Ten years later: Handling 9/11 Commission records
This post is part of a series on September 11. As the nation’s record keeper, the National Archives holds many documents related to the events of September 11. In this series, our staff share some of their memories of the day and their thoughts on the records that are part of their holdings.
Today’s blogger is Kristen Wilhelm, an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC.
People are always telling me where they were on September 11, 2001. It’s an occupational hazard of mentioning that I work at the National Archives and process the records of the 9/11 Commission. I’ve stopped mentioning that last part. I think that’s best. Nothing says “stay away from the dame at the dessert table!” like mention of a national tragedy. Except for the people who are convinced it didn’t happen. Those I attract like bees to honey.
For those of you I haven’t scared away (don’t feel awkward, I’m used to it), I’ll share a little of my experience with these records. It’s time for it, I suppose, with the 10th anniversary almost here. Anyone who knows me knows I’m what my grandmother always called “a smart aleck.” To the chagrin of my officemates, I clung to that wise-guy demeanor like a lifeline while working with these records because it was the only way I could cope. I knew it wasn’t appropriate, but if I did what was appropriate to events of that day, I would have spent the last seven years curled in a ball in the corner of my cubicle weeping.
Before the 9/11 Commission opened its doors, I knew my office would be getting the records when it finished its business. What I did not expect was how working with those records over the ensuing years would define my career and change me personally.
As an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives, which has custody of records of the legislative branch, I have screened records of the Kennedy assassination, the Jonestown massacre, POW/MIAs in Vietnam, Jimmy Hoffa and the mob, and other gruesome events. While not pleasant to read, those stories took their place in my brain as historical events of interest to our researchers. The things I read about in the 9/11 Commission records, however, seeped into my consciousness in a way those other records never did. It will be years before some of these records will be released to the public, but they are seared into my memory for the images of heroism, despair, tragedy, and profound loss that they evoke.
My job is to screen the unclassified 9/11 Commission records. That means being on the team that reads every page and decides whether it can be released to the public or still contains sensitive information that requires continued protection. I admit some of the records are dull. Let’s face it, Federal policy-making can be a real yawner. Don’t misunderstand me: the dull stuff is incredibly important. The story of September 11, 2001, is very complex, with many layers and tangents and threads that lead all over the place. What you see on television are usually the emotional stories that draw viewers in. Would border control policy or 15-year-old airline regulations keep you from switching to ESPN? I didn’t think so. And I’m not complaining. So many of these records carry such an emotional wallop that I found myself looking forward to the regulations just to keep my head on straight.
I remember paging through photocopies of the boarding passes from Flight 93. I turned a page and saw hijacker Ziad Jarrah’s name. It felt like getting punched in the stomach. I imagined the line of travelers waiting to walk down the jetway, having no idea that four of their fellow passengers were going to kill them in a few minutes. We all know that annoying guy in the line talking too loudly or grumbling about the score of last night’s game as it flashes on the terminal television. It was probably just as mundane that morning for the travelers in that waiting area. As I sat in my work space, everything in me wanted to shout to those people to walk away and not board the plane. “Go home to your loved ones and hug them or you’ll never be able to ever again,” my mind screamed.
Looking back on past events is what all archivists do every day. It was never more frustrating to be unable to change that history than it was when I was processing these records. For months I dreamed of chasing hijackers or running from flames or trying to keep bad guys out of my office vault. I will probably read about the events of September 11, 2001, nearly every day for the rest of my career. The emotional toll of that may wear on me, but I know that it cannot compare to a single second of the anguish that victims and their loved ones suffered that morning and every day since. I feel those souls over my shoulder every time I work with these records. Their sacrifices suffuse the access decisions I make, both what to release and what to protect. I could leave this job tomorrow, but I’ll carry them with me forever. Preserving these records, and ensuring the stories that have so touched me will enlighten others for as long as there is a National Archives, is the only means I have to honor them. It is a privilege to work with this collection.