From an old journal: My 9/11

2001-09-11 sun photo Caleb Crain

Here’s an entry I made in my journal on 13 September 2001. At the time, Peter and I were living on 11th Street near Fourth Avenue, in Brooklyn. Lota was our black Lab mix, and Nina was my sister’s chihuahua, whom we were dog-sitting. I’m including scans of some photos I took that day as well, which get mentioned in the journal. Hope you can read my handwriting.












I didn’t write more later; I didn’t write any journal entries for the next three months. I don’t remember the rest of September 11 anywhere near as clearly as the part that I wrote down, but I do know that I biked into Manhattan that afternoon with Lydia, a friend of friends who either was, or was about to be, a medical student, and wanted to see if she could volunteer. I took a different camera with me on that ride, and took more photos, including the one of the sun at the top of this post and the ones of Manhattan below.




A WTC memory

A scratched and faded snapshot of the blogger in a parasailMore than a decade ago, I did a little bit of fear arbitrage. I was facing a very minor bit of surgery, so minor that after the fact it turned out that it hadn’t been necessary at all, though of course I didn’t know that at the time. I had decided that I was going to stay conscious during it, on the general principle that it isn’t a bad idea to keep an eye on a person cutting into you with a knife. Indeed, when the fateful day arrived, I was able to watch the doctor making her incisions, and my curiosity turned out to be more powerful than my squeamishness. (I remembered being especially fascinated by the glistening white layer of fat that lay just beneath my skin, deeper than even the worst scraping of a knee had hitherto revealed. At least I think it was fat.) I knew in advance that thanks to local anesthetics I wasn’t going to feel any pain, but to say that I dreaded the surgery would be an understatement. I hate to go the doctor even for check-ups.

Mulling over my fate, I berated myself over my cowardice for days until, in defense against my self-attacks, I started listing things that other people were afraid of that for me held no terrors at all. I had recently seen ads—I no longer remember where, maybe in one of the weekly giveaway newspapers that I used to read at lunch in the local slice joint—for parasailing in New York Harbor. I probably will never have the courage to jump out of a plane, but parasailing didn’t frighten me. By lifting you up into the sky, a parachute-sail proves its ability to keep you up there, or so my mind, surprisingly rational on this point, concluded. If modern medicine had sentenced me to be more brave than I wanted to be about surgery, it only seemed fair for me to reward myself by enjoying a risk that didn’t scare me.

I called an old friend who had survived lung cancer in childhood and had recently started taking multi-day, high-endurance hikes in the West; he was game, too. Across the street from the then-extant World Trade Center, just outside the Winter Garden, where a long quote from Frank O’Hara is carved in marble, we met the two men running the parasailing outfit. They were working-class New Jersey boating guys, a little brusque. I think we paid them cash, but I don’t remember how much—maybe $100 apiece? I remember that it was a lot for a graduate student, but not a lot compared to other New York luxuries. The operators didn’t make any small talk, nor did they offer any marketingesque pleasantries about the adventure we had chosen and how meaningful it might or might not be. They merely nodded to the life jackets, unmoored the boat, and motored out into the harbor with us. In the face of their alpha-male taciturnity, I remember scrutinizing the winch at the back of the vessel for clues about how the whole thing was going to work. For further clues there were only the occasional radio exchanges between our boat and the harbor police, terse and somewhat cryptic, from which I gathered that parasail operators were more tolerated than welcomed by the water authorities, who expected us to wait patiently until more-functional marine traffic had passed. The operators may also have had to clear things with air traffic control, or at least with the nearby helipads—I can’t recall. My friend and I weren’t the only passengers; there was also a man in his early thirties, who seemed to be a financial services type. His wife and elementary-school-age daughter were keeping him company but weren’t going to go up themselves.

It soon became clear that the boating guys hadn’t bothered to explain the parasail procedure to us because there was little for a passenger to do except enjoy the ride. (It was a little like surgery that way.) One at a time, each of us thrill-seekers was buckled into a vaguely diaper-like nylon brace, hooked in front to a large rope and then in back to an unfurled parachute. The boat sped up, the chute began to pull upward, the boating guys paid out the rope, one rose into the sky, and the water and the drone of the boat steadily receded. As the boat zipped back and forth across the harbor, far below, one floated in a fairly grand silence thousands of feet above New York. As you can see in the photo, I was as high as the top of the World Trade Center towers. It was pretty awesome.

