My 9/11/01


I woke up five years ago this morning in a room at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. A colleague was on the other line. I looked at the clock: It was about 9 a.m. I had only gone to bed an hour earlier. My plane arrived in St. Louis about 6:45. I was frustrated because I’d always been able to grab just enough sleep on a red-eye to do my next day’s job, but on this trip I couldn’t sleep at all.

“Hey, I need to sleep a little more.”

“You need to turn on the TV right now.”

What ran through my mind was — our client was buying a local business and today was supposed to be the announcement, and the seller had been squirrelly about how the announcement was going to be handled. He was a prominent local business owner. He wanted to be able to tell his employees before telling anyone else, but that was inconsistent with the announcement strategy that I had been sent to St. Louis to enforce. So I thought, oh crap, the seller is talking about the transaction on some local morning news show.

“Which channel?”

Any channel. Just watch and call me later.”

She hung up. I’m thinking: Wow, this guy is powerful. He’s got every TV station in St. Louis carrying his announcement. I didn’t think it was that big a deal.

So I click on the TV, just in time to watch one of the Twin Towers fall, crumbling into a giant cloud of dust. Or, it might have been a tape of something that had just happened. I wasn’t sure what was live and what was tape — I was still disoriented from lack of sleep. Buildings were falling and falling — tapes of both towers being played over and over.

I didn’t know until a few minutes later what had caused this. I hoped they had been able to evacuate the towers. I started trying to figure out how many people might have died — it was staggering. Maybe 40,000 people, I figured. By the end of the day, they were saying 10,000. It seems like a miracle that it was “only” about 3,000.

Before I really understood what was happening, I called my wife back in Southern California. We had only been married a few months, and she was home with my 10-year-old son. It wasn’t normally their habit to watch TV in the mornings, so I figured my son would go off to school and find out there. In those days, he was given to horrible nightmares, so that wasn’t how I wanted him to get the information. My wife and I decided she would tell him, they wouldn’t watch it on TV, and he would stay home from school.

cnnbreakingnews.jpgI left the TV on, but tried to get a little more sleep, so the information and speculation seemed to swirl around me, not making sense or hanging together, like a blob of mercury in a whirlpool. Eventually I moved into the living room, noticing for the first time that I had been put up in an extremely large and luxurious space — a suite with a big living room and a kitchen. That was also surreal. I was only supposed to be in St. Louis for eight hours. Who thought I needed all this?

I switched to the TV in there, and my colleague eventually joined me to watch the story unfold. By now, I’d said goodbye to Katie and Matt, and hello to CNN. I had a selfish interest in watching. They had grounded all the planes, and here I was, stuck in St. Louis. When would I be able to fly out again? So while the reporters reported and the pontificators pontificated, I was watching the little space at the bottom where words fly by, trying not to miss information from the FAA. Or Amtrak, which was also halted. There was a rumor of terrorists plotting to take over a train, right here in Missouri! My colleague had already checked on rental cars — there were none.

My wife and I were selling our home, and today was the day it was supposed to go on the market. At some point my wife and I spoke and agreed we would probably not be getting any lookie-loos that day. But then the phone rang. We had an offer. Sight unseen! At our price, which our Realtor had defined as “aggressive.” They wanted us to accept today. Today? While our country is in this turmoil? It was a Korean family. Our neighbors in this complex were mostly Korean, and we figured it was a family thing.

“Gosh, maybe we should have named a higher price,” I said.

I wasn’t very experienced in real estate, but it didn’t seem quite ethical that if you set a price and someone met it, you didn’t accept it. We agreed to accept. The day got yet more surreal, as my Realtor tried to fax the 50 pages of the sale agreement, each one of which I had to initial and fax back.

Eventually, I was in touch with my office in LA. After going through all the “how horribles” and “can you believe its” they wanted to talk business. One of our clients was Microsoft’s PC games, including Flight Simulator. Apparently, one of the many speculative comments that had been repeated on, I believe, NBC, was that the hijackers had trained on Flight Simulator. Questions were being raised about whether Flight Simulator — the most popular PC game by far — should still be sold since, after all, anyone who played Flight Simulator could now hijack a plane and fly it into a building! How should this be countered? Especially since a new version had been produced and was about to be shipped!

What you had was about 20 PR people — in-house, at my firm and at another firm, plus some lawyers — with nothing else to do and a sense of unease from which we all wanted to escape. So we all glommed onto this project, and started having conference calls and sending e-mail. I borrowed my colleague’s computer, since I didn’t think I would be away from home long enough to justify dragging mine along. The e-mail chains went on for 50 screens as this PR problem was considered from every conceivable angle, and as every decision-maker weighed in. The fact was, nobody could fly a real plane based on logging even an infinite number of hours on Flight Simulator. But the press didn’t want to hear that. Suddenly, a fun game that lots of geeks liked to play at their desks instead of doing real work was being redefined as a national security threat!

