Watching the Crash That Didn’t Happen

Most years I don’t get too involved in 9/11 reminiscences. It’s not like any American old enough to be aware of what was happening that day is going to forget it. Some ideologues want us all to get hysterical each 9/11, but they are the ones whose memories are impaired, forgetting the horrendous mistakes made in the name of retaliation for the attacks.

This year, however, I ran across an article on the memorial to the passengers of United Flight 93 in Pennsylvania, which has finally opened after a long delay. Quite naturally the drama of two planes crashing into the World Trade Center has overshadowed the other two hijacked planes, including the one reportedly headed to the Capitol before passengers disabled or distracted the hijackers sufficiently to cause the crash in Pennsylvania.

This quote jumped out at me from Kevin Sullivan’s WaPo piece on the ceremony opening the Flight 93 memorial:

Alan Hantman, the appointed architect of the Capitol from 1997 to 2007, addressed family members in the crowd, noting that he was in the building on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and saying, “I’m one of those who was saved by your loved ones.”

As it happens, I was in an office five blocks from the Capitol on 9/11, and after watching the second plane hit the Trade Center live on television, and seeing the smoke rising on the horizon in the direction of the Pentagon from our windows (right after a colleague called in to say she had seen a plane crash into the Pentagon from her car on I-95), several of us, without words, left our office and walked out onto Pennsylvania Avenue and stood on the sidewalk staring at the Capitol, from which pedestrians were streaming. The dome looked so incredibly frail, like an eggshell. Had Flight 93–which we did not know about at the time–hit that dome, or for that matter, had the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 chosen the Capitol instead of the Pentagon as its target, the loss of life and national sanity could have significantly worse than it already was.

Though it’s not healthy to dwell too much on things that might have happened but didn’t, the image of the Capitol dome still intact but so very vulnerable is as central to my memories of 9/11 as the disasters that did occur, or the long, long period of fear that the attacks would resume, particularly in Washington where the drone of patrolling aircraft became just background noise. Will Americans ever have anything like real perspective on those events? I really don’t know.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.