Smile Politely

Joe Biden on 9/11

I was introduced to the news of Barack Obama’s vice presidential pick by reading a Yahoo! news headline after waking up on Saturday. It said something like “Obama Picks Ultimate Washington Insider.” A Google search on the phrases “Joe Biden” and “ultimate insider” (as of Monday morning August 25, 2008, when I am writing this), produces 4,820 hits. I’m sure the narrative on Biden will evolve as times goes on, but I found it surprising that the immediate response was “insider” (read: bad) rather than “experienced” (read: good). I guess we can now dispense with the notion that the media fawns all over Obama all of the time.

Ultimate Washington insider or not, I will always have an emotional soft spot for Joe Biden. It’s not because of his policies or his experience, or because he does such a good job of calling people out on their idiocracy — for example, his money quote on Giuliani: “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11”. No, Joe will always get the benefit of the doubt from me because he is an important part of my 9/11 story, which I hope not entirely to bore you with right now.

Like most other Americans, I was doing my normal morning routine on September 11, 2001. Just before I dropped off my son at daycare, I heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. I assumed it was a small private plane, because they weren’t yet making a big deal out of it. If the twin towers could survive an intentional bomb attack in 1993, I figured they’d survive a thoroughly inept pilot too. So I went inside to get my son settled in before heading off to work.

When I got back to the car, the story had evolved. Another plane had hit the second tower. Both planes were passenger jets with people aboard. This was not some kind of freaky accident. It was a terrorist attack, and they were advising people not to panic, which is always a good clue that now is the time to start panicking.

By the time I got to work, everyone was huddled around an old TV that had never shown signs of working before. We were all watching in disbelief as the twin towers burned. Then they reported that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Holy Shit! That’s when I crossed the line from morbidly fascinated to outright fearful. When planes are dropping out of the sky to attack what seems like everything, suddenly nowhere is safe. Yes, technically our cornfields are still safe, as the number of more important targets would have to be astronomical. But still.

When the first tower fell, I was completely astonished that such a thing would happen. It’s not clear why I thought a building with a commercial jet in its side would not fall down, and yet, I had not accounted for this possibility in my universe of thoughts. I guess it’s the kind of denial that comes with unexpected death. This did not just happen, I thought. The first tower is still fine. It’s just resting, that’s all.

So, you would think I would have been ready for the second tower to fall. But when it did, it was as if there had been no event in the previous half-hour that had prepared me for the surprise of a tower falling. I was equally dumbstruck. The second tower is just resting too. It’s going to get up, just like the first one will, and everything will be OK.

Then we all started getting testy in the office. Someone said we need to start nuking any country that harbors any kind of terrorist. I shot back that we’d have to start with our own country, given our performance in Central America over the last few decades. That was probably the wrong thing to say at that moment. It was, however, a neat little preview of the national discourse we’d get to have in the coming years, and are still enjoying today. My own thought was, strangely enough, that we need to rebuild those towers starting tomorrow, to show the terrorists that they can’t hurt us like this.

Like a lot of people, I decided pretty quickly that I needed to just go home, and watch it all unfold from my own living room. Once I got there, the planes had all been grounded, and there wasn’t much to do, except sit and watch the aftermath in stunned silence. New Yorkers were calmly walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in their dusty suits. The Capitol and the White House were being evacuated. We were kept abreast of President Bush’s attempts to fly from one bomb shelter to another.

There were two public figures that gave me comfort that day. The first was Tony Blair, who gave a great off-the-cuff speech, saying: “This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism but between the free and democratic world and terrorism. We therefore here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy.” Wow. What a great thing to tell me right then. It makes me a little teary-eyed reading it even now, after all this time. Mostly, I remember thinking that I wanted to have an articulate and engaged leader for my country. Of course, Blair eventually went insane as Bush’s toady, but still, it was nice while it lasted.

Most people would say that Rudy Giuliani was the most important public figure that day, and that’s probably true, as he did a fine job channeling everyone’s grief. But I happened to catch Joe Biden first (who gave an interview to some news channel in the late morning or early afternoon), and he’s the one that I imprinted with. While the president still had a banker’s day ahead of him hiding in undisclosed locations, Biden was standing outside the Capitol, where everyone assumed the biggest threat still remained. He said something like this: Everybody needs to just calm the hell down. All flights have been grounded. There is no more immediate danger. We need to be strong and we need to pull ourselves together. The terrorists want us to panic and that’s exactly what we are not going to do.

Or something like that. Without the transcripts available, this is mostly a record of what I heard, or what I felt at the time. Whatever he said specifically, it was a balm to my fried nerves, and I remember feeling immensely grateful to have someone stand up and say it. I later learned that his commuter train arrived right before the second tower fell and he immediately tried to get into the Capitol while they were evacuating it. He said “God damn it, I’m going to make a speech on the floor of the Senate. We should keep it on, we should keep the government functioning. We aren’t going to allow the government to be intimidated.” He made me proud to be an American, which is something I haven’t felt a lot since then, given that our response has largely been along the attitude of my co-worker.

So, yes, Biden is an insider. Plus, he is much more of a hawk than I would like. But it is important to recognize that some insiders run for the hills when threatened, while others stand their ground and remain strong in the face of a major crisis. It’s good to know which kind of insider Joe Biden is. It is even better to know that we have some control over whether he will be in the inner circle of decision makers the next time something like this happens.

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