The Amish, Imagery, and 9/11
In response to Mike’s emergency preparedness post, BlaiseP discusses the role of community in emergencies and specifically his experiences with the Amish in his area of Wisconsin, writing;
The Amish around here have been off the grid for a few centuries now. Their proscriptions on being connected to the electrical grid don’t prohibit them from generating Amish Electricity with diesel motors. They’ll make telephone calls for business, from someone else’s phone. Lots of us give them rides here and there. They’re intensely interested in how the rest of the world is doing things.
Talking to the guy who made my oak table, he says their unwillingness to modernize in certain respects is mostly to keep their own sense of community intact.
Blaise’s comment provides a pretext for the only smile-inducing 9/11 story of which I’m aware. In so doing, it permits me finally write the 9/11 memorial post I just couldn’t bring myself to write a few months back.
About a year after 9/11, I switched to the night program in law school so I could work a full time job during the day. I wound up working as a law clerk for a government agency in downtown DC a few blocks from the White House and got to be acquainted with one of the HR folks. Naturally the subject of 9/11, and what we were each doing on that day, came up for discussion.
He explained to me how, immediately after the Pentagon was hit, all of the government offices were evacuated more or less at once. The Metro of course was also simultaneously shut down and the Mother of All Traffic Jams created for those with vehicles. So of course the only way for most people to get home was to walk.
For almost anyone who worked on the opposite side of the Mall from where they lived, this inevitably meant crossing the Mall in some fashion. As a result, about 15 minutes after the Pentagon was hit, four massive walls of humanity descended more or less simultaneously upon the Mall in varying states of panic. Prior to this, the Mall itself was unusually empty for a beautiful September day due to most tourists being transfixed by the attacks in New York.
Empty that is, except for a single Amish family calmly wandering around the center of the Mall, with the patriarch staring intently at a giant unfolded tourist map. By this point the black smoke emanating from the Pentagon would likely have been visible from the Mall – it certainly dominated the view from my apartment in North Arlington.
The patriarch looks up finally and sees this mass of humanity converging upon him from all sides. He smiles and stops the first person whose attention he can grab, which was my acquaintance.
“Pardon me,” he said, “but can you tell me how to get to the Museum of Natural History*?”
When I think of that day, my brain is flooded with images and scenes, all of them surreal in varying degrees. I always think first of watching the black smoke pouring out from the Pentagon a mile or two away from the clubhouse of my building where everyone had gathered, and the gasps from all of us assembled as we saw the two towers collapse suddenly on the television in the room.
I think of the inconsolable man sitting alone in the courtyard, his head between his knees, the fate of his loved one unknown or perhaps worse. I think of realizing hours later that the unusually low flying plane I had heard that morning over my building was probably that plane, and the dull thud I heard moments later was probably not the sound of construction but was instead the sound of 184 lives being extinguished.** I think of the image of thousands of other lives being extinguished as the towers came down, towers I had known my whole life if not in a terribly personal fashion.
I think of the surreal scene of me on the phone with my father while at least one plane’s whereabouts were still unknown, trying to make sense of what was going on around me; I think of the fighter jets scrambling north during that conversation and telling my father “Three F16s just flew by; I think they’re going to shoot it down.”*** I think of the matter-of-fact way in which I uttered that sentence, and how in the context of that moment it seemed so natural to say something so inconceivable just minutes before.
I think of the thousands of people streaming past my building after having walked across probably half of DC, the Potomac River and a good chunk of Arlington, many no doubt still with miles to go before seeing their loved ones. I think of the mother of all traffic jams on Route 50.
I think of my then-girlfriend, now wife, being prohibited from leaving her office for hours despite its proximity a few hundred yards from Langley, and the frustration of not being able to be with her, as well as the fear that there was still more to come and that she was quite possibly in harm’s way still. I think of the packed Irish pub around the corner as so many of us turned to liquid courage to calm our nerves and make sense of the chaos.
I think of learning that a college friend of mine had been amongst the last to escape the WTC alive, saved only by the sage advice of his mother and fiancee, and the relief of hearing this news. I think then of realizing how many were not as fortunate as my friend, and again I think of that inconsolable man sitting in the courtyard. I think of the photos of firefighters going up when everyone else was coming down, the visage of their faces seeming to understand what would come next if they continued to go up even as they refused to turn around.
I think too of the aftermath. Here, I first think of the strange comfort I felt in watching Bill Clinton, a man I had largely despised a day previous, provide comfort and solace and of the strange aura of normalcy, stability, and reassurance that seemed to surround him that evening. I think of George W. Bush standing atop the rubble, put a bullhorn to his mouth and shouted “I can hear you, and soon the people who knocked down these towers will hear from all of us,” and how this made me proud to be an American, even if that statement would eventually presage folly in Iraq and, increasingly, Afghanistan.
I think of the image of Humvees equipped with anti-aircraft weaponry camped out for weeks thereafter next to the Metro stop for my law school, and of soldiers armed with submachine guns patrolling the Metro. I think of the nightmares that lasted for years, and the terror I felt whenever Tom Ridge appeared on the television to announce the threat level had been raised.
I think of flying into LaGuardia a few months later, and seeing no towers. I think of experiencing lower Manhattan for the first time without those towers present.
But finally, I always return to the image and scene of the Amish family on the Mall. It is not my story; I did not experience it, and there are no pictures to document it; perhaps it is not even true. Yet the surreal and absurdist imagery of it is as vivid to me as if I had experienced it, perhaps because everything else about that day and the aftermath was so surreal. That imagery, with an obliviously calm Amish family being descended upon by a stampede of tens of thousands always helps to mitigate the profound sadness, anger, and fear that still fills me whenever I think of that day.
Whereas the other images of 9/11 to me are a tale of a loss of innocence, particularly of my own, the image of the Amish family is a tale of innocence retained, of simplicity prevailing, and indeed of hope.
*I don’t know whether this was the museum in the original story or if it was some other Smithsonian museum, though it doesn’t really matter which one it was.
**I myself did not learn of the attacks until about 9:45 AM, as I was playing Warcraft or some such game until my freshly-awoken roommate barged in. We immediately went up to the clubhouse of the building to see if the reports of the attack on the Pentagon were true.
***As it turned out, Flight 93 had already crashed in Shanksville, PA by this time.