Insights from 9-1-1

(This is a post by my coblogger, Jacob. He’d post it under his own handle, only WordPress is giving us guff over adding him as an author. That situation should be remedied soon, and you’ll be hearing more from him. He’s an amazing guy. I’m proud to have him posting here once again.)


Do the right thing. Do it over and over.

This is my rule.

Anyone who knows me knows that I consider myself to be a bit of a white knight. The kind that makes other white knights look grey (one of the few areas I allow myself to be arrogant confident about myself.) Its a title I’ve done my best to earn, to deserve, and live up to. Like anything in life it can be taken to an unhealthy extreme, but for the most part, its one of the few aspects of my persona that I’m actually happy with. I have a massive inferiority complex and a serious problem with an esteem that has more cliffs and valleys than a sine graph. However, when I stop and look at what I’ve been able to do for people, or when I’m presented with the opportunity to help someone in need, that’s when I know everything will work out in the end. Whether it be helping a woman buy a propane tank to help heat her house for her daughter, listen to a friend when they don’t know who to turn to, or even just holding open a door for someone whose hands are full, its these moments when I know with absolute clarity who I am. Some people don’t get it.

Some people do.

I took a call once from a citizen who was calling in about an elderly gentleman on the street who looked to be having some trouble. (For context, I am a dispatcher and 9-1-1 calltaker. Emergencies are my day-to-day.) Now, most people see a problem, call for medics and they go on their way. Infrequently you’ll get people who will stop and make sure they are at least still kicking a bit before they call, then they move on. Now and then, you get someone who actually stops and stays with them until medics arrive. Not that people are insensitive to a crisis, just that most people have lives of their own and they are busy, or they are in a car on the street and can’t immediately stop and assist. This woman, though, she stayed with him until medics arrived. What was remarkable, though, was the compassion she showed. My job is to keep people calm, give instructions, and mostly just try to make sure things don’t get too much worse before help arrives. Usually this is giving a lot of reassurance, giving people things to do to keep them busy, and just being a calm voice. This man clearly had a medical history, but was in such a dire state he didn’t think he was going to make it. He was conscious, breathing, and alert, so he was hardly on death’s door compared to some of our calls, but he was a far cry from comfortable either.

I could tell this woman was a caretaker at heart. I start giving reassurances, but I hear her taking the reins: “Stay with me, stay awake with me. Stay awake, Matthew.” She had asked him his name. Sometimes, if the call is long enough, I’ll get the patient’s name but depending on the circumstances I am often telling people how to deliver babies or give CPR and I never find out so much as their first name. Often enough I simply don’t bother to get their name, I have other things I need to find out first, and other 9-1-1 calls are always coming in. She had asked him and was using his name as an achor for him to hold onto. “Look at me, Matthew. Let me see those eyes. You have beautiful blue eyes, just like me. Let me see those pretty eyes, Matthew.” Every word was calm, soft, the kind of voice you expect a mother to whisper to a child. I could tell it was helping Matthew, who had calmed considerably from when the call started.

I stayed silent for almost the entire call.

It amazed me just listening to her. It may not sound like much, a few words of reassurance, but this is a job in which lives may be on the line. When you hear “Please don’t leave me” from someone trying to save their spouse’s life, or you hear little kids shouting for their parent to start breathing again, you realize the power of a few quiet words.

I say I am a white knight, a guardian angel. I dance behind the scenes and try to make the world a better place in what quiet ways I can. Even then, though, what I do every day is a job, its something I am paid well to do. This woman was truly a miracle to this man, this man to whom she owed nothing, she had no ties to, no promises. She was not there to earn recognition, she was just trying to do the right thing.

So to those angels that walk among us, remember you are not alone. The world would be a better place if we all just stopped to help each other now and then. You make this world a better place.

Whoever that woman is, where ever she is, I will always remember her.

And I never even got her name.

Insights from 9-1-1

We Have to Remember

Ten years ago today, the world changed.

It changes every day. Someone, somewhere, each day, finds themselves facing what they’d never expected to face. Wars break out, violence erupts; or there’s a fire, or a flood, or some other catastrophic event that means they will never live as they once did. Even if they rebuild their lives, even if they prosper, there’s always that memory, tucked away, and it colors everything. The world changed. It will never, can never, be the same.

