It was unimaginable.
Twenty years ago, it was a beautiful morning. I had gone out jogging and everything seemed to be in its right place.
The moment reflected the message in those t-shirts that say, “Life is Good.” I got home and suddenly I saw the TV images of one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on fire. A small plane had crashed into it, according to the first reports. The camera was too far away to figure out the extent of the damage. “No doubt it’s an accident,” I said to myself. “Maybe a pilot who lost his way or had a mechanical problem with his small airplane.”
I did not want to believe it. I moved away and went to shower. When I came out, everything changed. A second airplane had crashed into the other tower. That could not be an accident. I felt a shill run through my whole body, still wet from the shower, and knew at that very instant that my life – our lives – would never be the same again.
It was a punch to the soul.
I ran to put on clothes, got a call from a Mexican radio station whose reporters were as stunned as I was, made sure my barely three-year-old son Nicolás would be picked up from kinder because we did not know if there were going to be more attacks, and drove as fast as possible to the television station where I work. We were on air all that day and night, trying to make sense of what we had just seen.
On live broadcasts, at the same time as our audience, we watched desperate people trapped on the floors above the impact of the airplanes jump out of windows from the two buildings. Suddenly, one tower collapsed. And a little later, the other. We had no words to describe what we could not even imagine. I remember remaining silent for long periods, breaking the unwritten rule of television that we have to fill all the spaces.
Nothing would be the same any more.
They closed airports and air traffic, and I had to drive with two other people from Miami to New York. We made it in 23 hours, without taking a break.
New York was a horror, war in our own home. We got to Ground Zero without a lot of trouble. No one blocked us from getting close. Police had more important things to do. The enemy was inside. I found a giant bolt that had been part of a building that no longer existed. I picked it up and kept it, reverently, as though it was a religious object.
A strong smell of death and pulverized cement seeped into my clothes and skin. Each breath was a weight that pushed me down into the ground. I knew what I was breathing, and that I would carry it inside my body my whole life, but I obeyed the strange obligation that journalists feel to put everything aside and report on what we’re seeing (I had to throw away the clothes, but I later paid for that nonsense of living too fast, with overdoses of stress and anxiety.)
Two days after the attack that left nearly 3,000 dead, the United States was in shock. Paralyzed, just like President George W. Bush at the Florida school where he was told what happened. He did not move for a long, endless moment. He remained seated, his eyes wide open, looking at nothing, mentally digesting the impossible.
W promised revenge and a war that we are just ending. But the fear was already inside. We stopped flying and traveling. Public places were a threat. Neighbors and foreigners were regarded, unjustly, with suspicion. Our vocabulary changed, with words like terrorism, Taliban, Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden. We became different people. To survive. And little by little we had to admit that life would never be like it was before September 11 2001. The normal had gone up in smoke.
That 9/11 and its consequences are very much like the current Covid crisis. This pandemic has been another punch to the soul, affecting all of us. The global contagion was also unthinkable. But a damned virus is killing us.
At some point in the first quarter of 2020 were locked ourselves in our homes because the street, the public life, was very dangerous. And we stopped living, at least like before. For me, that chill – the unmistakable signal that my life had changed radically – came when I had to cancel my participation in a debate with the presidential candidates, something I had been waiting to do for four years. We suspended flights, meetings, jobs, loves, airplanes and dreams.
And soon we will realize that we will never return to the pre-Covid normal. The year 2019 will never come back, just like the year 2000 never came back. And just as we became accustomed to living with terrorism, we will have to do it with the pandemic.
We forget that the tight security at airports – identification, no metal objects, no water, shoes off, no-flight lists, good-byes outside the airport – are the product of 9/11. And surely the uncomfortable daily use of masks, health alerts, booster shots and filling a lot of forms for travel will stay with us. Terrorism and pandemic are already parts of our lives.
One of the songs popular before the terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania was Beautiful Day by U2. It was like an anthem to optimism. As though humanity had reached the end of history, like one intellectual suggested, and the future would bring us democracy, justice, equality and respect for human rights. We were so wrong. We could not see beyond the false walls of our borders and our prejudices.
It has taken me two decades to digest what I saw and lived in those days of terror, and I still can’t say that I overcame it. After 9/11, I launched into a crazy journalistic adventure in Afghanistan that could have ended very badly. I suspect I was protected by all the saints I don’t believe in.
But that pales in comparison to the experiences of the hundreds of survivors and relatives of victims I spoke with in the past two decades. The sober black stone memorial at Ground Zero, with a quadrangular fountain that falls into an immense void, painfully reflects their sentiments. Few of those chats did not end with the chest about to burst and the eyes on a mental image of someone or something they lost.
There are punches that are felt for all our lives.
And the only consolation is that we’re still here.