Longtime readers know that I have an annual tradition around here that I’ve kept going for ten years. I repost this 2010 post about my personal experiences on that September day, and what I took away from it.
This year, I thought long and hard about continuing that tradition, despite it being the 20th anniversary of the date that changed the world, changed my life, and is one of the major turning points in my life.
I consider 9/11/2001 to be the day that I truly became an American — not a hyphenated American, an aggrieved minority American, but an American, period, full stop. It is the day that I now realize marks the real start of my adulthood, recognizing that evil is real and the world a much harder, darker and more dangerous place than I had known prior to that day.
It is the start of understanding that phrase “shining city on a hill” to describe America. Because despite all of our flaws, despite all of our spotted history, America was the light against that darkness.
Today… I don’t know if we are still that shining city on a hill. In light of our retreat out of Afghanistan with our tail tucked low instead of our head held high, leaving our one-time enemy the best armed military in that part of the world funded by our tax dollars… I just don’t know if we still are the people that defeated Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo and the Soviet empire. I hope we are still that, underneath it all, but I just don’t know.
But Sunny convinced me that this story isn’t really about America as it is today, deeply divided and locked down, cowering behind our doors and our masks; but about America as a younger, more innocent country filled with younger and more innocent people. It’s about me as a younger, more innocent man living through unimaginable days and nights.
Maybe I and America can no longer be that innocent, that naive. Perhaps the last twenty years have burned away all of our illusions. Maybe neither of us are as strong as we were twenty years ago. But maybe, just maybe, we all can return to some semblance of who we once were… just seasoned with wisdom won from hard experience.
It’s a dark time for us all, for the country, for the world. Yet I repost this hoping that maybe, just maybe, it gets darkest before the dawn and America’s time as the light against the darkness is not yet done.
Because I’m still not ready to make nice.
Remembrance Is Not Enough
It’s a beautiful early fall day here in the New York City area. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, and the bright sunlight pouring down on my quiet suburban street seems exactly like the happy rays of sunshine that fell on a younger, more innocent version of me in New York City on September 11, 2001.
Actually, that morning, I was not only younger and more innocent, but also sick. I had gone to bed the night before with a bit of a scratchy throat, and by the morning when my then-girlfriend (now wife) woke me up, was feeling like someone had worked me over with an axe handle. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to make the breakfast meeting of venture capitalists and startups in the NYC area. Since I was the VP of Business Affairs for our little three-man startup company, and the guy responsible for all of the sales, marketing, and strategic alliances, I was supposed to go and talk about the three recent major deals we had inked with major companies. But I was in no condition to be giving presentations or schmoozing. So I called my CEO, gave him the bad news, and he told me to rest up and get well, and I told him good luck at the meeting.
The breakfast was to be at Windows on the World at 9:00AM. It would be the last time I spoke to him.
I had gone back to bed to sleep off whatever flu, cold, or thing had gotten a hold of me so was still groggy when my roommate woke me up and said Lena was on the phone. She asked if I had seen the news, and told us to go turn the TV on, because apparently someone had flown a plane into a building downtown. We turn on the news, and our initial thought is that some stupid private pilot in a Cessna had made a terrible mistake. Then we hear the news anchors talking about a commercial jet crashing into the World Trade Center, and there’s a video of smoke. It’s shortly after 9:00AM. We’re still thinking this was a tragic accident, and my roommate and I are discussing how the heck something like this could have happened. Not even a minute later, at 9:03 AM, we see, live on TV, the second plane hit the South Tower.
I can’t remember much of what we said immediately afterwards. Oh my God! was probably the first thing. But the first coherent thought I had was, “We’re under attack. This is no accident. This is intentional.”
The days and weeks that followed 9/11 were surreal in so many respects. The TV didn’t go off once for at least a week, and none of us slept as much as we passed out. Friends came by and just ended up staying with us, crashing on the couch, since no one who wasn’t in news or emergency services was going to work. We went out when the call for blood donations was broadcast, to see tens of thousands of hardened cynical New Yorkers gather to give blood, to make donations, to do something, anything, to help out. We expected, all of us, to be hit again with whatever followup Al Qaeda had in mind. Would it be more airplanes-as-bombs? Or suicide bombers in Times Square? Maybe it would be nerve gas in the subways. I remember that for a few days after 9/11, those of us in the ragtag band of yuppies who had adopted my apartment as home base felt that we should make our peace with everyone about everything.