Ten years ago today, we in America faced one of those world-changing events. And we are not the same.

In Flagstaff, that September day was achingly beautiful. The sun shone like a second spring. I’d woken late, as usual, and pottered around getting ready for work. There was no television in my house, no phone, no internet, no radio. I’d gotten rid of all those things, living in splendid near-isolation, because all of the things I needed to connect with the world were just a block away at work. So I didn’t know. The world hadn’t changed yet. I walked to work slowly, savoring the last of the flowers, blooming white and gleaming against the bark and cinders in the landscaping at the gym. I listened to birds singing their day away. I basked in the sun, and felt an overwhelming joy in it. Soon, winter would come, kill all the flowers and drape everything in cold, wet white. But right here, right now, it was warm and brilliant and perfect, a perfect moment. I was smiling as I arrived at work.

Where one of my coworkers, hunched on a bench outside, looked up at me and said, “We’re at war.”

And the world changed.

The Towers were already gone. Televisions wheeled on to the call center floor, tuned to CNN, showed the planes flying in to them, over and over; showed the collapse, the bodies falling, the debris, the end of America’s smug sense that it couldn’t happen here. I thought it was the end. How could we possibly survive this? This was the end of everything: our dreams, our hopes, our way of life. But the voice of one of my characters said, fiercely, speaking from a future I couldn’t see, “We survived.”

And we did. We survived. We came together under eerily silent skies. We buried our dead, tended our wounded, we lifted each other up and we became a united nation. We weren’t alone: the rest of the world was with us. We could be wounded, but never defeated.

Then our Republican government spent the next several years ensuring we did everything wrong. Invaded the wrong country. Went the wrong way on security and civil liberties. Used the excuse of 9/11 to chip away at what we were and what America meant. America now meant security theater, and torture, and endless wars against people who had nothing to do with bringing the Twin Towers down, and no part in killing so many there and at the Pentagon. We, afraid, followed along, and we never should have done.

A terrorist act cannot destroy a country. A country can only destroy itself.

This is a time to remember heroism: firefighters and policemen rushing in to burning buildings, giving their lives so others may live. It’s a time to remember everyday people who rose to the moment and did magnificent things, helping each other survive, cope and pick up the pieces. It’s a time to remember that nineteen fanatics can cause terrible damage and pain, and a time to remember that nineteen fanatics aren’t enough to bring down a nation.

But it is also a time to remember what we have done since. We’re determined to never again let terrorists get so far past our guard, but we’ve let ourselves forget why they attacked us in the first place: our freedoms, our democracy, our contentious and wild culture, one in which we’re free to say and do things they find appalling. We were strong, we were a beacon, we were leaders. We tried so hard to be the good guys, even though we failed so many times to live up to our ideals. But since then, we’ve become frightened and jaded, we’ve given up too much of what made us fantastic. We’ve made horrific mistakes, in trying to face this. We’ve brutalized people who had no part in the attack. We let it be the opening salvo in a hopeless war rather than what it truly was: a criminal act, the work of outlaws, the risk we take for living in a free society that would like to lead the world. We’ve acquiesced to torture. We’ve allowed flying to become an ordeal of security theater in which we ritually remove shoes and sacrifice liquids, topped off with a choice between a grope or being stripped by a scanner. We’ve let fear get the better of us, too many times.

And we must not forget that.

We must not forget that what happened on that bright September day ten years ago is not unique to America. Other countries have been attacked. We are not alone in this. That’s not to minimize the impact of September 11th, 2001: it’s a uniquely painful moment in American history, the day we realized we, too, could suffer. And we should never forget. But let’s not forget that others, before and since, have been attacked, and picked up the pieces, and carried on.

Ten years on, our economy’s shattered, our civil liberties under threat, our political system broken, and we are struggling. But we’re not done yet. We can come back. We can be what we were that September morning: strong, prosperous, and admired.

We can do better than we have done. We can become a nation of ideals and inspiration again. And we don’t have to do it alone.

We have to remember. We have to remember that we could have been so much better, and then be it.

