I am writing this on a flight from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, thinking about that day, 10 years ago, when I was on one of the planes that was forced to land after four other planes were deliberately crashed — three into targeted buildings and one, prematurely, into a field in Pennsylvania.
The singer Maura O’Connell was to perform a benefit concert in Las Vegas for the US-Ireland Alliance. On September 11, 2001, I was flying from Washington to Vegas to make sure everything was arranged in advance of Maura’s arrival.
Very near to the time that one of the hijacked planes struck the Pentagon, the flight I was on took off from Reagan National Airport, only a couple of miles away. It may have been that the Pentagon had already been hit, but the message had not yet been relayed to prevent other planes from taking off.
Ten years ago, there was no CNN live on television screens on airplanes, no inflight WiFi access, no tweeting. If it had happened today, we’d have known instantaneously. But all we saw and knew were blue skies and white clouds – blissfully ignorant of how our lives, and the lives of so many others, had changed.
Then the pilot announced, in that calm, matter-of-fact way that pilots do: “There have been major attacks on the east coast, all planes must land immediately.” That was all we were told, except that we would be landing in Indianapolis. In a world of too much information, that definitely felt like too little information.
There was very little reaction on our plane. No panic. Some murmuring between passengers but mainly there was silence – everyone was no doubt trying to figure out precisely what that vague announcement meant. Whatever it meant, we all sensed its magnitude.
Unlike most of my fellow passengers, my mind was not on the vague ‘east coast’. As Senator Ted Kennedy’s foreign policy adviser, I had dealt with the aftermath of the 1988 Libyan bombing of Pan Am flight 103, so my immediate thought was: there are bombs on planes. I knew it was unprecedented to have all planes land. If the attacks were on the east coast, what point was there in bringing all air traffic to a standstill? I did not share my thoughts with whoever was seated next to me. Why scare them? It was better to leave them with their own thoughts, which were probably on the east coast. I just quietly sat hoping this particular plane would land safely.
We did not know precisely what had happened until we entered the crowded terminal in Indianapolis and stood, with the other stunned and stranded, hypnotized by the television. Watching those towers fall, again and again and again, was surreal. It seemed like it must be a movie it was so inconceivable.
The airline did an impressive job of taking care of us. By the time we had arrived, rooms at airport motels had been arranged, as were coaches to take us there. I had already repeatedly tried to phone my family to let them know I was okay. But phone lines were jammed and there was just no way of getting through. I knew my mother would be worried. She knew I was flying that day but I hadn’t bothered to pass on my flight details.
I became pre-occupied with who I knew who might have been in the Pentagon or in, or near, the twin towers. Irish Times reporter Conor O’Clery came to mind fairly quickly. I knew Conor from his years in Washington, D.C. when he covered the Northern Ireland peace process. Later, when he and his wife were planning to move to Manhattan, they asked me about neighborhoods. I had suggested Tribeca and they ended up living there, at a place not far from the towers. I needed to know that the O’Clery’s were okay. If not, I would somehow feel responsible — no matter that that was irrational. As Lillian Hellman said, “it is vanity in the end … to think so much depends on you.” I was nonetheless relieved when I learned they were safe.
While communication within the US was impossible, Ireland was somehow contactable which I learned when my mobile rang shortly after I arrived at the motel. It was a friend in Ireland wanting to know where I was and that I was okay. As she knew my family, I asked her to call them for me. I was able to talk with another friend in Ireland and bizarrely, the Pat Kenny radio program got through to me.
When I did finally speak with my family, I learned that the plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania did so in Shanksville, about a 20-minute drive from my mother who, in rural Pennsylvania, had always seemed a step removed from the evils of the larger world. A month later, when I was home in Pennsylvania, I saw the gaping hole in the countryside which caused me to think of Lockerbie, the small Scottish town on which Pan Am 103 fell.
I was stuck for a night or two in Indianapolis. Obviously, we had cancelled Vegas and now I just wanted to get home to Washington, D.C. But no planes were flying. I rented a car and drove the nine hours straight on what seemed like endless, non-descript highways.
A few days later, I would be on one of the first planes to fly again, as was our second class of George J. Mitchell Scholars, bound for universities on the island of Ireland. Many people were understandably afraid of flying after what had just happened and we told the Mitchells that if anyone wanted to postpone, they could. But all decided to go. Personally, I was happy to have to get back on a plane right away. Psychologically, I felt it a bit like falling off a bicycle, I needed to get right back on for fear I wouldn’t later. We all met in Belfast and still remember the flowers laid at Belfast City Hall, a city well used to terrorism, but itself breathing easier with the Belfast Agreement signed three years earlier.
It is human nature to want to respond to such acts in some way, to show solidarity. Many of the Irish associated with the Alliance wanted to ‘do something.’ Ultimately, with the help of many in Ireland and Northern Ireland, especially the Garda, the PSNI and the firefighters, and with the backing of the Taoiseach, we launched a program we called Innisfree. Funds were raised to bring to Ireland the families of the firefighters and police officers who died on September 11th. In the words of W.B. Yeats’ poem, we hoped that they “would have some peace there”, knowing that “peace comes dropping slow.” Over time, about 125 families took up the offer, and some scattered the ashes of loved ones in Ireland.
