Tuesday, September 11, 2001

[ This story isn't significant in relation to what others have experienced. Writing it down merely helps me deal with the situation. ]

The dominant emotion is still disbelief. The complete horror of the human loss hasn't set in yet, not even after having seen it in person. The British Prime Minister called it, 'a fanaticism and wickedness that is beyond our normal contemplation'

Tuesday morning I woke early and went for a bike ride. I decided to spend an extra hour at home checking email instead of going straight to work. Instead of my usually dose of NPR I put on the headphones and some music. I caught a train bound for Hoboken, NJ shortly before 9 o'clock.

The first sign that something was wrong didn't come until the train rolled into Hoboken, just across the Hudson river from downtown Manhattan, at about 9:30. There was an announcement that there was no PATH train service to the World Trade Center. That happens once or twice a year, nothing too unusual. As I left my seat I squatted down to see what everyone was looking at out the window and caught my first sight of the fire.

At this point no one had any idea what had happened, and I assumed it was just an office fire. It looked bad - involving at least two floors - but I imagined the sprinker systems in the towers must be enough to handle it.

Instead of immediately boarding a PATH train headed for 9th St., I went outside to get a better look at the fire. There was dark smoke billowing from each individual window, but from that angle it still looked like a fire in one tower. The sense of quiet shock was already pervading the crowd on the pier and I didn't interrupt it to ask what had happened. Likewise, people on the PATH train were solemn. I suspect the commuters were largely out of touch with the broadcast media and weren't aware of the cause of the fire.

Rising out of the train station to the corner of 9th St. and 6th Ave., I had a clear view down the avenue at the fire. I crossed the street to where a crowd had gathered and talked to a middle aged man there. He told me about the two planes, already assumed to be the work of terrorists. At this point we didn't know they were commercial planes, and although knew there would be significant casualties it was unthinkable that the fire wouldn't be brought under control. Buildings catch fire every week in New York City, the fire engines are always speeding somewhere, but rarely do you hear of an entire office building being lost. And in such important buildings as the Trade Center the fire control systems must be even more advanced.

At this point I was more worried about not getting to work at a reasonable time, so instead of walking through the Village and SoHo, as is my habit, I caught a subway running downtown. It took a different course and dropped us on Houston St., only halfway to my destination. At street level I found myself on Broadway walking downtown against the stream of pedestrians leaving work. (Later I questioned why I didn't call someone at work to see if the office was alright, but hindsight is always so clear.) I figured my lunch appointment on Wall St. was probably cancelled. When I walked in to work they told me the office was closing and I could go home. Navigating mass transit with everyone leaving at the same time didn't sound like a feasible option (my friend G. who works in midtown - having been transferred from Wall St. only a month ago - needed 7 hours to get home in New Jersey).

A few of us stayed in the office, listening to NPR and the news on television. The words that immediately came to me and stuck were from Mahatma Gandhi: 'An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind'. The hijackings are as useless and senseless as any military retaliation for them. Treaties always last longer than wars. The triumph of civilation is the channeling of our passions towards good. I replaced my home page with this quote and some Red Cross information.

After a couple hours I couldn't stand to sit still and walked to St. Vincent's Hospital in the village hoping to donate blood, but they already had more than enough volunteers (I later made an appointment with my local Red Cross). Continuing uptown, I discovered the PATH trains weren't running, so I navigated the subways for a while and made it to Port Authority. The bus station was completely evacuated and guarded by cops, with hordes of people waiting outside. I called S., walked to Grand Central Station, and took a Metro North train to her house north of the city. We sat and watched TV all night trying to comprehend what had happened.

So far I only know one person who works in the WTC, and she made it out OK, albeit covered in dust. I know of one person who was to fly from Boston to LA that day and don't yet know his status.

