(This essay originally ran as an alternative to the normal home page/blog as a statement on the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, of which the author was a witness. The article was posted on September 10 and 11 of 2002, and is not part of the archived blog due to its length and extenuating significance.)
I don't necessarily endorse the idea of everyone making these long posts about September 11. A lot of people, and rightly so, choose to avoid discussing the topic altogether, and I agree with much of their logic: this anniversary is going to be a huge, commercialized, media-driven exploitation activity, and the fact that my experiences with that having already been done in this city for the last year proves it. Ground Zero is already practically a theme park attraction; there's no need to change it now.
Nevertheless, there are those who want to hear about it, and many who have specifically asked me if I'm going to say something about it. So here's what happened a year ago for me, and how I feel about it. Anyone who has no desire to read yet another long post about someone's personal experience with September 11 can stop reading now, and I will have no disdain whatsoever. It's your choice to reflect; I'm just writing something to give those who choose to do so something to reflect on. There is no right or wrong way to handle this anniversary as long as whatever you do is not a deliberate attempt to do something wrong to other people. Is what I'm writing now the right thing to do? I don't know, but I can't think of what else to do. So again, forgive me for excusing myself from my usual, cynical, sarcastic, cantankerous tone. And to those who think it is wrong for me to change, I promise, it's only for a few days, and then we'll get back to business.
On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I woke up sometime around 9 AM to brush my teeth and get dressed for a job interview I had at 10:30 down on campus for a teacher's grading assistant job. My suitemate, Sean, who lived in the room opposite my roommate Chris and I, walked into our room and in a casual tone asked if we saw what was going on outside the window.
My room that year was on the 14th floor of a building on 5th Avenue and 10th Street. Opening the window and turning your head to the left gave you a majestic view of the World Trade Center, a mere twenty or twenty-five blocks away. The majestic view was, at that moment, on fire.
Instantly, CNN was on our television, continuing its broadcast that had started about thirty minutes earlier and would not stop, even for commercials, for the next ten or eleven days. In the brief ten minutes I was awake, I had not only looked out my window to see the Twin Towers on fire, but had just been informed by the news that it was on fire because a commercial airliner had been flown into the building. Followed by another commercial airliner crashing into another one. Followed by the sight of the entire island of Manhattan stepping outside their apartments to look down the street at what in God's name just happened.
It was the same feeling for me. I lived a half a mile away from the Towers. I saw them every day for almost my whole life, be it from my dorm or in the distance from New Jersey as a child. I would not, could not believe what CNN had just said. Like every other New Yorker who actually had the ability to do so, I needed to look at this thing for real.
I looked at my computer monitor to see that five or six people from high school, some of whom I had not talked to in years, had sent me Instant Messages with messages all around the tone of "What the holy FUCK is happening?" One friend, Lauren, was equally frightened, as she attended school in Boston, the home of Logan airport- where two planes that took off an hour ago had been reported missing. The phone was ringing, I grabbed it, knowing it was Mom, who managed to get in a few words with me before the mass influx of other people's mothers calling all their children overloaded the phone system and disconnected everybody. I would spend the rest of the day communicating through e-mail and borrowed cell phones.
In the midst of returning to an online conversation, I heard, essentially, the sound of most of the island of Manhattan screaming. I lunged my head out the window and turned to see what deep down inside, I already knew was the only thing that could possibly be happening to make such a massive reaction. Tower 1 was collapsing. Within the hour, Tower 2 would do the same, to the same reaction, leaving a crowd of people not believing what had happened, not believing CNN, not believing their own eyes.
I wish I could say something heroic and noble about my actions. Yes, later in the day I joined the rest of the masses to donate blood, and offer to help in whatever way people could. But as far as my immediate response to what had just happened, I could only at that time look at the clock on the wall and realize what I had forgotten to do amidst all of this.
I went to my job interview.
Looking back on it, yeah, it seems utterly ridiculous. But a year ago we weren't saturated with all the details. A year ago everyone was just freaked out. I couldn't reach my family or friends right at that moment. So I guess, deep inside, my logic was that without a doubt, there was someone down on the NYU campus waiting to hear from me at 10:30 that morning, who I knew I could actually reach. So I went. And, of course, we immediately postponed the interview for another day, and together left the building, which during my time walking to had been ordered closed along with the rest of campus by the Federal Government.
