The first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, hit the North Tower at 5:46 a.m. our time. I was at my desk, sifting through topics for a radio talk show that would never air.
Seventeen minutes later, United Airlines Flight 175 cored the South Tower. By 7:30, the World Trade Center was a pile of rubble, twisted steel and lost humanity.
On the radio and in public conversations, there would be no other topic for months.
Somehow, 20 years have passed since Sept. 11, 2001.
This anniversary was a day for remembrance and a day to inventory all we have lost. It was also a day that begs a question: If al-Qaida delivered this evil in an attempt to defeat a mortal enemy, to claim victory over us, did they in fact win?
As a boy in New York, those twin towers were perpetually present, forever jutting 1,300 feet into the sky. As a young man, I rode the elevator to the 106th floor for dinner at Windows on the World. I was wearing a borrowed sport coat too short in the sleeves, but still I felt like a million bucks eating off the white linen tablecloths.
Human beings have a limited capacity to pay attention: We catalogue things in the background of our consciousness, taking them for granted until they’re uprooted from their customary place.
It’s one way terrorists shake us: They carve out a hunk of the ordinary, stealing something we may not notice every day, but that’s no less a part of us.
Striking the Twin Towers was a subtraction like that: If they could knock down skyscrapers before our very eyes, strike at the heart of the world’s financial markets, what else could they do?
America’s response to the attack revealed the best of us and the worst. Flags flew everywhere, people stood in line for hours to donate blood. The Phoenix Fire Department sent the best urban search and rescue team in the world to comb the wreckage.
Partisan politics gave way to national unity, a heartening respite that felt like it should last forever but didn’t.
As for the worst, four days after the attacks, Frank Roque took his .380 pistol to the Mesa Chevron station owned by Balbir Singh Sodhi, an immigrant from Punjab, India. Roque had been ranting for days that he wanted to “shoot some towel-heads.”
Sodhi wore a turban and beard in keeping with his Sikh religion. Roque, primed to shoot anyone whom he adjudged Muslim, killed Sodhi with five bullets in the first hate crime of the 9/11 era.
Roque’s death sentence was later commuted to life. In what I can only brand a shame, Roque is still with us, living out his days at the Lewis prison in Buckeye. His disciplinary record shows 36 violations during his time incarcerated, everything from disorderly conduct to assaulting staffers to manufacturing a weapon.
Some people never learn.
Maybe we haven’t learned either. The terrorists lured us into a 20-year war that we exited disastrously only weeks ago. American unity has never seemed like more of an oxymoron, the Civil War excepted.
We killed Osama Bin Laden, but new enemies of freedom are minted every day in far-off places like Iran, Syria and Afghanistan.
The terrorists stole some valuable things from us on 9/11, including almost 3,000 sons and daughters, firefighters and would-be rescuers. Even so, I would estimate we have fought them to a draw in the 20 years since.
This remains the most free nation on earth. The fight to defend those freedoms continues.