I haven't written about 9/11 because I felt I didn't really have much to add to the narrative. And then I realized that I was in a really "interesting" place that day, and I've never written about it before. In the end, you might find it to be less than interesting--but I'll share it anyhow:
September 11th, 2001, and there I was: in the middle of a large North Atlantic Naval exercise. Based out of Keflavik, Iceland (where I was stationed at the time), our staff was playing host and organizer for KEFTACEX, a combined air-sub-surface exercise that took place annually in the waters off of Iceland.
I was in the planning cell that afternoon (keep in mind that Kef is 4 hours ahead of New York)--but just like New York, it was a beautiful day. Also with me in that planning cell were members of navies from Denmark, the UK, Canada, France, the Netherlands and Germany. (I think that was all the players--I can't remember for sure now). When I say "cell", please don't think prison; rather, it was just a big office that we had all kind of settled into to do our planning.
The exercise had been going well. We were probably 4 operational days from completing the 2-week exercise, and once we had the initial logistics settled (the base at Kef just wasn't meant to handle that many visitors at once--especially back then, when there was still quite a joint active-duty presence on that base) we found the operational stuff both fun and interesting. I can't recall the specific problem we were working on that morning (I'm sure it had to do with getting a sub from point A to point B in time for it to both finish an early session and begin a later session--these are the kinds of issues that the planning cell tackles), but over lunch with my Danish and Canadian counterparts I recall hearing that the problem had been resolved. It looked to be an easy afternoon because of that resolution: write the ATO (air tasking order) for the next day and work into the following day, which would be September 13th. By that stage, we'd be ramping up for the final day's exercise, where the sub was going to really play "hard to get" with the air and surface units. That final day was why we always had such a strong international presence at KEFTACEX--"time on top" a real USW (undersea warfare) target was not easy to come by at that time.
I don't remember the specifics, but there was a TV in the cell. It had been on the Kef weather channel for most of the exercise because the weather in that area could wreak havoc on our schedule. I guess that the forecast looked good for the next couple days because the channel had wandered off of the weather channel. Something to note: we didn't get "cable" or anything similar to that in Kef. The base had an office that controlled the television that was available on the base. So instead of channel 4 always being NBC,for example, channel 4 would instead always be news (sometimes NBC, sometimes CNN headline, sometimes ABC's Meet the Press,etc); channel 6 would always be sports; channel 7 would always be sitcoms--stuff like that. The TV had settled on the news channel, and the story on at the time we returned from lunch was the one building of the WTC that was on fire. Some of the folks in the room (most of them were back by now) were looking at the screen from various locations in the room, while others had their head to the desk, working on whatever task they had at hand. I was one of those looking at the TV from my desk. . .
And then we saw that plane hit the other tower.
A few "oh my God"s were uttered, and then everybody was looking at the TV.
A few seconds after that, someone (who obviously hadn't been looking at the TV at the moment that plane hit it) asked what had happened. His countryman responded to him in the native tongue, and I remember looking at the guy who had asked the question and watching the color disappear from his face.
I have often wondered what words that responder said to his friend. . .did he say, factually, that a big plane had crashed into the second tower? Or did he reply "America is under attack"? Did the responder understand what was going on? Or was it the guy who had his question answered who quickly connected the dots?
I remember the replay showing on the TV. I don't know how much time had passed between the "live" shot and the replay, but I do know that there had been practically no conversation in the room (except for that Q&A above).
Minutes passed. . .yet still most of the room was riveted to the TV. But not everyone. The one guy I specifically remember NOT looking at the TV was one of my American brethren. He was regarded as extraordinarily intelligent but not very wise; a detail guy who just didn't see the big picture. And it showed on this day more than any. Still in his own world, he stood up and asked some question about the ATO for the next day. And I gotta tell you, his voice on a good day was like fingernails on a chalkboard, but at this particular instance it was possibly the most annoying thing imaginable.
He was responded to by the "liaison" for the Danes (this guy was seriously junior to the rest of the Danish contingent, but due to his good rapport with our staff and his thorough understanding of the exercise, the rest of the Danes--and the entire cell--relied heaviliy on his input): "there isn't going to be an ATO tomorrow".
Probably not even 5 minutes after the plane hit the second tower, and this guy "got it". In spades.
He proved to be prophetic, of course. The silence in the cell didn't last long--phone calls were both made and received. The remainder of the exercise was cancelled; the foreign crews were asked to leave the island as soon as possible. There were no questions about this decision; just nodding heads and the look shared among military professionals that know the future is going to involve combat. People had died, and it was likely that more people would die. You literally look at each other as if you want to say "Goodbye" (and yes, that's a big "G" intentionally, if you get my drift) but know that it just isn't the right thing to say or the right time to say it. I wonder if there ever is a right time to say it. . .
I remember being at an intel briefing in the weeks after 9/11 and watching the island's admiral, a hard man who had worn the colors in more ways than I can imagine, getting visually worked up--to the point of being unable to speak--while he was being briefed on the incident, etc. There was rage in his demeanor. . .and this from a man who had made a career out of measured responses to life-threatening situations. The admiral had friends at the Pentagon--heck, I think we all had friends at the Pentagon. He wanted answers.
Too bad they hadn't been there on 9/10. Or 9/9. Or even early in the morning on 9/11.
Remembering is good--cathartic I think is a good way to describe it.
But remembering without learning is just plain dumb. How does the old saying go: "those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it"?
9/11 is not just a time to reflect on what we lost, but also on what we LEARNED. We learned that America is not an impenetrable fortress. We learned that killers can kill by the scores with no tools other than a box cutter and an ignorant enemy. We learned that there is real HATRED in the world--and not the kind that can be psychoanalyzed to an "unloving father" and a "transient home life as a kid". There are just some people who hate life--so much, in fact, that they willingly sacrifice their own.
Such are the lessons of 9/11. When we remember the victims of that tragedy, let's also remember that what they died for was bigger than just "being in the wrong place at the wrong time"; they died so that we could learn and understand the world that surrounds us better.
So learn. Understand. And ask yourself: how do I keep this from happening again?
Because I'm sure that none of us--NONE OF US--want to see something like that happen again.