After a while one was cranked back down and in. I think the only moment when any athletic skill was at all relevant came in setting foot again on the boat. But maybe not even then. Once all three parasail ticket holders had taken a turn, we headed back to the Winter Garden. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed themselves—even the operators seemed a little jolly—but just as we touched the dock, the little girl on board abruptly vomited. She hadn’t succeeded in keeping her fear for her father to herself after all.

Footnote judo and its aftermath

Last night I finally finished reading the 9/11 Commission Report. The award for the most unlikely government-agency acronym goes to the Defense Department’s tactical intelligence and related activities program, also known as TIARA (p. 412). To the end, the report practices footnote judo at the level of art. An inventory of dismaying statistics about the social, political, and economic conditions in the Arab world, for example, is sourced to a memo that was prepared by “sherpas” for the high poobahs of the G-8 but leaked to the newspapser Al-Hayat (563 n 26). A stern warning that “the enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil” cites a White House press release as an example of how not to think (562 n 2).

It’s tempting to add to my ongoing index, to wit:

secrecy impedes alerts 258, 359; impedes military planning 351; impedes management 410; impedes budgeting 416
Or to fill out my list of Iraq-UBL links, real and imagined:
Bush think Iraq responsible for 9/11 attacks 334
Rumsfeld wants, on afternoon of 9/11, to hit Iraq 335
Clarke finds no link 559 n 60
Wolfowitz thinks that Ramzi Yousef was Iraqi and that Iraq was behind 1993 attack on WTC, and can’t understand why the CIA hasn’t investigated his theories 336
All bets are off if Iraq becomes a failed state 367

I was anticipating that the last few chapters would be a little slow; policy recommendations aren’t usually considered to be as compelling as disaster narratives. And I admit that chapter 11, “Foresight−And Hindsight,” is a bit, well, abstract. But in fact the chapters on what to do and how to do it were nearly as riveting as the rest. It’s concerning that we need a commission to recommend to us that we look into this thing called the Geneva Convention (380). And it’s fascinating that the commission feels obliged to recommend that “the U.S. government must decide what the message is, what it stands for” (376). It makes me wonder whether propaganda has gotten a bad name it does not deserve. Maybe having a message, and worrying about compromising it, imposes a kind of discipline−a kind of operational morality−that is otherwise difficult for an entity as diffuse as the American empire to achieve.

The big questions about the recommendations are, I suppose, Will they work? And: Are we creating a monster? On the first, I wonder whether, before we restructure another sector of the government, we ought first to understand clearly why and how the Homeland Security department has failed. Presumably the fact that it reports to 88 different Congressional committees and subcommittees has something to do with it (421). On the second question, as the Democrats rush to outflank Bush on the issues of strength and security, it would be worthwhile to deliberate. But my sense, from the sheer messiness with which information about terror leaks out of the intelligence services as now configured, is that we should err on the side of competence.

The 9/11 index

I am now about halfway through The 9/11 Commission Report. It represents the triumph of the footnote. No scholar could fail to envy the fastidiousness and real-world coolness of the sourcing, or the casual way that various bits of misinformation are obliterated. For example, on the alternate name of the Manila air bombing, which was planned in 1994 but never executed (p. 147): “KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] also says bojinka is not Serbo-Croatian for ‘big bang,’ as has been widely reported, but rather a nonsense word he adopted after hearing it on the front lines in Afghanistan” (p. 488, n. 7).

But the report also represents the absence of the index. You can’t turn to the back and look up, say,

Pakistan, complicity of

allows Bin Laden to return to Afghanistan, 64
probably warns Bin Laden of upcoming missile attacks by U.S., 117
called “rogue state” by NSC, 124
hosts Al Qaeda training in Karachi, 157

You have to read the text (or failing that, download the whole PDF and search for keywords, but I haven’t tried that yet). And so, in the confidence that few people will, the Bush administration is adopting the strategy of patting the report on the head and pretending that it says what they’d like it to have said. Like me, Cheney says that he has read about half the report. It is consoling that someone in the executive branch is reading it. I don’t think there’s much chance that Bush will. Consider this entry in the as-yet-unwritten index:

daily intelligence briefings

Clinton is “voracious reader” and annotater of, 200
Bush, “by contrast,” prefers “face-to-face briefings,” 200

