Duff McKagan: Flying On 9/11


Duff McKagan illustration by Jessixa

Flying is something I do on a pretty regular basis. I’ve seen the heightened airport security following Sept. 11, 2001 slowly wane to a point of near-casual ease that, while still rigorous, pales in comparison to the two or three years after the brutal attacks of that black day. But today, I am flying. Today is Sept.11, 2008.

I still kiss my wife and daughters before I leave on any trip away from them. Last night I took my little girls to dinner and a movie, made special since it was a school night. This morning, I woke up and made them breakfast, then walked them to school. I held on to our parting embrace perhaps a bit longer than was comfortable to them in front of all of their cool friends—I didn’t care. I hugged and kissed them like I did on the day the planes were hijacked and met their horrific end. The world’s axis for all humankind seemed to have been put on a tilt that day. My family was young when the Twin Towers went down, and my fear for their future at that time was beyond acute.

I don’t write this particular column for the sake of my fear of my plane to Europe going down. This is not a political piece either. I want to speak about what I witnessed today at the airport, and how my memory was refreshed by this morning’s CNN constant report of near doom that I watched before I left to the airport. I want to remember how that one event changed all of our lives forever. Have we made any real progress since then? I don’t know. It probably won’t show for years to come.

Airport security today at LAX was fierce. Back were the checkpoint security stations at the entrance to the airport. Security dogs were doing their collective best to sniff out bomb material as cops stopped all cars. I don’t mind, and I certainly understand. After ticketing at the airline counter, it was on to the scanner security station where the lines were absolutely ginormous. I don’t mind, I get it. I did get a little freaked out, however, when two obvious meth-head tweakers couldn’t find their tickets or ID’s. They were furiously looking through clear plastic garbage bags that served as their luggage. Tweakers freak me out, and these two, truthfully, unnerved me. God, I hope they aren’t on my plane. The number of TSA and LAPD staff was easily tripled but I sailed through (I’m not sure how my speed-freak friends did). There seemed to be a palpable calm, not only at the security lines but throughout the whole airport. There seemed to be an air of understanding among everyone walking to his or her gates. There was not the usual scurrying, and strangers seemed to be making eye contact with each other, as if to say “Hey, you all good?” Maybe this was all in my imagination, but honestly I don’t think it was.

I boarded my flight, and my first leg took me to London. As I settled into my seat, a family came on at the last minute looking for their rows. A teenage boy found his place right next to me.

“ I am scared to be flying on 9/11!” he said to me.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Back home to Saudi Arabia.”

His name was Saud and he was a Muslim lad, going home after visiting L.A., where his sister attends the Fashion Institute. His family wore the traditional clothing of their part of the world, and you could definitely tell that people on the flight were eyeing them intently throughout. I believe Saud sort of took this in stride. He’s a normal kid. He likes video games, disco, and soccer. He seemed to respect me as an elder. You don’t get that every day. He showed me a program on his computer that can make your head fat or skinny on its self-contained camera. A nice little dude.

Talking to Saud made me realize that we are now all on constant alert. Gone perhaps are the days when there seemed to be a general curiosity about other cultures. We are paranoid now. What do they think of us in Indonesia, where there is a large militant Muslim faction? Who are those Muslim guerrillas who kidnapped the Westerners in the Philippines back in 2003? Is there some geographic line we as Americans cannot cross because of fear for our safety? Was it there pre-9/11?

I remember thinking of all the Muslims that must have lived in the U.S. back then. I remember wondering how many might be Taliban operatives. I don’t think I was alone. Paranoia was on the rampage in the first few months on American soil. Could you blame anyone? No. This was my generation’s Pearl Harbor. We were suddenly attacked by some exotic enemy from the extreme peripheries. Some Americans boycotted or vandalized Muslim-owned and -operated businesses. Others defaced mosques, or worse. Me? I fell into a depression like I had never experienced before, actual clinical depression. Like many of us, I sat and watched CNN for something like two straight weeks. When George W. came on network television and vowed revenge, I whole-heartedly backed it. Let’s fuck someone up! Let’s goddamn roll! There seemed to be no other answer or solution. I wonder now what we in the West could’ve done differently to mend the chasm of misunderstanding that still remains between “us” and “them.” As it turned out, Saddam was probably just another in a long line of tyrannical despots . . . but we already knew that.

Of course I landed at Heathrow Airport in London without incident. I found out that perhaps we all have some form of trepidation about this momentous date. I met a new friend from Saudi Arabia, who shared with me some cool things about his life and upbringing. I probably embarrassed my 8- and 11-year-old girls in front of their friends at school earlier that morning, but I don’t care. I will always remember this date for the way it changed my life and strengthened my love for my family. This date will also remind me of how horrible we as human beings can be and what we are capable of at our worst.

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