Ten years from now, I want to look back to that September day, and be able to say, “That day could have destroyed us. But it didn’t. We remembered, and we became the best we can be.”

Los Links 9/11: I’ll be adding to these as more arrive.

Almost Diamonds: On the Importance of Forgetting. In which Stephanie Zvan reminds us of the things that should be forgotten.

Bad Astronomy: Repost: Making new anniversaries. In which Phil Plait explores the importance of making new memories.

The Washington Post: F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11. What would have happened if the ordinary people on United Flight 93 hadn’t done extraordinary things.

Superbug: Terror and Bioterror: 9/11 to 10/4. (Part 1). Maryn McKenna describes how disease detectives responded in those first chaotic hours, when no one knew what would come next.

White Coat Underground: Yet another 9/11 remembrance, with commentary. In Detroit, PalMD treated patients and listened to the news, wondering what we all did: is our city next?

The Coffee-Stained Writer: What I will tell my children. Nicole shares memories from herself and her husband, and looks ahead at the day when her infant children will come to her for memories of something they know only from social studies classes.

Respectful Insolence: Ten years ago today. Orac posts a long, harrowing video taken 500 yards from the Twin Towers, and time marches on.

The Friendly Atheist: The Falling Man Is Not In Hell. (Warning: graphic image.).

Greta Christina’s Blog: 9/11, and the Shallow Comfort of Religion. By the time you reach the end, the final line rings like a clarion.

Spiegel Online: How 9/11 Triggered America’s Decline. Rings painfully true, this.

Geotripper: An Audience Applauded, and Humanity Evaporated Away: A 9/11 Reflection. We have to face the worst of ourselves as well as the best. And Christians especially will find some food for thought within.

Maureen Johnson: 9/11. The experiences of a New York woman on that day. And never forget this:  “All those people downtown had names and faces and they all mattered. Everyone mattered. We suddenly remembered that. Everyone mattered.”

Neil Gaiman: Memory. Neil reposts blog entries from that time, and includes the one I have never forgotten: “En route today to the home of Maximilian, the rain forced us into a dry space which happened to be holding an exhibition of Robert Capa photographs: astonishing stuff, of the Spanish Civil War, of the Second World War, of the Japanese-Chinese War of 1938, and I found myself looking at the photos of combat, of wounded civilians, of people whose worlds had crumbled and fallen, without any sense of irony. These people were us. Whatever side they were on. They were us, and the images had a truth and an immediacy I couldn’t have imagined until recently.” 9/23/01

Decrepit Old Fool: Build the right monument. And this, finally, the best post I’ve read on 9/11. As always, George says everything I’ve ever wanted to say and never found the right words for.

Geotweeps remember:

@clasticdetritus: “10 years ago today I was doing geological field work in west Texas, listened to events transpire on radio, didn’t see images for three days.”

@eruptionsblog: “The oddest thing about the 9/11 anniversary is finding out only yesterday that someone I knew in high school died in Tower One. Solemn day.”

@rschott: “10 years ago today I was a new prof at LSSU following the events unfold on Slashdot between classes because everything else online was down.”

@callanbentley: “10 years ago, I was teaching at Jefferson Junior High in SW DC, directly across Potomac from Pentagon. Saw smoke from my classroom window.”

@ugrandite: “Ten years ago I was teaching at WKU and kept trying to catch up on the large TV they dragged out into the atrium btw classes.”

@davidkroll (honorary geotweep for the day): “Just going to buy OJ for the kids’ sleepover party and now crying in my car upon sight of Kroger’s flag at half-mast


Paul Krugman: The Years of Shame. Trenchant and correct.

Blue Texan: Krugman is Right: We Should Be Ashamed of What Happened after 9/11. Ditto.

We Have to Remember

When Lives Are On The Line: Part II

It took me over a year to get hired at the 9-1-1 center where I work. Now, before that my scope of employment was 95% shopping mall jobs, so its kind of like going from playing Calvin-ball at the park with some friends and then trying out for the Yankee’s.

Now, to be fair, it shouldn’t normally take as long as it did for me. I actually failed the first test when I initially applied. I had to wait until the next hiring session about three months later to try again, and made it through clean. Even if you ace every test, though, it’s no small feat.