My CEO, fortunately, survived the attack. I heard that he was running a little bit late, and was actually in the elevator on his way to the restaurant when the building got hit. Had he been a few minutes earlier, he would be dead as no one who was at Windows on the World that day survived. Many of them, trapped by the fire below, chose to jump to their deaths instead. He walked down some sixty floors, mostly in the dark, with other terrified people, finally got outside to see fire, debris, human body parts, and even more people jumping from a hundred stories up. He was evacuated, but with no transportation running, he swam across the Hudson river and somehow found his way home. He would never be the same guy again, with the shock of what he had gone through, and I never spoke to him again, as all of our remaining business was conducted by email.
Our offices, located one block north of World Trade Center, were completely destroyed, together with all of our equipment, computers, development boxes. As a tiny startup, we didn’t have offsite backups, or fireproof safes, or any such thing. Besides, our VC’s weren’t sure if they would be in business after 9/11 attacks as the financial markets went absolutely berserk. Our next round of funding, scheduled for September 15, 2001, was first delayed, then canceled with no hard feelings on either side. For us who had been working day and night to try and get the software out to production… the 9/11 attacks left us wondering why we had been working so damn hard, why we had sacrificed so much, not spending time with our friends, families, and loved ones… when it could all be taken away so quickly, so unexpectedly.
There’s far, far more to that day and the days that followed. But 9/11 is a very personal, very painful, day for me. It is, I think, the day when I finally grew up, opened my eyes, and saw the world for as it is rather than how I wished it to be. It is the day when I finally decided that there is such a thing as evil in the world; not just misunderstandings, differences of opinion, or diversity of cultural values, but evil. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had I not gotten sick that morning.
And we Americans, even we New Yorkers, like to say on this day, “Always remember!” or “Never forget!” But what is it that we’re supposed to remember and not forget? Over the past nine years, I have heard it said time and again that 9/11 was a “tragedy”. I have been told to remember the fallen heroes, the victims who died at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and the brave passengers of Flight 93. We will have moments of silence at public events today, there will be touching remembrances everywhere particularly throughout the Northeast from where so many of the dead came. We will be sad and melancholy thinking of the horrible loss, and be resolved to rebuild and overcome the tragedy of 9/11.
That we are content to remember the victims, to remember the tragedy, to remember the loss both breaks my heart and enrages me. 9/11 was not Katrina. It was not an accidental oil spill. It was not an earthquake, nor a pandemic, nor a gas main explosion. It was an act of war. The planes did not fly into buildings by accident; men intentionally, with their hands on the controls, flew them into the buildings.
Remembering is not enough. Sadness is not enough. 9/11 calls us to go beyond mourning, into righteous fury. It calls for more than candlelight vigils and sad remembrances. It calls Americans to be Americans. It asks us to ask not only, “How could you do such a thing?” but also “How DARE you do such a thing?”
All the raucous debate about Cordoba House (the Ground Zero Mosque) is typical bullshit as far as I’m concerned, but in light of the above, I am grateful that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf decided to do what he did. Because it triggered memory of what many Americans had spent the last nine years trying to forget: that we were attacked. Whatever you happen to believe about Cordoba House, whether it should or should not be built, whether it’s a good idea or a bad one, etc. etc., is not important. What is important is that you remember why any of this is even an issue at all.
Because nine years ago today, New York City and our country were not struck by a natural disaster. We were not victims of a man-made disaster, an unfortunate series of accidents. We were struck by a band of evil men, in the name of a corrupt and despicable ideology; who were trained, financed, and sent by those who wish us ill. They meant to kill thousands of us, not because of our individual political beliefs, but because in their eyes, we are Americans.
Well, that’s right. I am an American. We are Americans. We are Americans, you sons of bitches. We defeated the British Empire at his zenith as a ragtag band of starving militiamen. We defeated Hitler and Mussolini. We destroyed the seemingly invincible Empire of Japan. We beat back Communism and consigned it to the dustbin of discredited ideologies. You screwed with the wrong people.
Because we’ll remember this day. We will honor our fallen, remember the tragedy and the loss. But we will not stop at remembering. Remembrance is not enough. Being sad is not enough.
They say, time heals everything. But I’m still waiting. And I’m not ready to make nice.