Late Thoughts on 9/11
Since I’m not at the computer much on weekends, I don’t post unless I set it up ahead of time. And most of the time, I’m way too disorganized for that. So though the 10 year remembrance of 9/11 was yesterday, I’m posting today, because it was very much on my mind.
I worked in Tower Two about four years before 9/11 happened. It was a part time position, annotating social science articles for the National Development and Research Institute, Inc., on the 15th floor. I think it was the 15th floor. I don’t completely remember, it was almost fifteen years ago now. I didn’t spend much time there. I annotated the articles and brought them in twice a week, and talked with my manager, J.B. O’Kane. The job gave me something social science-related that I could put on a graduate school application. And J.B. O’Kane wrote me a recommendation.
A year later, I received a scholarship to attend Arizona State University’s medical anthropology program, based on, among other things, those recommendations. It is quite possible that if I hadn’t gotten into school as I did, I may still have been working there, part or full-time when 9/11 happened.
When 9/11 happened, I had graduated with a masters in medical anthropology, and had been working for a year at the Maricopa County health department as an epidemiologist. I got a call as I was getting up to go to work. My director said, “Oh my God, you have to come in! Are you coming in soon? Something terrible has happened. We need everyone to come in. Someone just flew planes into the World Trade Center.” At that time, everyone watching knew that this was not an accident. It was an intentionally caused disaster. Health departments in most places had been training for bioterrorism response. So were activated when this happened, because no one knew yet how coordinated this attack was, or when, if, or where the next attack would happen. We spent the next few weeks doing enhanced syndromic surveillance of the hospitals and medical offices to identify any rise in any kind of symptoms. That’s the short answer for what syndromic surveillance is, monitoring flu-like illness, GI illness etc to see if we can identify a rise in symptoms before an epidemic occurs.
And I thought about J.B. O’Kane in those days and weeks. I wouldn’t have been doing that surveillance, that job at that time if it hadn’t been for him. Whether I still would have been at the WTC is impossible to determine, but his recommendation was partly responsible for my grad school opportunity and the job opportunity in public health that followed. In the days and weeks afterward, I did multiple and complex internet searches through every engine I could find. Nothing turned up for either NDRI, or J.B. O’Kane personally. And I couldn’t look them up by address anymore. In the years that followed, I still did searches occasionally, wondering if being on one of the lower floors could have saved at least some of them.
Most of my college friends still live in New York. And they told me that at the train stations, they would start marking the tires of cars with cut marks, because chalk washes off in the east coast rain. After a couple weeks of cut marks, they knew that the owner of a car wasn’t coming back to pick it up. And I sometimes find myself wondering if my supervisor’s car was one of those.
Sometimes people say, “Oh did you know someone who was killed?” I say, “I don’t know,” thinking about him. But I do know that if you lived in the tri-state area, then you either knew someone, or you knew someone who knew someone. Hundreds of people were killed. And years later, there are people still turning up who have COPD, or emphysema, or respiratory distress otherwise incurable, as young as thirty years old because if they weren’t first responders, they worked nearby, or lived nearby, or were on the street and handed out water, trying to help nearby.
And those deaths weren’t the only ones that day. America died, at least the America that we all grew up with or were taught existed. Maybe it never did. No one will really know for decades, until historians have a long view, and ‘secure documents’ are unsecured because the people who kept the secrets die of old age. Maybe the terrorists knew what would happen if they committed such an act, while someone like George W. Bush was in office. Maybe they predicted that he would pursue a course of expediency to rid his administration of inconvenient tyrants, instead of actually investigating the party responsible for the 9/11 massacre. Maybe they anticipated that some fundamentalist factions within the U.S. would, like Herman Goering, use the blanket of ‘national security’ as carte blanche to chip away at the personal freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights. It is a terrible irony that while our dedicated men and women in service were diverted to protect our freedom, our freedoms were being eaten away from the inside out.
Perhaps the terrorists knew that the most efficient way to destroy us would be to erase trust, that elimination of trusting your neighbor was the quickest way to choke a real democracy. Instillation of fear of the ‘other’ allows fertile ground for lies, for groups with their own agenda to present a solution of safety and ‘security’ that was never possible, and has never existed. That is, after all, the definition of terrorism, using fear to tear apart. We gave them our fear, as demanded, acted against our neighbor because of it, let it change the way we thought and lived and experienced the world. And this ‘solution’ for security, like all other such solutions in history was merely a policy of thinly veiled institutional bigotry based on creed or ethnicity, or even the perception of ethnicity or religion, something the U.S. was supposed to be against.
That day, and every day since, when a hate crime is committed against a middle eastern person or Muslim person in the U.S., or someone even perceived to be, the terrorists have won. Every day that someone is detained without formal accusation or trial, every day someone is violated by the Patriot Act, the terrorists have won. Every day that we bankrupt ourselves further to fight amoeboid and ever-shifting ‘wars on terror’ on multiple fronts, instead of putting our money into educating the next generation of leaders in public schools and colleges now, the terrorists have won. Every day that one of our own populations dies of a preventable disease or starves for want of the tax money we have squandered on fear-based measures of ‘security’, the terrorists have won.
There is no denying that there is a threat. But it is simply not possible to eliminate all risk. Life is risk. What we do know is that because of these policies and decisions, people of the lower income brackets suffer and die from lack of health care, people lose their health because they lose their homes and the ability to put food on the table, and methods of interrogation that were once ruled as torture, by us, are now being used and rationalized, by us. Our democracy has changed, and our society is transforming into the terrorists’ vision of us.
I remember that when I was growing up, I was a bitchy teenager. But underneath it all, I think that there was an optimism I would never have admitted to anyone who asked, that I lived in a time and in a country that really made almost anything possible. Our generation was painfully self-absorbed, and you could hear it in the music of the 80s especially. But, I am still glued to that music like a shipwrecked person to a floating chunk of flotsam because it also contained a hope for the possibilities of the future, a deep-rooted belief in the legacy that we were inheriting, of a country that had gotten something right. It really was a land of freedom and opportunity and good intentions from most of the people most of the time. We had our flaws, for sure, but we were working on them. And ultimately, I think that we believed that things would be okay.
I no longer believe that, I am sorry to say. I don’t know if average citizens like me will be mobilized to turn things around, and create enough perspective to get us headed the right way again. I don’t even know what we could do. I just know that the America now is not the same America I grew up with. Maybe I’m naive. I know I am. But I think that loss of freedom, and even the loss of optimism and hope is one of the more profound casualties of 9/11. So when I mourn the deaths, it’s not just for the people dead, but for the people hurt, and for the casualties in our way of life that seem to keep coming. I mourn my failure as a person during these years to do anything as a citizen to change the train wreck course we seem to be on.
But as a child of the 80s, I guess I still hope, and still search. The music is still playing, so there’s still time to change things and learn from our mistakes. An idea is too powerful a thing to ever go away. We see that with negative ideas all the time, why not positive ones? As long as the idea of America and the idea of democracy the way that Thomas Jefferson envisioned it is still remembered, I think that we still have a chance to recover.