For obvious reasons I can’t tell you about the tests themselves, but here’s an example of a schedule for getting through this application program:

Submit Application (Alright, off to a good start here)
Receive a “Pre-Screen” packet, fill out and return on time (This step routinely cuts as many as 25% of applicants)
Test 1 (which is itself a 3-part test)
Test 2 (a segmented test on a wide scope of topics, including a test that you don’t even know is happening)
Interview (Including a few test questions and “what would you do if..” scenarios)
Receive background packet, fill out, return on time (Some people are still regularly surprised that they can’t work in dispatch when they have, you know, an extensive criminal background and/or are wanted out of state. The question “Does having a felony disqualify me?” has been asked more than once)
Background interview
Background interview (where they talk to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and that little kid three houses down from you when you were six)
Psychological Examination (another multi-part test)
Psychological Interview (by now you’re an interview pro)
Get the jo-oh, wait, don’t forge the urine test.
Get the job!

Oh, and that last part is assuming that you do, in fact, make the cut. You can get all the way to the end, but if its not a good fit, its not happening.

During my hiring session (the one I actually passed), there were between 600-800 applicants. When I was hired, there were 3 of us left. That’s less than .5% success rate. I consider myself lucky, too, because since then we’ve had 4 more hiring groups make it through the process, and 3 of those were solo. As in only one out of hundreds of applicants made it. I consider myself lucky to have had some teammates to go through training with.

At an open house for the upcoming hiring session I was told that approximately 3% of the population can work this job as a career. Now I’m not saying all that to try to climb a pedestal; for one thing, my balance is terrible and I’d just knock it over. I say it because even over a year into it, I’m still not sure if I’m cut out for this. Everything I’ve seen has only deepened my respect for my co-workers. There are some days when I’m on my game, and I’m getting my work done, and we’re savin’ lives and catchin’ bad guys like it’s a Bruce Willis film. Even then, at the best of times it can all go sideways, and in those moments my senior coworkers really shine in a way that makes me want to sit down and start taking notes. That gives me an idea I’ll elaborate on more in a future post, for now I’m still discussing the process.

So, you’ve applied, you passed all the tests and interviews (and tests within the interviews) and you landed yourself the job. Great! When you start changing the world?

First there is calltaker training. The calltaker academy, purely the classroom-based stuff, takes about six to eight weeks. This is full 40 hour weeks, learning everything from local municipal code, policies, fire regulations, police procedures, policies, computer operations, and did I mention policies?

After you’ve crammed all that information into your head, with books and notes and flash cards, you get to apply it. Enter the Coaching Stage, and this takes another six to eight weeks, possibly longer. Now you’re answering lives calls, but with a coach guiding you through every step. The first day you are literally repeating what they say word for word, and you develop your skills and begin to problem solve and adapt on your own. If, after you’ve gone through two or three different coaches, you meet the minimum guidelines (the minimum being what every fully trained calltaker on the floor is expected to be able to do without error every day), then you’re cut loose! Now you’re free to stop making mistakes under the watchful eye of your coach and start making mistakes under the watchful eye of every supervisor within a 10 mile radius. And before a mistake meant getting marked down on your scores for that day, but now it could mean getting marked down on your employment status. Having fun yet, because it’s not over yet.

Nope. A year later I’m still in the training process. Realistically, the learning never ends. You can work here 25 years and still learn something new each day. However, on a technical level, you have 3 years to be 100% fully trained. Aside from the calltaker training, you go back into The Coaching Stage at each of 3 different dispatch positions (2 different police positions and 1 fire dispatch), each one taking from four to weight weeks to complete.

Somewhere in there, you also take a 2-week academy at the Department of Public Safety Standards & Training to get your state certification. After our in-house calltaker academy, DPSST felt like a vacation, albeit one that included marching for colors every morning.

It’s been an intense journey, and one that won’t be over until I hang up my headset. If just getting here was this challenging, and this much fun, I can’t wait to see what will happen down the road.

