in its constant change.
The greatest jolt of identification I have felt over the New York attacks was with words, not people a passage from Here is New York, the 1949 memoir by famed New Yorker writer E.B. White, written in 1949 after a decade-long absence from the city, and in the shadow of the new atomic bomb. On passage leapt from the page, as relevant and prescient, as if had been written the week before 9/11.
"The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everyone's mind," White wrote. "The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers
"All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm."