I was ten years old on November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. Forty-eight years later, every detail of what I was doing as the news unfolded on that infamous day remains vividly engraved in my mind’s eye.
Every generation seems to have these “imprinted” events, some more catastrophic than others. The generation just behind mine remembers what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Others a bit younger than me remember the great Northeast Blackout of 1965, and the 1968 assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King. A decade later, everyone in New England remembers coping with the blizzard of 1978 that crippled Boston and all of New England for days.
September 11, 2001 was like all of those days combined. Whenever I ask anyone about it, I get an account not only of the terror, but also of the normal activities of a day underway for those who witnessed it. It seems the closer to Ground Zero we were — emotionally or physically — the more vivid the imprinted memories of these events.
For me, the losses of that day were compounded by prison in ways difficult to explain. One of the most troubling events in the aftermath of what has become universally known simply as “9/11″ came about six months later.
A weekly Catholic newspaper had published an article on prisons, and the folly of a system in which punishment alone prevails at the expense of rehabilitation. One letter to the editor in response was from the wife of a prison guard. She wanted to set the public straight that prisoners are a vile bunch and most defy rehabilitation. Her most vivid example was a claim that prisoners all over the country cheered for the terrorists on 9/11.
It was the sort of thing I hear often quoted by prison staff, especially at contract time. Prisons and prisoners are portrayed as inhuman and dangerous with most prison staff taking their lives in their hands every day they go to work. In seventeen years in prison, this has not been my experience with the vast majority of prisoners. And, the prison guard’s wife’s account notwithstanding, it certainly wasn’t my experience in prison on 9/11.
It is true that there are dangerous men in prison. Some are sociopaths; some are seriously mentally ill; some are just evil in their very core; but all combined they constitute a small minority of the one-size-fits-all prison environment. In my experience, twenty percent of prisoners should never leave prison if public safety is any consideration. Many of them don’t even want to leave. Their attitudes and behaviors are largely shaped by forces within them that allow for no consideration of others.
Their sheer numbers and impact are dwarfed, however, by the eighty percent of prisoners who have but a singular goal: to atone for their mistakes, and to rejoin their families and communities as responsible and contributing members of society. Prisons are designed, built, and managed to contain the former group, however, and everyone else pays a price for that.
The biggest price prisoners had to pay in the wake of the terrorist attacks is having to live with the popular notion that most prisoners sided with the 9/11 terrorists, and would terrorize you themselves if given half a chance. Perhaps the best evidence against this notion was the true reaction of prisoners to the events of September 11, 2001.
Pearl Harbor in Manhattan
It was a Tuesday morning that began like any other. In this prison, every cell is at least “double bunked,” meaning that everyone has at least one roommate, and sometimes as many as seven. After nearly six years in an eight-man cell, I was moved just a year earlier to a prison unit with but two per cell. After years spent in the crucible of the prison’s “inner city,” it was like a move to the relative calm of the suburbs. On September 11,2001, my roommate was Bob, a 37-year-old prisoner who is now long since a free man.
With cups of instant coffee in hand on the morning of September 11, 2001, Bob and I both stood for the morning prisoner count at 0730. After the count, Bob took his coffee to a table outside the cell while I prayed morning prayer from my breviary. Like most prison “bunkies” forced to survive in a tiny space, Bob and I fell into a routine we could live with after a few months. Bob didn’t have a job in the prison — there are far more prisoners than available jobs — and I worked on the afternoon shift — back then in the prison programs office. So it became a sort of unspoken routine that Bob had some solitude every afternoon while I worked, and I had some space in the mornings to pray and write. Before either of us was moved to that cell, solitude was unheard of. Most people don’t really value solitude until they lose it.
In a post last year, “Jack Bauer Lost The Unit on Caprica,” I explained how many prison administrations learned years ago that allowing prisoners to purchase televisions both keeps them connected with the outside world and also saves the state an immeasurable amount of money. Without TV access, most prisons would have to double or even triple their staffs just to maintain order. Bob didn’t have a TV, so he watched mine. With only a ten-inch screen, we had to prop it up on some books so we could both see it.
After the count, and then morning prayer on that day, I reached over to turn on the morning news, switching, as I always did, between CNN and FOX News for a half hour. TVs sold to prisoners do not have speakers, so I can only listen with headphones.
It was 8:48 AM when I turned on my TV that Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Both CNN and FOX had the same silent image on the screen: smoke pouring from a giant gash in the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. I reached for my headphones, then heard the fluttering voice of a commentator in a helicopter hovering nearby:
“We are just currently getting a look at the World Trade Center. Something has happened here . . . flames and an awful lot of smoke from one of the towers . . . This is easily three quarters of the way up . . . whatever has occurred has just occurred, within minutes . . . We’ll keep you posted.”
I tuned in just two minutes after some sort of plane struck the building. The camera cut to a more distant scene. “Wow, that’s a lot of smoke,” I thought. “Hey Bobby,” I called, “take a look at this.” Bob stepped back into the cell from reading his Stephen King book at a table just outside. “Look at this,” I said again, as I angled my small TV for Bob to see. Bob grew up in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. The scene on my screen — minus the smoke and flames — was one he had seen a thousand times.
Bob stared at the screen, and asked me what happened. The news commentators were just then saying that a plane flew into the North Tower. Commercial passenger jets would never be in the air space above Manhattan, so we both assumed this was a small, private plane that veered badly off course. Then I saw a close-up of the gash in the building. It seemed awfully big for a small plane to have caused it.
The news would only slowly unfold, and when it did, it was devastating. At 7:59 AM that morning, American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Logan International Airport in Boston, bound for Los Angeles. It had a two-man flight crew, nine flight attendants, and 81 passengers — five of whom were terrorists armed with pepper spray and box cutters.
No one outside that plane knew what was happening when at 8:14 AM an air traffic controller’s instruction to climb to 35,000 feet went unanswered. No one knew that Mohamed Atta and four other terrorists had already stabbed two flight attendants and a passenger, and used pepper spray and the threat of an on-board bomb to subdue the rest.
The plane turned due south. Twelve minutes later, it began a rapid descent. At 8:46 AM, it flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center killing all 92 passengers and crew on board, and many others inside that building.
Oblivious to all of this from my vantage point, fourteen minutes passed as the CNN commentators pondered what sort of plane it might have been. Bob and I were riveted to the screen, feeling rather than seeing the lights slowly go on in our awareness. This wasn’t an accident.
Then at exactly 9:02, I spotted another plane. From CNN’s camera angle, it seemed to drift casually into view. The CNN commentator seemed not to notice it as she droned on about the North Tower. What was clearly a commercial airlines jet swept into the scene. I pointed to it on the screen, and said loudly “This shouldn’t be there.” I heard Bob whisper, “I know” when the plane disappeared behind the South Tower followed by an immense fireball exploding through the other side. “It’s an attack,” I said. “It’s a terrorist attack!”
It took some time for the story to unfold. Just one minute before American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston, United Airlines Flight 175 also departed Logan Airport bound for Los Angeles on another runway. It carried nine crew members and 56 passengers, five of them terrorists about to hi-jack that plane. Both planes were Boeing 767s.
At 8:51 AM, United 175 deviated from its flight path and New York air traffic controllers learned they could not contact its crew. At 8:58, it veered toward Manhattan. Four minutes later, I and thousands of other viewers spotted it on CNN’s live TV feed. I remember a split second of denial — perhaps the last moment of ignorant bliss this nation has seen — as that plane disappeared behind the South Tower and out of view. Then at 9:02 its enormous fireball emerged from half way up the building, and brought reality back home again.
Within moments, my cell was filled with people. Silent men in forest green prison uniforms, young, middle aged, and old, all staring at me. They knew that I had just seen what they saw, and none of them wanted to see any more of it alone. Then there were several guards, and it dawned on me for the first time that prisoners have televisions while prison guards do not — at least not while they are at work. “What’s happening?” they wanted to know. In they squeezed to stare at my screen.
Everyone standing in my doorway and crowded into my cell hoped against hope to hear the same thing. That this was some bizarre accident that could likely never happen again. Instead, I looked up and said, “This is a terrorist attack, and it isn’t over. Hundreds of people have just been killed, and those buildings are filled with people. This is going to be the worst disaster our country has ever seen. The world we knew just changed.”
I felt a little as though I was in that long remembered scene from childhood as Walter Cronkite explained what just happened in Dallas that November 22nd when I was ten. On this September day, you could hear a pin drop as I recounted to others in my cell the events of that morning and repeated what was known up to that moment. It came as a shock to realize that less than thirty minutes had passed since I closed my breviary and reached for my TV’s ON button.
And it was true that there was more coming. It would be awhile before we learned that at 8:20 AM, American Airlines Flight 77 departed Washington’s Dulles Airport, also bound for Los Angeles. It was a Boeing 757 with six crew and 58 passengers. Five of them were terrorists. At 8:54 AM its transponder beacon was deactivated.
At 9:37 AM, exactly 35 minutes after the South Tower was struck in Lower Manhattan, American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the west side of the Pentagon between corridors four and five, piercing the E, D, and C Rings and entering the B Ring. All 64 people aboard the plane, and many inside the Pentagon itself, were killed instantly.
Just four minutes before that first Boeing 767 struck the North Tower in Manhattan, United Airlines Flight 93 bound for San Francisco departed Newark Airport. It carried seven flight crew and 37 passengers. Five of them were terrorists. Cell phone calls to family members of the passengers wove together a chilling account of how passengers became aware of the other attacks, and then confronted the terrorists aboard their own flight, now heading for a selected target in Washington, DC. In the ensuing, heroic struggle between the passengers and the terrorists, United Flight 93 slammed into the ground at 10:02 AM in a field in Shanksville, PA, 20 minutes out from Washington. We could only imagine ourselves aboard that plane, and, in fact, many prisoners wished they were.
Then in Manhattan, the Twin Towers collapsed. The knowledge that hundreds of police, fire fighters, EMTs and rescue workers there to help only to be crushed to death caused many prisoners to turn from their televisions and place their faces in their hands. America was under siege, and we were men. We could see it only from a distance, and we were powerless to answer.
The mood in prison throughout that day and in the days to follow was eerily somber. It was one characterized first and foremost by shame — the shame of being in prison at a time when families needed the comfort of their fathers, their husbands, their brothers, their sons; the shame of being detained while their country was being attacked.
In the days, weeks, and months to follow, the prisoners I knew would have given anything to go to help sort through rubble at Ground Zero, to clear out debris from the Pentagon, or to kneel in prayer at Shanksville, PA. As the very notion of freedom and an open society were under attack, the least of the free longed for a chance, any chance, to serve, to protect, to make amends.
I, for one, took this very personally. I grew up in sight of Logan Airport in Boston. This began at home — my home, our home, while our backs were turned. As the news unfolded that this was the work not of a hostile government, or some organized crime cartel, but rather the actions of religious believers waging jihad — holy war — against us, we had no category for it; no terms of understanding with which to make sense of it.
And then within weeks of 9/11, for Catholics, at least, revelations of a jihad of another sort roared out of Boston and spread across the U.S. News of decades-old abuses — some of them unspeakable, but some of them also untrue -– were repackaged by the news media for eyes already clouded with suspicion for the religious terrorists in our midst.
A decade has passed, and we still struggle with trading civil liberties for security, due process rights for safety in a free society edging toward becoming less so. To our nation’s credit, we have declared our unwillingness to blame all of Islam for the crimes of its twisted and radical few. But while refusing to allow Islam to be reflected in the acts of its lunatic fringe, we’ve tolerated — even cultivated — a virulent anti-Catholicism that holds the Church in contempt for not acting in 1965 as it would in 2005.
If America truly believes that the answer to jihad is to abandon our own faith, and our fidelity as Catholics, then the war is over. The 9/11 terrorists have already won.