For intermittent pieces of writing, check out The Elusive Muse

When Lives Are On The Line: Part II

When Lives Are On The Line: Part I

[Guest blogger Kaden]
Call 9-1-1
Easy to remember and ingrained since childhood, call these three simple numbers and you can reach police,
fire, or medical assistance. And that’s about the extent of the average person’s knowledge of 9.
This series is meant to give you some insight inside my world, but mostly its just an excuse for me to talk a lot. Dana seems concerned about her stockpile of ready blog posts, and I have a ton of very, very important things to do. So it seemed only natural to stop doing those and get sidetracked.
[Speaking of sidetracked, a disclaimer: I am speaking merely as an individual, the views and opinions expressed below belong solely to me and not any public department or agency. I do not represent any government body. When consulting your local police or fire department, keep in mind that individual results may vary.]
In 1968, Robert Fitzgerald introduced North America to the 9-1-1 emergency telephone system. In the 43 years since then, the number 9-1-1 has become a nationally known resource for putting the ordinary citizen in touch with emergency services. In the 43 years since then, 9-1-1 has expanded and grown, and at the same time has retained an almost superhero-esque anonymity. And while I like to think of myself as a caped crusader rescuing innocent lives in the struggle against the dangers of everyday life, it’s not nearly that glorious. For one thing, we don’t get capes.
Man, I wish we got capes.
Before I dive too deep, let me give an overview of how 9-1-1 works, at least in my neck of the woods. Keep in mind that individual laws and regulations, as well as funding, means that emergency services may work very differently around the country and even in the same region. I work in Oregon and even some of our neighboring counties have fewer or greater services than we provide. Still, it follows a basic plan.
When you call 9-1-1 from any phone in the United States, either cell phone, landline, Voice-over IP (VoIP) phones, or payphone, your call is routed to the nearest PSAP, or Primary Service Answering Point. From there, your call may be handled by the PSAP’s agency, or may be transferred to a Secondary answering point. For example, my PSAP intakes 9-1-1 calls for most of the county, but we only dispatch for the fire department and 1 metro city police department. If you call 9-1-1 here and you are in a nearby city, you are then transferred to the appropriate police agency’s emergency line, and will be handled there. So we are a filter of sorts.
From there, your information is taken and emergency responders are dispatched to the location. Police for criminal matters, or the fire department for medical problems or, well, fires.
In smaller cities, the person who answers the phone may be the same person who is dispatching. That is, they operate the radio and the phones at the same time. I’ve even heard horror stories about call centers with such low staffing that if you have to use the bathroom, you have to take a portable radio with you.
In larger cities, you will usually be handled by a “calltaker”, whose sole responsibility is to answer phone lines (usually both emergency and non-emergency, such as asking questions for the police, directions to the nearest bar, or how long its going to take for the President to fix X, Y, and especially Z. Curse you Z). From there, your information will be given to a dispatcher who will send the little cars and big trucks with the flashing lights. In my agency, police and fire are even handled by separate dispatchers.
This doesn’t have much impact on most people, but if you ever find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to call 9-1-1, it might help to keep in mind the general structure. The person who picks up the phone may not be the agency you are looking for. Just because you call 9-1-1 doesn’t mean you will get your local police or fire department, if the PSAP answers for multiple agencies or a large jurisdiction. Because they may have to transfer you to the right people, they may not have control over actually sending the responders. This is doubly true when there is a calltaker-dispatcher set-up. So keep in mind that while you’re shouting “where is my police officer?”, the person you are talking to may not have any control of their response.
Let me make myself clear, though. I am not telling you how to act or what to say while calling the police or fire department. It is not your job, as a citizen, to be familiar with “How To Call 9-1-1”. It is our job as dispatchers and calltakers to be able to extract the information that we need to get you help. I am not educating you as “9-1-1 Callers” because hopefully you will never have to use it. And if you do, you’ll probably be more concerned with the task at hand than telephonic etiquette. I’m merely letting you look behind the Wizard’s screen a bit and see what happens on the other side.
Further clarification of how 9-1-1 works. When you call 9-1-1, we do not (at least not our PSAP) have magical CIA satellites monitoring your every move. We do not necessarily know your exact pinpoint location just because you are calling from a cell phone. There are a few reasons this doesn’t work.