Cheney is now claiming that the 9/11 report justifies his administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. So let me do a little more indexing:

Iraq, links to Bin Laden of

Bin Laden proposes to retake Kuwait from Iraq in August 1990, 57
Bin Laden supports anti-Saddam Islamists in Iraq in early 1990s, 61
Bin Laden asks Iraq to host training camps and is refused in 1994-95, 61
meetings between Bin Laden and Iraqi officials in 1998, 66
U.S. attorney accuses Bin Laden of collaborating with Iraq in manufacture of chemical weapons in Sudan in November 1998, then drops charge from indictment, 128; cf. 61, 116
Bin Laden is invited to Iraq but doesn’t go in August 1999, 66, 134
Bin Laden follower Mohamed Atta considers Sadddam “an American stooge,” 161

And that, so far, is it. The definitive statement in the report remains: “But to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States” (66). The collusion of Yemen (156, 192), the United Arab Emirates (137), Iran (169), Pakistan (see above), and Sudan (passim) are much more impressive.

The contrast of the Bush administration’s alacrity with the Clinton administration’s wish to be certain that it had correctly identified the perpetrator of the Cole bombing and the East African embassy bombings before retaliating is instructive. As are the differing accounts of the briefing that departing President Clinton gave to incoming President Bush in 2001. Clinton recalls telling Bush that “One of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn’t get him [Bin Ladin] for you, because I tried to” and emphasizing the al Qaeda threat. Bush doesn’t remember that Clinton said anything about al Qaeda. According to the 9/11 report, “Bush recalled that Clinton had emphasized other issues such as North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process” (199). The discrepancy hardly matters, in the end; Bush would go on to bungle those subjects, too.


Just read the first chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report, which is pretty unputdownable. Full of things I didn’t know. For instance, just five minutes before American 11 crashed into the North Tower, passengers in coach were still “under the impression that there was a routine medical emergency in first class” (6). The probable twentieth hijacker wasn’t Zacarias Moussaoui but someone stopped by an immigration officer in Orlando in August (11). As recently as May 2003, NORAD was wildly exaggerating the advance notice it had received of the hijackings; the embarrassing truth is that they scrambled fighter planes because three-quarters of an hour after American 11 crashed, they believed it was still airborne and headed toward Washington, D.C. (34).

And on page 41, though the phrasing is diplomatic, the commission seems to have caught Bush and Cheney out in a lie. Cheney and Bush recall that in a telephone call that took place shortly after Cheney reached a shelter conference room, Bush “authorized the shootdown of hijacked aircraft” (40). Rice and a military aide remember a call that would correspond to the one Bush and Cheney describe. But as the commission delicately notes,

Among the sources that reflect other important events of that morning, there is no documentary evidence for this call, but the relevant sources are incomplete. Others nearby who were taking notes, such as the Vice President’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who sat next to him, and Mrs. Cheney, did not note a call between the President and Vice President immediately after the Vice President entered the conference room (41).

The timing of the purported call is wrong, too. Based on other evidence, the commission estimates that Cheney entered the shelter conference room at 9:58 am. Between 10:10 am and 10:18, a military aide told Cheney (erroneously, as it happens) that United 93 was 80 miles, then 60 miles away from Washington. Cheney replied to these alerts by twice issuing the order to shoot down the incoming airliner. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten then “suggested that the Vice President get in touch with the President and confirm the engage order.” This call, documented by Scooter Libby’s notes, the White House’s telephone log, and by notes kept by Ari Fleischer while on board Air Force One with Bush, took place between 10:18 am and 10:20 am.

It’s possible that there was a call between Bush and Cheney “sometime before 10:10 and 10:15,” as the commission politely estimates (40). But if so, why did it go undocumented? To put it another way, how likely is it that the call issuing the order would go undocumented and the later call confirming the order would be documented by three different notetakers? It seems far more likely that Cheney authorized the shootdown on his own, and Bush backed him up on it after the fact. The only perplexity is why they would have felt the need to camouflage this chain of command.