9-11-01 Reminiscences [Edited]
Despite my caveats, I was in New York that day, that day changed my life, and I have a blog: at some point, it's inevitable that I should register my memories. For those who haven't had enough of 9-11 stories, click through.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I went into a seminar on "Religion and the Enlightenment" that began at 9 am. According to my records, we discussed Voltaire's Letters Concerning the English Nation, and I gave a presentation about the radical 17th-century history of the Quakers.
At around 11 am, I left the seminar. I was hanging out around the building's steps when an acquaintance remarked, "Isn't it crazy about that plane crashing into the World Trade Center?!"
Now, I had spent the previous year in France, where, in order to defend myself, I became more informed on US politics; I read the International Herald Tribune daily, Liberation at least weekly, and Le Monde Diplomatique regularly. I was quite familiar with the arguments of anti-globalization activists and remain sympathetic to many of them. And I knew quite well who Bin Laden was, what the Taliban was (having received emails about women's rights in Afghanistan since at least 1998), and why Al Qaida might target New York.
I remember a conversation I had on the banks of the Seine in 2000 with my father, an old-school conservative libertarian,; he argued that Gore's regulatory diplomacy would come across as pedantic lecturing, and I argued that the Southern Hemisphere was genuinely pissed off at the inequities that globalized markets seemed to create. He had the grace to admit, after 9-11, that his view of economic globalization had been too rosy. I'm not about to use that concession to argue that global socialism is the answer because I do not believe that to be true, but the inequities of globalization do give extremists more popular support than they deserve.
So even before I knew for a fact that a second plane had struck the WTC, I suspected and feared terrorism. And I felt a faint contempt for the woman who had told me--almost giggling with nervousness--about the attack.
Perhaps I was in shock, but the next thing I thought to do was finish the response paper for the seminar that was scheduled that afternoon. I went to the library to write out my thoughts on EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, and while responding to concerned emails from long unheard-from ex-boyfriends, I realized that this thing was big. I finished my response paper, astoundingly enough, and went home, not knowing what else to do.
There, I changed my clothes, slowly and self-consciously. At that time I owned a black skirt with a train and a feathered mourning hat. I didn't know anything but feared everything. Eventually I pulled out my tourists' guide to New York and found my local NPR station. When my roommate came home, I was lying flat on my bed in all my mourning, listening to the radio. With another couple of grad students, we went out to the park, where we watched armed vehicles roll off the highway. We watched the Coast Guard patrol the Hudson, and we heard Air Force fighter pilots boom overhead, as they would for weeks afterward.
In the following days, some of my friends ignored the public orders to stay away from the disaster scene and helped in the relief effort. One of my friends wandered down to the Chelsea piers and ended up unloading rescue gear from cargo ships. I listened to the radio news, heard that emergency-trained personnel were requested and that civilians should stay out; I evaluated my skills and stayed put. It's hard not to think that I was cowardly and passive, despite my rational mind's awareness that I would have had little to offer to the relief effort besides a strong back, some language skills, potentially mad-cow-corrupted blood, and Girl-Scout-level first aid training. Instead, I stayed at home and worried.
Within a week, I was back at my part-time job as a researcher and ad-writer for a company located on Wall Street. When I returned to Wall Street, most of the debris had been swept off the streets, but the air was still terrible. I left early on my first day back, pleading out and taking the hours cut because I could no longer breathe properly. Even three weeks after the attacks, lunch breaks were surreal. The air was too awful to go far. I'll never forget one moment, catching my breath inside a sandwich shop, waiting and daring myself to run the two blocks back to work; as I hesitated, I saw an Asian man wearing a cloth facemask on a bicycle loaded with deliveries pedal slowly by. At that time, the dominant media image for face-masks was SARS, and I remember thinking that Asian-Americans might have prepared better for air-contanminants than the rest of us had.
Even after the air cleared somewhat, one couldn't sit down anywhere to eat a lunchtime sandwich. Military-type personnel waved everyone off the Federal Courthouse steps, out of parks, away from targets. In Paris and London, I got over my nervousness about seeing machine-gun-armed guards, but it was still something of a shock to see overtly military units in my neighborhood. I remember eating sandwiches on the shallow steps of the pos tt office, as the only place I was allowed to sit in public, but I still smelled the faint tang of the WTC in my nose.
Perhaps it's the result of being in a committed relationship to a French citizen at the time, but within 24 hours of 9-11 I feared more what the US response to 9-11 would wreak than anything else. With the formidable military (and nuclear) capability that we have, can anyone think that assymetrical warfare will end well for humanity?
I will admit to a certain panic after 9-11. It was hard for me not to believe that the attack was not the first blow of WW3, and while I knew it was irrational, I feared that the Atlantic would turn into an impassable boundary, with my loved one on the other side. Yes, I did initially think of the US in terms of Occupied France, but to pursue the analogy further would not be complimentary to America. After all, it was hard not to be terrified when one heard fighter planes blow open the sky every night, when the the air poisoned one's lungs every day, and when one became aware of the distant rumble of the Policy for the New American Century.