I'm disturbed that the media thus far has displayed such lack of understanding and analysis to the cause behind this, and only support the government's desire to lash out and continue the string of violence. I recently read The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a great book of economics, politics, and human nature, and think it sums up the problem. Balanced countries like Sweden or Germany can simultaneously conduct first world economies (like selling Lexus automobiles) while preserving a sense of culture and home (their olive trees). The United States is at one extreme, dominating the global economy and exporting our capitalism more than others and therefore our culture. Middle East nations are at the other extreme, caring far more about their culture, their religion, and their land. They see us as a dangerous, encroaching influence on their way of life, which is symbolized by the Taco Bells opening in Middle Eastern cities. The eras of slavery, Japanese internment, McCarthism and Civil Rights in the U.S. demonstrate that we are not any more tolerant, we simply have different values (buried in the news on Tuesday was a lawsuit against Henry Kissinger, a giant of Nixon-era foreign policy, for our role in Chile's military coup, which led to horrible atrocities against the Chilean people). I certainly don't condone the actions of terrorists; I simply think we continue to attack the symptoms instead of the root cause - an economy that focuses on the economic bottom line instead of a broader bottom line. (Although it is too early to determine responsibility for these crimes, I mention the Middle East nations because early evidence points in that direction and in any case it's a relationship that needs improvement.)

But I think the media got some things very right. To mourn these buildings is not wrong. They are only steel and concrete but they symbolize our achievement, the ideas and work and moxie of New Yorkers and Americans and the world to embrace progress.

They also spoke well of the resolve that New Yorkers and Americans feel now. We will only be stronger after this. People here bonded together from the beginning of the situation. We will only have more resolve to eradicate terrorism, rebuild businesses, and reinforce security.

This reminds me of a cartoon U. faxed me from Germany a few weeks ago. It shows a German husband and wife going through customs. The customs official is about to shoot the husband because he doesn't have his passport when the wife finds the passport in her bag, shouting 'Don't shoot!' It's meant to poke fun at our strict border control (why would anyone from an advanced country like Germany want to sneak into the US?), but now it's obvious why we're that careful.

My most vivid memories of the Trade Center are from August 2000. It was the culmination of a management training program with several amazing new friends from my company's offices around the world. We had just finished a physically and mentally difficult set of events spanning four months and had grown very close. A scavenger hunt around New York ended at the WTC towers. We had dinner at Windows on the World overlooking the harbor and said bittersweet goodbyes to each other, vowing to stay in touch. Just now in our Yahoo! Group I wrote: ' Remembering that amazing experience with such incredible friends like you helps me feel better about who we can become when we strive to be something better.'


Here's some other things that have inspired or interested me:

'The terrorists think democracies are soft,' Mr. Keegan said. 'And of course they are soft most of the time. But when they get aroused they are far more resolute and harsher than an authoritarian system.'

Painting with flowers in Frankfurt

World War III

'So what is required to fight a war against such people in such a world? To start with, we as Americans will never be able to penetrate such small groups, often based on family ties, who live in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan or Lebanon's wild Bekaa Valley. The only people who can penetrate these shadowy and ever-mutating groups, and deter them, are their own societies. And even they can't do it consistently. So give the C.I.A. a break.

Israeli officials will tell you that the only time they have had real quiet and real control over the suicide bombers and radical Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, is when Yasir Arafat and his Palestinian Authority tracked them, jailed them or deterred them.'

They can't see why they are hated

'As Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked when asked his opinion of western civilisation, it would be a good idea. Since George Bush's father inaugurated his new world order a decade ago, the US, supported by its British ally, bestrides the world like a colossus. Unconstrained by any superpower rival or system of global governance, the US giant has rewritten the global financial and trading system in its own interest; ripped up a string of treaties it finds inconvenient; sent troops to every corner of the globe; bombed Afghanistan, Sudan, Yugoslavia and Iraq without troubling the United Nations; maintained a string of murderous embargos against recalcitrant regimes; and recklessly thrown its weight behind Israel's 34-year illegal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as the Palestinian intifada rages.'

I'm happy that people like Evan are helping us communicate. Happy that so many have put commercial enterprise aside for a few days - even the X10 pop-under ads and the QVC shopping channel. The spam hasn't stopped, but it seems less.

Map of buildings damaged in NY

Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches made by first graders.

A Journalist's Guide to Arab Americans

Also see my postings from that period.