Even before the second plane slammed into the still-unwounded South Tower of the World Trade Center, the staff of Saint Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village were mobilized for what was expected to be an unimaginable number of injured.
Doctors, nurses, and orderlies lined the curb, transforming the neighborhood around Seventh and Greenwich avenues into an urban field hospital, ready for the grim business of triage: judging who might be saved and prioritizing the victims accordingly.
By the time the second tower collapsed, the reality turned from grave to grotesque: more than 2600 dead. The makeshift morgue downtown, not Saint Vincent's, received them.
In Washington, 125 more — including 55 military personnel — died when a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. And more unnerving still, the passengers of a fourth hijacked plane perished when they heroically tried to wrest control from the terrorists.
The final tally for September 11, 2001: 2997 dead, including the 19 terrorists,with hundreds injured.
It has been a long 10 years since the 9/11 terror attacks. Taking stock of ourselves as a nation on this anniversary may seem to be an arbitrary exercise. Isn't that what the nightly news is for? Or Google alerts? Neat little report cards about discrete topics hinting at how we are doing.
Why 10 years? Why not nine? Or 11?
Memory demands symmetry, something round and seemingly comfortable. Human DNA appears programmed to trigger some philosophical tallies at preordained intervals. History may just be a peg, something on which to hang our thoughts.
Taking stock of the past 10 years seems to be especially important because it is so damned uncomfortable.
In retrospect, the fructifying unity of the days and weeks that followed the terror attacks seem all too brief.
Once comity dissipated, faction and division reigned — and still does.
America cannot shake off, outgrow, or maneuver out of its deep national funk until it comes to grip with root causes.
There are at least two: unease about our place in a rapidly changing and unstable world; and concern about the emergence of a powerful economic over-class, the withering of a once-muscular middle class, and the marginalization — the social disappearing — of the poor.
The first is intimately bound up with the 9/11 attacks, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the continuing occupation of Iraq.
The strategic mistakes and lies of George W. Bush's presidency (along with his guns-and-butter economics) are now a part of the political landscape.
The killing of Osama bin Laden at the direction of President Barack Obama earlier this year may have brought a sense of closure to many, but it only underscores the confusion as to what the United States is doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan today.
Even as our military prepares for its withdrawal from Iraq, plans are floated to keep some troops in place.
West Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa are the quagmire that two administrations of policy makers said they would never become.
"We were waist deep in the Big Muddy," as Pete Seeger sang of Vietnam, "And the big fool said to push on." As amazing as it may seem, these almost 10 years of foreign war are only background, a soundtrack to the slow dissolve of the American dream of generational progress.