When I say, “I can never forget 9/11,” or “the images from that day are seared into my brain,” I’m not employing hyperbole. I’m not being dramatic for effect.
Back then, a friend and I worked for a monitoring service. We watched news programs and created logs of what was said, what images were shown. It involved sitting with a computer, very close to a television, backing up and going forward through scenes more than once to catch any mention of a company or brand name, or any display of a logo, even in the background.
Back when a small band of nutjobs bombed the Murrah Federal Building, they used a name-brand rental van, so we were told to keep monitoring as long as the news coverage lasted, watching every scene in closeup, looking for every mention of the company, a client of our employers. Because the name of a national rental company, and the brand names of some of the products used ,were mentioned over and over in the news coverage, we watched, cringing, for hours on end.
When a different group of nutjobs turned airplanes and innocent travelers into bombs, the company told us again we had to remain on duty, around the clock.
After several hideous hours watching the images repeat and repeat, I asked if we could stop monitoring. No, I was told, we must stay at our posts. After a few more hours, watching that poor man dive from a falling skyscraper over and over, I asked again if we could stop for the night. In an angry email, my supervisor told me that we were to keep watching, miss no detail, no matter how many times it was repeated.
At the time, I needed the money, and the job, such as it was, but it was evident that there was nothing of interest to our clients, and, I explained, the concerns of XYZ Corporation that its logo might show up in the background as people fled for their lives was not the most important thing happening. I heard from other monitors, who were sitting, weeping, as they worked, just as I was. Having been told we would keep watching every minute or lose our jobs, we were seeing repeated scenes of horror, up close, hearing the cries again and again.
Finally, I told my supervisor I was quitting. I explained, as eloquently as I knew how, that asking people to view such tragedy over and over for hours was not only unnecessary, it was cruel in the most sincere meaning of that word. I kept talking until I was heard. At last I broke through. He admitted that under stress and having to make quick decisions without guidance, he had made a serious mistake. We could stop, he told me. As I remember it, he didn’t actually apologize, but he did allow us to turn off the coverage and gather our wits as best we could.
When I think of 9/11 and ask myself, “how could such a thing happen?,” I remember that day. I remember how easy it is, under the influence of stress, to be unkind to each other, and how that can turn to cruelty. If we don’t allow ourselves that critical moment to think things through, if we’re so insecure we can’t question ourselves, our motives, our decisions, we risk giving ourselves permission to inflict the worst of ourselves on others. There can be no justification for cruelty. If we make excuses to ourselves for treating anyone with contempt, we need look no further than our own mirrors to find the heart of the problem.