When calling from a land line, your physical address is only as good as the phone records. Which, to be fair, are usually quite good, but not imperfect. If you call from a house phone, our system is recognizing the address that the phone number is registered to, which is some cases is not always accurate. This is especially true when dealing with “routing” lines and large business network lines. If your business phones pass through a network router, the address of the business line may not be the same as where you are calling from.

VoIP phones also run a similar system of address registration. When you sign up for the service, you enter an address for the account, and when that system dials 9-1-1, that’s what we see. You may not be anywhere nearby, but that’s the registered address. The shadier uses of this includes using a deliberate fake address to mislead emergency responders, but that is a different topic.

Now, cell phones. Ah, cell phones. In this day and age of phones smarter than my desktop computer, people assume we know everything about them when they call. When you call from a cell phone, the call is bounced off a cell tower and then placed here. When we pick it up, we can hope for two things. “Phase 1”, which is the location of the cell phone tower. Yep, the nearest cell tower, which could have an effective area of square miles. If we’re lucky, depending on the reception where you are and the kind of phone you’re using, we can get “Phase 2”, which gives us GPS coordinates of the approximate location of your cell phone. Sometimes these are pinpoint, and sometimes with an effective range of several thousand meters. So yes, we will ask you for the location of the incident, even though you are calling from your cell phone, and even though your phone can tell you its exact location three states away while in an underground solid lead bunker.

Plus, technology is all wonky and sometimes gets fickle and doesn’t do what its supposed to.

Well, I think that about does it for an introduction. Tune in (or tune out) the next installment, where I’ll explain why it took over a year to get hired here.

For some of my creative musings, stop by The Elusive Muse.

When Lives Are On The Line: Part I

It Didn't Need to Happen

On September 11th, I remember flowers.

I didn’t know what they were, although I’d grown up with them. They were the last little bit of wild glory before winter came, spreading across the ground like moons in the sunlight. September is one of the finest seasons in Flagstaff, Arizona: the thunderstorms of the monsoons are over, the late August heat mellowed, and the sun spills honey yellow light down from the bluest skies on earth. Other, taller wildflowers put out their last bursts of color in the little patch of Ponderosa forest beside my apartment. Warm, dry earth, vanilla-sweet bark, slightly acerbic pine needles, and those flowers turn the air into a subtle symphony.

I don’t know why I was hyper-aware of it walking to work that afternoon. I lived in an apartment with no cable, internet or telephone. But I knew winter was coming, the dying season, and this day seemed cheerfully defiant. Migrating birds sang up in the trees. The sun blazed as if it had never heard of any such thing as a cloud. And those ground-hugging flowers had taken over the beauty bark on the gym’s landscaping, sending out runners that scampered right up to the sidewalk. I stopped, bent down to smell them, marveled at their symmetry. I remember feeling perfectly, blissfully content. Writing was going well, the weather was perfect, and the world felt like the grandest place in the universe to be. And there were my favorite flowers, my childhood friends, delightfully sprawled everywhere.

Cliche? Maybe. But I did have a spring in my step as I continued on to work. It was a perfect moment, frozen in time. I’ll never forget it.

I was practically humming as I crossed the parking lot to the building, a silly little smile plastered on my face. I was too happy to notice Tobi’s expression. She was sitting on the smoker’s bench, staring at the street and the trees, and watching me approach. I got slammed by two dark eyes in a stark white face, and before I could say anything, she stated, “We’re at war.”

I stopped. Those three words, laid down like hammerblows, didn’t penetrate. I thought she was joking. “What?”

“The Towers are gone,” she said, every word emphasized. “We’re at war.” It was all she could say.

The sun still shone. I could still hear the birds from a vast distance. The flowers continued to bloom behind me. And I felt cold. There’s a reason why things become cliches: this is what happens when you hear those words, and you go from bright sunlight into the dim, cool building, and you hear televisions chattering and hushed voices speaking in fragmented sentences.

We never had televisions on in the call center in the middle of a week day. Never on the floor. But I could hear one from the breakroom, and one from the work area. I could tell from the staccato dialogue that they were tuned to news broadcasts.

And yes, my feet were numb as I walked into the work area. My whole body was numb. My mind was silent, listening, on full alert. I’d stopped thinking Tobi was having me on. But I still couldn’t believe she wasn’t exaggerating. Until I got to the queue manager’s desk, and turned to the television there, and saw a plane fly into the World Trade Center and become a fireball.

