A Short Numerically-Flavored Rumination on 9/11/01

by John Allen Paulos

What can I say or recall about 9/11 that hasn’t been said or recalled at least 911 times? Not much. Despite the incessant and synecdochic repetition of 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 (or maybe because of it), I find it very hard to project myself back into the state of mind I had on that date. I know that my reaction wasn’t special – the usual combination of astonishment, fear, sadness, anxiety, and revulsion at the ubiquitous images of planes, buildings, and falling human beings. Relieved when we finally reached our children, who were in NY at the time, my wife and I spent the day in front of the TV. Our shell-shocked kids managed to get on an Amtrak train out of NY late on the night of the 11th, and I remember dazedly picking them up at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia well after midnight. I also remember playing basketball with them sometime later and feeling queasy at every plane that passed over. And, yes, I felt very American.

What else did I feel? So much has transpired since 9/11, so much has been “justified” by it, that my memories of that week are fuzzy and inextricably colored by the Bush Administration’s policies and actions since then.

A recent poll suggests that one thing likely hasn’t changed over the past five years, and that is the strangely symmetric misconceptions about the instigation of the 9/11 attack. Just after September 11th, there were countless news stories about the “Arab street” believing that Israelis knocked down the World Trade Center or at least knew about the bombings beforehand. This belief was widely and rightfully mocked and decried. But the companion belief held by 70% of Americans shortly thereafter was that Saddam Hussein was behind the WTC bombings, and this belief was at least tacitly encouraged by many who knew better. Probably an unhealthy fraction of Arabs continues to believe the nonsense about Israeli involvement in 9/11. Even now almost half of all Americans, according to a Zogby poll taken over this past Labor Day weekend, believe there was a connection between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks. And 65% of Republicans still believe this. Many Arabs have an excuse for their benighted beliefs. Most live in overtly repressive regimes with tightly controlled media. Americans don’t have this defense, at least to anything like the same degree.

The last paragraph illustrates the claim made above, namely that I can’t easily think about the nightmare of 9/11/01 without thinking about the ongoing disaster that persists on 9/11/05. Ah, but the memory of the rampant number madness that surfaced just after the attacks does manage to come to this mathematician’s mind through the miasma of the last five years unfiltered. It was a kind of madness that was clean and bracing. There were the myriad amateur numerologists online and elsewhere who began by pointing out that Sept. 11 is written 9/11, the telephone code for emergencies. Moreover, the sum of the digits in 9/11 (9 +1+1) is 11, Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year, the sum of 2, 5, and 4 is 11, and after Sept. 11, there remain 111 days in the year. Stretching things even more, they noted that the twin towers of the WTC looked like the number 11, that the flight number of the first plane to hit the towers was 11, that various significant phrases, including “New York City,” “Afghanistan,” and “The Pentagon.” have 11 letters, and that many other attack-related words have 9 letters.

I also recall bogus Nostradamus quotes (as if the original version’s weren’t bogus enough). One of the most popular was “The big war will begin when the big city is burning on the 11th day of the 9th month that two metal birds would crash into two tall statues in the city and the world will end soon after.” Seemingly prescient, this verse was simply made up, supermarket tabloid style. But these numerological excrescences were nowhere near as pernicious as the unthinking responses (excepting Afghanistan) to the WTC attacks and the twisted rationale for our completely unwarranted and massively counter-productive invasion of Iraq.

No matter how you play with the numbers and banal coincidences, no matter how you reckon the intervening years or evaluate the risks of terrorism, September 11th, 2001, has to be counted as a bleak and heartbreaking day. Obviously much more can be, will be, and has been said, but I never liked such anniversary reminiscences (despite participating in one now). Why pay such homage to the calendar anyway?