The Big Difference

Yesterday evening we drove into Manhattan, parked right off of Spring Street, and walked the few blocks to the firehouse. They found our names, [info]nydeborah‘s and mine, on the guest list and welcomed us inside. Servers zigzagged through the crowd and foisted upon us some of the tastiest hors d’oeuvres I’ve ever tasted delicate little crab cakes, sandwiches made from paper-thin breads and cheeses, the tiniest pigs wrapped in the tiniest blankets and made sure our free hand was always wrapped around a glass of wine or a cocktail. They showed us around the splendid New York City Fire Museum, where, among its collection of fire-related art and artifacts dating from the 18th century to the present, a restored 1921 Type 75 American LaFrance fire engine proudly bore the name Brooklyn. With great reverence, they escorted us into the room housing their 9/11 memorial, where faces are put to the names of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives that day.

Then they took us upstairs to the third floor to see what we were there for in the first place: a special screening of three National Geographic Channel documentaries devoted to 9/11 that begin airing this Sunday evening:

  • Inside 9/11 [Sunday, 27 August]: Nominated for a primetime Emmy and updated to reflect new information from this past year, this four-hour miniseries traces the timeline that led up to the deadly attacks, spanning decades and circling the globe to reveal a clearer picture of the events.
  • Triple Cross: Bin Laden’s Spy in America [Monday, 28 August]: Playing out like an espionage thriller, Ali Mohamed, a radical ex-Egyptian Army officer, became a CIA asset, joined the US Army, and served the FBI as an informant then triple-crossed all three in the name of his true allegiance: Osama bin Laden.
  • The Final Report: Osama’s Escape [Tuesday, 29 August]: How did Osama bin Laden walk away from a brutal barrage of bombs and gunfire by US forces during the battle at Tora Bora? A penetrating look at how this infamous terrorist eluded the world’s most powerful military machine in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Seven hours of material had been expertly edited down to 90 or so riveting minutes for this preview. And when all was said and done, despite the horrible imagery (the planes hitting, the aftermath, the posters advertising the missing) and sounds (the explosions, the screams, the sobbing), which have long been seared into our collective psyches, what haunted me most was the image, both fanciful and frightening, described by survivor Louis Lesce, a no-nonsense career counselor attending a two-day class on the 86th floor when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower:

“The ceiling fell, collapsed. And I remember the resumés starting to fly out of the room. I’m sitting there and a resumé just passes me by and stays in the middle of the air, so much so that I could read the name, and then it floated by.”

When the screening was over, the audience sat stunned, silent, filled with our thoughts of that morning. I remembered turning on my car radio, back in Salt Lake, and hearing that the second plane had just hit. I remembered getting to work and not doing anything but watching, with Lou and Larry and Steve, the news on TV until the towers came down. I remembered the long walk back to my office. I remembered lying awake in bed that night, scared of how things were never going to be the same again. I’d felt alone for a long time, but never as alone as that night, where the dark seemed darker.

Then the audience snapped out of it and broke into enthusiastic applause.

I’m glad these brilliant documentaries, executive produced by the impressive Jonathan Towers, brought back all these memories. They should. Don’t miss them.

Without any Why We Fight rhetoric or any Michael Moore high jinks, sans Nicolas Cage or Oliver Stone, Towers simply lays out the facts and keeps the viewer glued to the screen. We get to think instead of being told what to think.

Inside 9/11 ends with the November 2001 wisdom of Osama bin Laden. Still basking in the glow of 9/11, unperturbed by the bombs bursting in the distance, he summed up the Gordian knot that is life as we now know it:

“We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.”

The onscreen image of bin Laden fades and only his superimposed words remain, hanging in the air like a name on a resumé floating past Louis Lesce almost five years ago.

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