9.11.2001 – Reflections

September 11th Memorial Tribute In Light 2014
Tribute in Light, in 2014, by Anthony Quintano [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons
Like so many people today, I’m reflecting on the events of that awful day 17 years ago when so many innocent people died, and so many more felt the world had turned upside down. Every American who was old enough to remember that day will probably be processing their reactions to those events for the rest of their lives.

I have very rarely said anything public about 9/11. I have several reasons for this. The biggest reason is that my own experience of that day was very unusual.

Far from Home

I don’t have the same kind of “where were you when” story that most Americans have, for the simple reason that I wasn’t here. I had left the United States five days earlier, and I was in Germany for a week-long training conference. When I first got word that something had happened, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball at a private conference center in a very small village in the German countryside, largely cut off from the world.

Breaking News

The first indication that something was wrong was when somebody ran by on an elevated walkway, yelling urgently. I couldn’t quite make out the first sentence; I think it was, “There’s a fire in New York.” The next is seared into my memory: “The World Trade Center is in the street.” And just like that, the runner was gone.

It took a couple of minutes for those of us on the court to decide what to make of this. We didn’t even fully agree on what we had heard, much less what it meant. Several of us thought it meant that there had been some sort of market crash or economic disruption; others thought it meant the WTC’s occupants had evacuated because of a literal fire. After a few moments, we decided to call the game and go looking for more information.

The Hunt for Information

It took a while to find any. First, we had to find other people. But when we did, no one actually knew anything. We had only one landline for almost 200 people to use, and the few cell phones people had stopped working almost immediately due to network congestion. So, the first fragments of information we got were just fragments. We heard all kinds of wild rumors: both towers had collapsed; neither had collapsed; the Capitol was gone; the President was dead; the President was alive but in hiding; and on and on. We even heard really outlandish things about bombers, nuclear weapons, and more. The only source of information was phone calls limited to 30 seconds at first and later relaxed to two minutes. Facts and rumors given in soundbite form over the phone (with a terrible connection and multi-second delay due to distances) were repeated, misunderstood, and repeated again. In a group of people who were all far from home, not all native speakers of English, and with only one staticky phone line for information, it was impossible to fact-check faster than rumors could come in.

After a couple of hours, we started to catch up. A friendly, local couple down the road happened to have CNN via satellite and had started recording the feed when it became clear that a big plane, not a Cessna or something, had crashed. They started sending over videotapes and summary updates every hour or two.

By the time we were able to see anything on a TV screen, we were roughly three hours behind real-time. This meant that we mostly heard about developments—real and fictional—long before we saw them. During a national tragedy that so many Americans watched live, huddled together in living rooms, classrooms, conference rooms, break rooms, and sandwich shops, we watched on a delay, thousands of miles from American soil. We grieved together, of course, but we did so with almost no contact with family or friends at home, at least for those first few days.

Processing

That conference marked the start of a year-long trip. With the exception of a couple of people whose families were directly impacted, none of us were heading home to family or friends for many months to come. And with the exception of a half-dozen or so people, I had never met any of the people around me until a couple of days earlier.

My little team was in France a few days later, where we spent much of the following year. My French at that point was rudimentary, but it didn’t take much to figure out the news headlines. At first, they wept over “La Catastrophe.” Then they screamed of “Les Attaques!” Then, when it became obvious that America would react with force, they coldly updated us on “Les Accidents.” I had hundreds of conversations about these things with French, German, Spanish, Italian, Algerian, and Moroccan nationals, among others, before I had my first chance to speak in person to anyone I knew at home about them. I felt I had heard the collective thoughts and feelings of the entire world, but only a hint of the sentiments in my own country.

Cut Off

The next year was brutal and surreal for many reasons. We tried to keep up with news from home via the Internet and phone calls home, but we were surprisingly isolated. Many events at home that year just passed us by. I remember waiting for my flight home nearly a year later and picking up a copy of USA Today (not something I regularly read) in hopes of filling in gaps in my knowledge of non-terrorism, non-war events at home. Two of the top stories asked who would be the American Idol and who would be kicked off the island. I had absolutely no clue what they were talking about. Many other stories left me just as befuddled about everything from politics to sports.

For those of us who were abroad that year, 9/11 was a horrifying short-circuit, making it even harder to stay connected with “ordinary” life in the United States. While we wish as much as anyone that the 9/11 attacks had never happened, we also felt—and will always feel—isolated and cut off by that day. Our answers to the “where were you” question will always sound alien, strange, even weird. To some people I have met, those answers even sound un-American or somehow hostile.

Silence

I have mostly kept these things to myself because most people have had a hard time relating to them. In the first few years after 9/11, people tended to react in one of two ways to anything I might say: (1) silence, followed by a quick change in subject, or (2) anger, as if by being abroad during a national tragedy I had somehow chosen to cut myself off from my country.

Reactions in the last few years have mellowed, and now I mostly get the kind of look you might get if you said something completely unintelligible to someone you had just met: an uneasy stare, an unsuccessful attempt to form words, another second of silence, and a sudden shift in conversation.

Why Am I Writing This?

So, why am I speaking about this now? Why does it matter what I have to say? To be honest, a big part of it is just to let it out, to say the things I have mostly kept to myself for 17 years. But another reason is this: I hope it might be helpful to someone. Maybe someone out there is still struggling with their own feelings about that day and feels they can’t share because they don’t have a “story” that sounds “good enough” or “American enough.”