The last year has been one of strange adjustment. What was weirdest for me, of all things, was gathering my bearings without the Twin Towers. For years, especially wandering the twisting turns of the West Village, the World Trade Center was sort of a guide point for figuring out where you were. I would see the towers and know I was facing downtown. For a while, I would continue doing so, turning my head to find out where the towers were and then triangulate my position from there. For months, a morbid "oh yeah" would rattle through my mind every time I got lost looking for a Duane Reade.
I have not visited Ground Zero. I think the argument that everyone should visit it as "sacred ground" is ludicrous. It's not a theme park, despite all the souvenir stands I am told litter it nowadays. Time will fade away the mystique of the site and the atrocity that happened there. I take the NYU shuttle bus at a stop where two years prior three people were killed in a traffic accident. I walk to classes everyday through Washington Square Park, which before the American Revolution served as a potter's field for public hangings; anywhere from ten to fifteen thousand bodies remain deep beneath the fountains and fences and children's swingsets. Ask them what they feel about "hallowed ground." After September 11, I spent two months being told to keep my windows closed so the stench and possible toxicity of melted asbestos, metal, and human flesh wouldn't waft into my room. I don't need to go to the source to experience the pain of what happened. No one seems to want to visit the places in other countries where thousands were needlessly killed as a result of U.S. foreign policy. Why do I have to go visit such a place now that it's been brought to my home shores?
As you can see, my reflection isn't to the level of the brilliance and eloquence of David Letterman and Jon Stewart, who in five minutes each reassured the nation a week after the attacks. Anyone who's read anything I've written or drawn before know that I can't do the patriotic shouldering-to-cry-on that others can do. But I can reflect on what happened, as someone who actually watched it happen, and point out some feeling that, like that CNN broadcast a year ago, you can't just believe by watching the television and need to hear in person from some real people. I am a real person. I just don't have the same thoughts that the false media calls "real." Forgive me.
I have felt the same forbidden thought for the last year about the attacks that people just don't want to accept. For months we have dealt with the rhetoric that these terrorists were "cowardly." We have been told they are cruel and evil, and I can't argue with that, but then again who in this world hasn't been cruel and evil, moreover who in this world hasn't had their brain warped by their level of culture. But the fact is that this was an act of terror, and to that level, it was a complete success, because they succeeded in terrifying me. Not, as the media or the president says, because these men committed an act of cowardice, but because it was an act of a completely different word.
What these men did on September 11 was horrible, violent, destructive, and brilliant. With painfully small funding compared to U.S. terms, years of covert planning, secret codes, international espionage, and simple efficient force, twenty men deflected the most expensive and most powerful national security complex in human history and killed nearly 3,000 people and caused catastrophic damage to the nation and its economy. Military strategists have an informal term for that: it's called a complete and utter success. Any lunatic can grab a gun and try to take out as many people as possible before the police arrive. Any bomber can plan an arson mission and blow up a building. The events on September 11th were effective, devastating, calculated, and above all, unprecedented. How. How in the name of anything possible could this have happened. Here. Now. That is why we should have been scared out of our minds, not because some lunatic across the border has some Anthrax spores. Anyone can do that. This... this took resolve. This took demented, desperate, hateful will to do it. I cannot lie and pretend I am not afraid of someone willing to do what was done a year ago. I can only hope that the world will somehow change itself to a tone that prevents from that demented, desperate, hateful will to cease to exist.
Obviously, what I just said about "brilliance" is in no way some sort of twisted praise or admiration for the hijackers. The fact that these actions were effective to their cause does not imply that they are, to any humanely comprehensible level, acceptable. I only mean to state that it is dangerous and irresponsible of us to cast aside this truth by doing what caught us off guard in the first place: underestimating our enemy.
Likewise, it is dangerous and irresponsible to call the hijackers and their brethren suicide bombers "cowards." There is not, and never will be, anything remotely cowardly about being willing to strap a lethal explosive to your body and detonating it to harm others around you. The cowardice is implied in the suicide, which is not the principle element of the event. The attack is. In light of what Bill Maher said that got him in so much trouble, I don't agree fully with the statement that "we are the terrorists firing missiles at civilians from hundreds of miles away" either. This is not an action of cowardice, either. Like suicide bombing, it is a measure of the value of various lives with the damage potential. Suicide bombers suicide-bomb because the expense is low and their value of their own lives is one that allows them to end it for the likely odds of ending the lives of others. American missiles are within our huge military's budget, and safeguard the lives of American soldiers (which are valued) at the cost of thousands of foreign civilians lives (which are not.) Neither suicide bombing nor missile strikes are cowardly, but neither of them are ethical either, nor practical in the eyes of the enemy. However, in the eyes of those enacting them, they are perfect in the sense of expense, both financially and in terms of valued human life.
