Seeing September 11

Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street
New York City, Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, looking South, about 11 am, September 11, 2001.

One of the things that haunts me about September 11 is that it is quite likely I saw the first plane on its way toward the north tower and didn't notice. I was working just off Times Square in Manhattan, and would typically get into Grand Central around 8:30 and walk west on 47th. There would have been a moment, looking down the street ahead of me, where American Airlines flight 11 would have screamed by, right to left, visible briefly past the canyon of buildings.

But why would I have noticed? One of the typical approaches to LaGuardia used to run south along the Hudson, with a left turn between the Battery and Statue of Liberty and off into a crosswind leg over Brooklyn. This plane might have been moving too fast, been a little close to the skyline for that point in the approach, but those are things that only take on significance in retrospect, through the lens of the day's events. I do remember walking to work, I remember the crisp blueness of the sky, so I was clearly looking. I just wasn't seeing.

The tiny details that should warn us of impending tragedy often take on significance only in retrospect. In the moment, they are merely specks moving through our field of vision. Candidates for the national assembly talk about the prospect of armed resistance and question civil rights. Powerful new media turn religious centers into symbols of global conspiracy. Books perceived as alien to the dominant culture are targeted for burning. It is 1939, and events scream across the sky, unnoticed, while you're walking to work.

The twin cognitive demons of risk compensation and alarm fatigue are never far from the site of tragic system failures.

We must look, but we must also see.

Please keep in your thoughts and prayers today those who lost their lives in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, and especially the heroes from the NYFD, NYPD, Port Authority Police, and other first responders.