If that’s you, you’re not alone. Please reach out to me or someone else to talk about it.

I also hope this encourages at least a few people to be more empathetic. American life is full of anger, especially around politics, right now. But one of the lessons of 9/11 is that we are all human, and we all hurt, even though all of our stories are different, and sometimes we really can come together in a meaningful way that transcends our tribal squabbles.

If you’d like to talk for any reason, shoot me a note. If anything in this offended you or seems self-centered somehow, please accept my sincere apologies; that is not my intent at all.

Never forget those who died that awful day. And go hug someone you love.

Two Americas? Or Two Visions of America?

Mona Charen has a fantastic and fascinating take on Michelle Obama’s Fearful Vision on National Review Online. Read all the way to the end; it’s a great demonstration of one of the ways this country so often rises above those who would destroy it.

The Greatest Threat Facing Our Country

The single greatest threat facing the United States is probably not what you think. In the Cold War, the greatest threat was that of an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Most people today would probably say the risk is a terrorist attack involving WMDs. In our worst nightmares, we tend to picture a CNN news flash, a mushroom cloud over a major city, and maybe a million dead Americans. In fact, as great as that threat is, it is nothing compared to what a single (yes, one) nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere could do. A high-altitude nuclear detonation over the United States has the potential to create a continent-wide electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. This would knock out power, phone, and other utilities, take out a number of nearby satellites, and cripple nearly everything with an electric circuit… permanently. No phone, no internet, no television, no lights, no cars, no credit card readers, no gas pumps, no stock market, no banking: a pre-electronic world. Experts say this kind of attack would effectively return most or all of a technology-driven country like the United States to the nineteenth century in an instant. While relatively few people would die in the moments after such an attack, the death toll from starvation, dehydration, lack of medical services, and fire over the following months would make disasters like Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, and the recent Chinese earthquake look mild.

Continue reading “The Greatest Threat Facing Our Country”

Dobbs: Not so Smart

Lou Dobbs has a new whine, titled “Not so smart when it comes to the Middle East.” You don’t really have to read it; basically, Americans are blundering, isolationist idiots, and the current war is all our fault for not subsidizing Lebanon (a.k.a., Western Syria) as heavily as Israel. Enjoy the read, if you can.

Hotel Bombings in Jordan

Terrorists today detonated bombs at three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan. Details here. This is disturbing; it seems the horror and stupidity of suicide bombing, once unleashed on the world, can never be rebottled. It’s also personally disturbing; I’ve been to two of the three hotels.

It’s Not Just in the US of A

No, bureaucrats do stupid things, everywhere. It turns out that UK officials prevented the US from interrogating one Haroon Rashid Aswat, one month before the London bombings; of course, it turns out Aswat was lending support to the bombers. Details on CNN.com.

Do terrorists really hate freedom?

That’s the question posed (and answered, tongue-in-cheek, Trudeau-style) in today’s Doonesbury strip. It’s actually a really good question, so I’ll offer my answer.

Continue reading “Do terrorists really hate freedom?”

Death in London, Madness in Iraq

This morning, as I’m sure you’ve heard, four bombs exploded in the London transit system, killing at least 33 and wounding hundreds. A group calling itself the “Secret Organization Group of al Qaeda of Jihad in Europe” is claiming responsibility. Also, this morning, the al Qaeda organization in Iraq claims that it has killed the Egyptian envoy to Iraq.

Speaking as somebody who has spent a fair amount of time in the Muslim world, I really can’t fathom what the terrorists who committed these crimes might be thinking. So many of the motivations cited – for example, the “facts” that there are 101 Jewish United States Senators, one I heard surprisingly frequently, and that the CIA sends huge numbers of Christian missionaries to the Middle East to convert Muslims – are obviously wrong.

The stated goals are usually ridiculous, as well – some of my Muslim friends told me that the 9/11 victims weren’t innocent, because they should have pulled American troops out of the Arab peninsula. Most of the time, my efforts to explain that American democracy does not mean that each citizen has personal, governmental powers fell on deaf ears.

Of course, some moonbats are claiming that this is because the United States failed to go after terrorists in the aftermath of 9/11, instead launching quixotic campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Right.

Meanwhile, the Democratic governor of Virginia, Mark Warner, on Wednesday decided to blast Bush for failing to unite the country in a “call to common purpose,” after 9/11. I thought, at first, that Warner surely meant Bush should have built more support for the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, so they would not become divisive. No, Warner meant that 9/11 presented an opportunity to work on health care and the deficit. Instead, for some inexplicable reason, Bush used to the sense of unity, post-9/11, to actually deal with the problem of 9/11. You know, Karl Rove was right.

America – the whole world, really – needs to snap out of it. After the 1993 WTC bombing, after the attack on the USS Cole, after 9/11, after the Madrid bombings, and after two intifadas, more than half of the citizens of democratic nations still don’t get it. Our enemies don’t care if we’re nicer to them; our enemies don’t care if they die fighting us; our enemies will never stop. If we are attacked again – and we will be – and if, huddling together in fear, we decide to talk about health care and the deficit, rather than how we will prevent more senseless death and carnage, we are all doomed.