September 11, 2001
I HAD JUST BEEN TO THE POLLS TO VOTE IN A LOCAL election on a brilliantly clear and placid end-of-summer morning this year when I saw a crowd of people gathered at the corner looking up with such shock I thought someone must be threatening to jump from a nearby building. That would be, it occurred to me, as alarming a sight as I had seen in my life. But it was much worse. The crowd was looking at two of the biggest, tallest, solidest buildings on earth ripped open and pouring out flame and smoke. “An airplane hit the World Trade Center,” someone told me. “And we just saw another plane hit the other building,” someone else said.
My imagination was unequal to this. I tried and failed to conceive of a suicidal pilot with a whim of mass murder and destruction. Then I tried even less successfully to believe in a mad copycat following within minutes. Whatever was happening had the shattered logic of dream and none of the knit fabric of reality. So I had to return home and turn on the television to make any sense of what my eyes were showing me. Until I did, I was sure of only one thing: Nothing could completely destroy those buildings. An hour later they crashed to the ground.
Your own incomprehension may well have been as great as mine even if you saw it all on television from the start, while hearing a newscaster confirm what the cameras showed and offer whatever explanation anyone was coming up with. I have never before been so baffled by what I saw, and I hope I never am again. I was baffled because the scene was truly a new reality.
Not only was terrorism being laid right at our doorstep, and on a scale utterly unprecedented anywhere, but it was also being done in a way that turned our peaceful technologies—the very environment we have built around us, the increasingly comforting and dependable made world we have surrounded ourselves with—upside down. The jet planes that had increased our personal power and freedom to the point where we could take for granted a half day’s hop across a continent were now the world’s biggest incendiary bombs. The skyscrapers we had thrown up to concentrate human energy and imagination in towering nests of wealth-generating productivity were now massive torture and execution chambers. Our technical mastery of our world had been turned against us.
At such a time, our ordinary daily pursuits and concerns can seem almost shamefully trivial. For days, I, like millions of others across America, could not engender much enthusiasm for going into work and getting the regular job done. But I am very glad, now, to be back at it, getting this magazine out. And not only because the quotidian is ultimately where most true meaning resides in our lives but also because of the nature of the magazine. For 16 years now, Invention & Technology has devoted itself to exploring and illuminating our technological world, the work of the inventive hand of humanity in building the marvels of engineering and design that are nothing less than the context of our modern lives. Those marvels of engineering are what were flung back at us in destructive wrath on September 11.
It is refreshing to return to the stories of the achievements that have brought us so far, especially at a time when they have gotten a little harder to take for granted. It is reassuring to get back to appreciating the vast constructive creativity that has built so much more than terrorists can ever tear down. And I hope what this magazine does is useful too. Attention to our society’s inventiveness, to our technologies and the complex and often contradictory roles they play in our lives, certainly can be no less relevant, and no less salutary, today, amid the new reality, than it was in that more placid time before September 11.