12 September 2023

A Day for Nothing

Yesterday, September 11th, marked the 22nd anniversary of the attacks on New York City, the Pentagon, and the nation. Commentary about Patriot's Day might better come from those who were called to serve on that day or in the conflicts that followed. I spent the day as a prosecutor in Texas. A while back, in a different forum, I wrote about my 9/11. I'm offering a quiet reflection from the middle swath of America. 

In 2001, my children were toddlers. Tuesday morning was spent with the television turned off, if there was news, we didn't hear it. The many and varied tasks associated with getting us out the door and our children prepared for the day consumed our attention. The tasks of our everyday activities kept the outside world at bay. 

Betty and I were in the car, mere blocks from the Criminal Justice Center when her father called. A plane had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He had little additional news, just the first glimpse of an unfolding tragedy. We had just parked and made it to our office when the South Tower was struck. 

Around the DA's office, televisions, radios, and computers focused on learning additional news. What we heard was catastrophic and getting worse. 

On September 11th, 2001, I was the chief prosecutor in the 372nd Judicial District Court. We had defendants summoned for trial. Jurors had been called. The court's docket had been prepared weeks in advance. Justice was waiting, but no one was capable of working. After a time, Judge Wisch, the presiding judge of the 372nd, brought the jurors into court. He explained as best he could where America stood. Then, he dismissed the panel. "Pray," he told the prospective jurors. "Pray for the soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Pray for the first responders of New York City. Pray for our country." 

The rest of the day was hollow. At another time, I worked in the office on the day that the elected district attorney succumbed to cancer. Although sad and signaling a change that affected the professional life of every employee, cancer was something we understood. We did what we needed to do. 9/11 was an event beyond our ken. We have a national hymn about alabaster cities undimmed by human tears. No meaningful work was done. Instead, we gathered in small, silent groups and traded rumors. Fort Worth is the corporate home of American Airlines. Everyone knew someone who worked for the airline. We worried for our neighbors. We all knew someone living in Manhattan. We worried for our far-flung friends. Everyone knew someone serving in the military. We worried about their future. 

That night, Betty and I kept the television off so as not to upset the boys. We made calls seeking news from our friends and neighbors. We gathered at a hastily arranged church service to add corporate prayer to the many individual entreaties for the dead and injured. In the days that followed, we donated blood and contributed to the Red Cross. We bought a share of American Airlines stock. We read and talked about how to answer a four-year-old boy's question, "Why did those men crash the planes into that building?" 

Church services and donated money and pints of blood, we stood in America's heartland and tried in our ways to recompense for the broken planes, broken buildings, broken bodies, and broken hearts. 

My clearest memory, however, of a fitting memorial to 9/11 occurred several weeks later. By then, here in the heartland, life had largely resumed. New York's recovery had become a topic of the evening news. We were back in the 372nd, prosecuting criminal cases. The defendant up in the dock, coincidentally that week, was named Mohammed Koran. He was charged with sexual assault. Had we culled through our case lists, we might never have found a name more likely to push Islamophobic buttons. On the morning of the trial, his attorney, Matt King, approached the bench and asked that a continuance be granted. He had no reason he could articulate except that a postponement was "in the interest of justice." 

Justice, however, has multiple sides. Sexual assault victims need to get past the trial so that they can resume their lives. The victim had done nothing to provoke any prejudice against the defendant. She deserved the trial for which she had waited. We should, as her advocates, press the court to go forward. 

In the end, the prosecution stood mute and allowed Judge Wisch to decide. He considered the "t'ain't fair" argument of the defense. (T'ain't is the local double-apostrophed word meaning "that is not"). Ultimately, he sided with the Defense. In the end, Judge Wisch was right. 

The nation had broken planes, broken buildings, broken bodies, and broken hearts. What the case reminded me, however, was that our institutions and our foundational principles remained intact. Our system of due process for all remained. We did not surrender to xenophobia, scapegoating, or misplaced revenge. To my mind, the court presented America at its best.  By doing nothing. 

Until next time. 


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  2. I remember where I was on 9/11 - I was sitting at home in South Dakota, drinking tea before heading up to teach history (3 Western Civ classes that day), and watching the live feed as the 2nd plane drove into the towers, which was when I realized it wasn't an accident. I listened to the news all the way on my 40 minute commute. Then I went in to teach class - one class just wanted to go on with the lessons of the day, the other 2 wanted to know what the **** was going on with the Middle East, so I started that winding thread through geography and history and multiple wars and powers... Meanwhile, my husband's cousin was teaching an ESL class when it happened, and they watched it out their classroom window. We couldn't get in touch with him for almost a week because of cell phones (I think?) going down, and were scared to death he'd died in it, because he lived awfully close. But he didn't, thank God.

  3. Mark, I NEVER watch television in the morning. It’s like alcohol in the AM, not a way I want to start my day. But for that one morning, I turned it on. So strange.

    I’d watched the WTC being built. In a boring afternoon, my friend Larry Goldstein and I dusted off our rusty calculus skills and calculated if a workman dropped a hammer, how long it would take to hit the ground. I would come to remember that.

    Weeks after 9/11, I sat on a criminal jury. A Saudi Arabian university student was accused of assaulting a UCF coed at Disney’s Pleasure Island. Alcohol was involved. Emotions ran high. The specter of prison loomed. The arresting officer didn’t see any reason the young woman would lie. Friends of the girl testified enthusiastically.

    The purported victim had a top-of-the-A-list look, tall, leggy, normally confident, and extremely pretty. Oddly, she testified reluctantly. The prosecutors had to drag every word out of her.

    The defense had a little more success. Maybe, just maybe she’d slapped him. Maybe she’d thrown a drink in his face. Women in the jury room jumped on that. Secret relationship, they said. They love each other, they said, but alcohol doesn’t love them.

    One person briefly argued for a guilty verdict but didn’t seem to mind changing directions. The decision didn’t take long.

    The Not Guilty shocked both tables. The boy’s knees wobbled.

    The prosecutors, two juniors guessing from their age, appeared angry. They asked the judge to poll the jury and then asked to question us. They could not believe they’d lost.

    Then judge seemed satisfied. I wondered if the girl was satisfied… she’d departed immediately after testifying.

    I’ve no insight into the steaming prosecutors, but I believe they thought the Muslim kid had presented them with a slam dunk. Me, I was gratified we could send a Muslim boy home instead of prison.


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