This week, I read Ken Feinberg’s book, What is Life Worth? Another former Kennedy staffer, Ken was given the herculean task of determining appropriate compensation when the Congress’ passed legislation to provide compensation to the injured and the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks. It was Government’s response to the need to ‘do something’.
I was reading the book because Ken will fly to Dublin next month to give a talk at a fundraiser for the Alliance. The book recounts his work with so many families for whom emotions were so raw. Ken was correct in concluding that if, when, something horrible occurs again, Congress should not respond in the same way. Americans (also feeling a need to ‘do something’) supported the compensation legislation, but that begs the question, then why not the victims of Oklahoma City, the USS Cole, the first World Trade Center bombing, Pan Am 103, and so on.
A unique burden borne by the families of the victims is that others view September 11th as a shared tragedy, a national tragedy. I couldn’t count the number of times someone said to Senator Kennedy, “I remember the days your brothers were killed.” He always responded kindly and he knew they meant well, but it is difficult to be constantly reminded of your own, very personal pain, by complete strangers. The families connected to national tragedies do not always get to choose when they will contemplate their grief, their pain. It is thrust upon them. When there is a story about terrorism and the nose cone of Pan Am flight 103 is splashed across the television screen, those families feel physically assaulted.
A few years ago, a friend who associates me with all things Irish, gave me his box at Wolf Trap (an outdoor amphitheater near DC) for a concert by the Irish band, the Corrs. Coincidentally, in the box next to me, was another former Kennedy staffer (we’re everywhere), Chris Doherty. The man who was his guest introduced himself to me. I didn’t know him but he told me he knew me – he had lost a loved one on Pan Am flight 103 and he thanked me for the support Senator Kennedy and I had given the families. The rest of the evening, I couldn’t help feeling that I had probably ruined what as to be a fun night out for that man. Just seeing me must have transported him back to his grief. (Then again, maybe not. See earlier Lillian Hellman quote.)
And what of the larger foreign policy questions? How do we stop the tit for tat cycle? Can we? After September 11th was Afghanistan. Killing Bin Laden was justifiable. Going into Iraq was a mistake. Once the cycle begins, it is hard to end.
I believe there is more than Libya to the story of Pan Am flight 103 and I hope that events there will lead to a re-examination, if for no other reason than getting to the truth seems to be a greater long-term balm than the short-term satisfaction of revenge. It is my understanding that there was no intelligence tying Libya to the bombing until about a month before it occurred. This is not to say that Libya wasn’t responsible, but maybe others were as well. The theory, which has long existed, goes this way: In July 1988, nearly six months before Pan Am flight 103 was bombed, a US warship shot down an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf. Mistaking the plane for a fighter plane, 290 civilians were killed. President Reagan said he was ‘saddened’ by what had occurred and the Administration paid compensation. It was believed by many that Iran then engaged the Syrian terrorist Ahmed Jibril, founder of the PFLP-GC (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) to get revenge by downing an American airliner. Jibril was believed to have been planning the attack until his operations in Germany were disrupted by authorities, in the fall of 1988, in what was known as Operation Autumn Leaves. Toshiba ‘boom boxes’ reconfigured to hide bombs were discovered. Unable to finish the job, Jibril handed the project off to Qadaffi who was all too happy to carry out the attack as he wanted revenge on the US because the Reagan Administration had ordered the bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi (allegedly killing his young adopted daughter who, it appears now, may be still alive). The Reagan Administration carried out the bombings in retaliation for Libya’s 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque, frequented by US soldiers (two soldiers and one civilian were killed). See where this is going? For every action there is a reaction. It is a cycle which, too often, seems endless.
I wasn’t unhappy when Osama Bin Laden was killed but I didn’t rejoice and I was pleased that President Obama didn’t either. I was a little unsettled when young people in Washington gathered around the White House to celebrate. But I also know that their generation is defined by September 11th. Every year, since 1999, I have read the applications of hundreds of young Americans seeking to be chosen as one of our George J. Mitchell Scholars. The impact of 9-11 on children who were aged 9-14 could be seen years later when they were college students making choices about their lives. When the attacks occurred, they were at an age when perhaps children feel most helpless. I could see in their essays and in their extracurricular activities a noticeable uptick in religiosity and military service when compared with applicants from previous years. On some level, that generation was traumatized in a way I don’t think we, who were adults 10 years ago, fully appreciate.
And what if we stopped publicly marking anniversaries of national tragedies? What if we left that to the individual families who were most personally affected? Tragedies occur daily, personal tragedies that are unremarkable except to those directly impacted and they go unmarked, except in quiet, private ways. In Henry Roth’s book Call It Sleep, there is a reference to this internal grief, inner torment: “But she didn’t know as he knew how the whole world could break into a thousand little pieces, all buzzing, all whining, and no one hearing them and no one seeing them except himself.” Emily Dickinson talked about the constant presence of an absence. We all share what we don’t share.
The Kennedy’s don’t mark the anniversaries of the assassinations of President Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy. They mark their birthdays, celebrate their lives. What if we all did that and simply live each day as if it could be our last?
Hanging on the wall beside the door in my home is a framed copy of my itinerary from September 11th. Conscious that I was lucky to be on the plane that I was on, it serves as reminder, before I walk out that door, that today could be my last. And I try to be just a little bit bolder. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does.
And just now, the hostesses are using the drinks trolley to block the front of the plane so that the pilot can come out to use the toilet without fear that someone will charge the cockpit…..