I remember grasping the top of the cubicle wall and watching the future come crashing down. I knew. I knew without CNN telling me exactly what was happening, because I saw a second plane loop around and hit the second Tower, and those things don’t happen by accident. I knew it was terrorism, and I knew this was an act we couldn’t ignore, and I knew that Tobi was right. We were at war.

I knew that war would consume us.

I knew the United States would respond with bombs and aircraft carriers and soldiers, and I knew we couldn’t win that way. We’d respond with overwhelming force, and only breed more terrorists. I knew Muslim Americans would find themselves persecuted. I knew we’d destroy ourselves for vengeance.

All of those things I knew in that instant. And I felt the world end. I felt the future die. I clung to the cubicle wall, shaking, and watched the world come down.

“It’s all right,” a faint voice said. “We survived.”

I held my breath, straining to hear the voice of my main character. Some people reach for gods when tragedies strike, some reach for friends and family: as a writer, I’ve always reached for my characters.

“We survive,” her voice rang out. “We survive this. It’s all right.”

I took my hand from the cubicle wall. I told the queue manager, who was explaining that if I didn’t feel up to work I could go home, that I’d stay.

That night, I took a call from a business customer in Manhattan. He sounded shocky, brittle, overwhelmed as we all were. He was close enough to ground zero to smell the jet fuel and the burned bodies. Ash was flying in through his window. He was ordering forms for his business because he needed that one ordinary act to counter the chaos that had been unleashed down the street, in his city. He and I stayed calm together, reassured each other: yes, this is horrible. We will survive it. Our country will survive.

The skies were deafeningly silent as I walked home. For days, not a single plane flew overhead. Their absence jarred.

Condolences poured in from around the world, even from Libya. For a little while, we didn’t respond as I’d feared: it seemed we wouldn’t strike out in a blind rage, but build a coalition, come together as one against the few who had been vicious enough to murder three thousand people, that we would use this not only to punish, but to create a better world. We would forge closer ties. We would eradicate terrorism not just through force, but through decency. Finally, there would be the will to understand one another, put petty differences aside, find diplomatic solutions to problems between nations, and eradicate the conditions that drove some people to extremes of violence. There would always be the fanatical few among us, but one world united was more than strong enough to handle them.

I saw people come together in ways I’d never thought possible. I saw not only courage and heroism, but compassion, caring, a unity I’d never witnessed. The boundaries between us and them dissolved for just that little while. I thought, finally, we had a chance to truly become united nations.

It didn’t last.

We all know what happened next. Patriotism turned rabid and shut down reason. Shock turned to hatred. Who wasn’t with us was against us. We tore down when we could have built. And we went to war.

We were lied to.

We were manipulated.

What terrorists couldn’t take from us, our government did.

And now we know it didn’t need to happen.

Too many people act as if this came from nowhere, as if no one could have possibly known, but klaxons were screaming all throughout the intelligence agencies in those late summer days when the last flowers were bursting into bloom. The information gathered was accurate enough and the threat clear enough that a CIA analyst flew to Crawford, Texas to put a briefing in George Bush’s hands. “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the briefing stated.

“All right,” Bush said after reading it. “You’ve covered your ass now.” And then he went fishing.

We had the names of the hijackers. We knew enough specific detail at that point that the attacks could have been prevented. Read two documents if you don’t believe me: The Markle Foundation Task Force’s “Protecti
ng America’s Freedom in the Information Age
(pdf),” specifically page 32, where a case study lays out exactly what information was available and how it could have identified the hijackers; and The 9/11 Commission Report.

We knew enough to stop this. It didn’t need to happen.

On September 11th, I remember flowers. I remember that last, innocent moment watching field bindweed spread across the ground. I remember the sheer perfection of that instant before the ordinary world came crashing down, and I learned just how drastically a president can fail his country and the world. I remember the people who died, and the opportunities we squandered. I remember the importance of hope in the face of catastrophe, and the necessity of vigilance against those who would use tragedy to manipulate and exploit us.

And I remember that the world contains too much beauty to give up on even in the face of so much horror.

I will never forget.

It Didn't Need to Happen