So Far Away:
The Tapestry of 9/11
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 2021 -- Thirty years before 9/11, Carole King wrote and recorded the quintessential song about life on the road. Twenty years after 9/11, So Far Away is all I can think about.

To paraphrase King's masterpiece, which appeared on her groundbreaking Tapestry album, 9/11 has come to own us. There were so many dreams we never found after that horrific day. And most of us business travelers have never been able to work life out our way.

Worst of all, 20 years on, we're so far away from our feelings about 9/11 that we've forgotten that we've forgotten to deal with our grief, our outrage and the unfixable hole it ripped in our lives.

Doubt me? Fine, then answer a simple question: Have you ever seriously talked with a fellow business traveler about 9/11? Or have you stuffed your anger and your hurt and your fear down to the bottom of your carry-on bag and hidden it away where no one, not even you, can find it?

It's all so far away now. And there's nothing else to do but close our minds. In fact, I've closed my mind so completely to 9/11 that until just this moment, as I was writing this, I'd forgotten I'd already written one column like this back in 2008.

As I also have written before, I slept through 9/11 because I was on the West Coast at the start of what was meant to be a holiday. Everything I know about 9/11 I learned belatedly as a reporter, on deadline, while simultaneously talking to radio and television stations about events.

And here's a disgusting truth: Even now I have never screened the video of those horrendous moments. I've never been able to look. I know what happened. I know the aftermath. But I cannot bring myself to look. On Sunday, when CNN ran a documentary about 9/11 and promised never-before-seen film from inside the towers, I still turned away. I flipped the dial and watched sitcom reruns instead.

I have surely closed my mind. It's all so far away now.

I am haunted, too. One aircraft that struck the Twin Towers was flown by a terrorist who dead reckoned the jet down the Hudson River to his target. It flew so low past my Hudson River home 56 miles to the north that my landscaping guy told me his crew was startled by the site as they mowed my lawn. I have never been able to shake the thought that if I was home, I would have seen a jet incongruously flying below the mountain line and I would have called it in to New York TRACON. It might have made a difference. I tell myself that every day when I walk to the edge of my property and look at the river.

But I was so far away then, sleeping in a hotel room in San Francisco.

And, of course the terrorists won. I wrote that eight years ago and got flak from readers. Yet with the Taliban again in control of Afghanistan, there can be no question. I spoke metaphorically eight years ago. The terrorists last month literally drove us away despite $2 trillion drained from our treasury and an incalculable sacrifice of blood.

So I sit here, 20 years later, writing one more song about moving along the highway and it's all so far away. Nothing else to do but close my mind.

For the first five or six anniversaries of 9/11, I'd force myself down to what we used to call Ground Zero in Manhattan to see the physical hole as empty as my heart. The hole at the heart of Ground Zero isn't empty anymore. A stark and dignified memorial is there now. But even 20 years on, much work needs to be done. The Associated Press this week even offered a laundry list of post-9/11 projects still waiting for completion--or even a beginning.

This is all so far away now that I don't even flinch at TSA checkpoints. The massive and cumbersome bureaucracy created after 9/11 to "keep us safe" has become a do-it-our-way phony law enforcement agency with virtually no relation to our lives or what would actually keep us safe on the road. They meander around in blue shirts and fake badges and scribble on our boarding passes and paw our bags and peer at monitors and discover picayune evils like 5-ounce tubes of toothpaste and bottles of water.

But, you know, I close my mind. I have PreCheck and that means they don't check me. My shoes stay on and my laptop and kit bag are undisturbed, so the TSA is just another annoyance. We've long ago given up trying to do things our way on the road. We just do it their way and move along the highway.

And there is this: 650,000 dead from Covid. The 3,000 dead from 9/11--and the thousands more lost in endless wars since then--pale in numeric comparison. Earlier this year, we were losing a 9/11's worth of people every day. Now we lose a 9/11's worth of Americans every two days, months after we all should have been vaccinated.

How can I grieve for a friend lost 20 years ago in the Twin Towers when I have to grieve for friends lost this year and last because some asshats won't wear a mask or get a vaccine? Twenty years ago, we were all in it together to fight some shadowy terrorists. Now we fight among ourselves over masks and shots and the simple reality that a real and raging pandemic threatens every single one of us.

And here I am a thousand words into this and one more truth haunts me: None of it matters. We will float through this weekend's orgy of media coverage of the events of 20 years ago. Then, on Monday, September 13, we will go back to lives as we currently know them.

No minds will be changed. No hearts will be healed. No truths will be revealed. The dead of 20 years ago will still be dead and another 9/11's worth of dead will join the 650,000 in a couple of days.

It's all so far away now. Our minds are closed. There are so many dreams we'll never find.

And this has been just one more song about moving along the highway that can't say much of anything that's new.