The irony is that likewise, both sides think their respective actions are effective, whereas their enemies refute this. For eleven years we have bombed and patrolled Iraq, and yet apparently there is still a belief they have secretly obtained chemical and nuclear weapons. Simply by that reasoning the bombings have not succeeded. For over two years Palestinian Arabs have believed that they have scored a great decisive victory against Israel after a suicide bombing that kills several Israelis. Since the start of the latest uprising, they have not gained a single acre of land; in fact many estimate they have lost the chance of securing much of it. In Ireland, terrorist rebels are only now beginning to realize that the first step towards relative peace is disarmament.
The attacks on September 11 simply magnified what any rational person should be thinking instead of the patriotic rhetoric we've been hearing the last year: violence simply does not work. I do not feel safe because I do not think anything has changed. Afghanistan is now run mostly by people who only a few years ago were against us. We refuse to take any level of punitive or diplomatic action against Saudi Arabia, the nation of origin for most of the 9/11 hijackers as well as their alleged mastermind Osama bin Laden. Israel and Palestine continue trading rhetoric and gunfire, and absolutely nothing else, as Ariel Sharon oafishly finds reasons to counter any possibility of a near-future peace discussion and Yasser Arafat continues to make every word that comes out of his mouth completely unbelievable.
I am aware that September 11 made people angry. I was angry. My family and friends were angry. We had our typical movie/video game "let's go nuclear on everything" moment. Some people are still in that mood. It has to subside. Like some drunk in a bar, our nation has been hit by someone and most of us don't want to ask why we were hit. We just want to hit him back to prove what a tough guy we are. That's how a huge fight turns into a riot, and in the end there's no winner. Just a few guys smiling proudly that they lost the least amount of blood and a bar that's been so torn-up it'll be weeks before it can reopen and serve drinks to everyone again.
I don't hate America. I am amazed that I actually have to say that, and even further amazed that many aren't satisfied without evidence. But my love for this country is what makes me question the logic and the hypocrisy of what we, as Americans, are allowing to be done to us.
We are told that Osama bin Laden orchestrated this attack because he "hates freedom." So to show our opposition to the hatred of freedom, we are told that we must sacrifice significant portions of it. (To quote Benjamin Franklin, "they that can give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither.") We are told to get on with our lives amidst so many regulations and policy changes that our lives cannot be the same no matter how hard we try. We are told that cuts must be made to the education of our children, the healing of our sick, the housing of our impoverished, the aiding of fellow nations... all so we can give more money to the military to continue its bang-up job of not being able to find the people who did this to us. All the while, we make no concessions, no olive branches; just angered demands to foreign and domestic opponents that serve no purpose but to make them want to dislike us more.
Hate is what caused this problem. To "hate America" is not some pointless rhetoric that means just the symbolic hatred of what America says it is in some children's book. Hatred of America is anger toward America's ignorance of what is does to other countries, to other people.
A person with a problem that truly cares for itself must take the first step to admit its problem; I love America, I want to help it. I want America to admit that it has a problem. It loves itself, but it does not love other things. And other people, other countries can see that. We cannot heal the events of last year by blindly hating more and more people. We cannot force people that hate us to love us by increasing the actions that led to that hate in the first place. We cannot eliminate evil in this world without refusing to accept that much of the world sees what we do as evil.
There is too much anger, and too much forceful will in this world. It is what gave a handful of hateful people the will to hijack planes full of innocent people and steer them into buildings. It is what makes Americans want to hit and yell at complete strangers because of their nationality. It is what makes two peoples kill each other over a strip of land smaller than most U.S. states.
On this anniversary of my generation's greatest tragedy, I ask all of you to work to make America a place for all people to love, not just ourselves. It is our duty to be the nation that rises up within a world that is diseased with too much hate.
May this message find you well and among those you love, in any and all ways you believe those you love may be among you.
August J. Pollak