“Couldn’t you reprogram the game so it would be impossible to fly into buildings?” someone asked. Apparently, if you had a creepy sense of humor, you could deliberately crash your plane on Flight Simulator. Maybe that functionality should be, you know, uh, turned off. A fine idea, but it was too late for all the new Flight Simulator boxes being stacked up and ready to ship. Even though it was only September, the product had to be in stores soon for Christmas sales.

Somebody said: “I don’t think America will be celebrating Christmas this year.”

Somebody else said: “Are you kidding? By Christmas, no one will even remember this!”

Meanwhile, CNN was still playing in the living room. I turned the sound off and the closed-caption on, but closed caption reduced everything to nonsense, especially Muslim names like Osama Bin Laden. At one point, I swear, I think the closed-caption typist gave up and just started pounding out letters at random. They didn’t make any less sense than what was being typed deliberately.

There was a brief break in all the Flight Simulator action, so I decided to focus on the news. Normally, I don’t like watching the news in the immediate aftermath of a huge event like this, because in those first 24 hours, facts are few, speculation runs rampant and mostly it’s just the talking heads talking to each other. This, I now realized, was different. There was a rescue underway. The survivors, if any, needed to be found quickly. Some of the missing people were police officers and firefighters who had rushed into the towers with little consideration for their own safety, and apparently no awareness that the fires from the planes might cause the buildings to pancake on top of them.

Plus, people were sharing amateur on-the-scene video. The jumpers — my God. And the Manhattan canyons filling with debris as the towers fell, with onlookers rushing to get out of the way of the cement and steel avalanche. It was starting to sink in.

There was Benjamin Netanyahu on the screen, calmly being interviewed. He said something that has stuck with me ever since: “If they’d had nuclear weapons, they would have used them.”

His statement made a horrible kind of sense to me. So much hatred had to go into these attacks. Boundless, bloodthirsty hatred. Suicidal in the sense that, to this enemy, people didn’t matter, not even their own people; only history and God. It was, I began to realize, a war of revenge against western society, for a thousand years of crimes that could never be atoned for. There was no negotiation possible. The grievances went back a millennium, but were palpable today in the fury they stoked. We were seen as the same people who waged the wars of the Crusades and then went on to blaspheme the Muslim religion by allowing naked women to dance on cable TV. It was all one crime. I had to agree with the fabled Israeli reactionary. If Al Queda could have smuggled a nuclear weapon onto one of those jets, we would be seeing Manhattan or Washington DC in radioactive ruins now.

It was one of those long summer dusks we don’t have in Los Angeles, where the light lingers in the sky long after sunset, when I finally wandered out of the hotel, alone, in search of something to eat. The hotel was in a beautiful old neighborhood. I’d never been to St. Louis before, but it seemed like a real hidden treasure. (Later I was advised that the hotel was in the only good neighborhood in St. Louis. Oh well.) I found an independent record store in what seemed like a collegiate community. The music industry’s new releases were out front. Two interested me: Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft,” and Nick Lowe’s “The Convincer.” Eventually they became two of my favorite CDs, but I thought the Dylan might be more suitable. Dylan had been prophetic in the past. He couldn’t have known the attack was coming, but it would be interesting to find out what he was tuned into in the months leading up to it. I then found a Chinese restaurant, ordered some to go, and brought my Dylan album back to the hotel.

lovetheft.jpgWell, if you know the album “Love and Theft,” you know it was Dylan’s return to comedy for the first time since the mid-60s. The music was at times hard rocking and blues-y, at other times more like vaudeville of the 1920s and parlour music of the 1890s. The lyrics were as brilliant and madly surreal as “Blonde on Blonde” or “Highway 61 Revisited,” but now from the vantage point of a 60-year-old man who’d seen a lot and was more dispassionate, empathetic and greatly amused; who accepted loneliness and heartbreak as part of humanity’s grand buffoonery, and his own. “Love and Theft” was not a prophetic album; instead it looked back. It was, as Robert Hilburn might say, “quintessentially American.” It didn’t reflect how I felt right at that moment, but in some way it reflected how I felt most of the time. Songs like “Summer Days” wouldn’t have outraged Bin Laden the same way, say, Madonna’s frank sexuality would. But its laughing spirit would have made him uncomfortable:

Wedding bells ringin’, the choir is beginning to sing
Yes, the wedding bells are ringing and the choir is beginning to sing
What looks good in the day, at night is another thing

She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.”

Where do you come from? Where do you go?
Sorry that’s nothin’ you would need to know
Well, my back has been to the wall for so long, it seems like it’s stuck
Why don’t you break my heart one more time just for good luck

I called my wife again and spoke to my son. Their nerves clearly were frazzled and even though they knew it wasn’t my fault, they were both irritated that I couldn’t be home, and couldn’t even tell them when I would be home. “Why can’t your company help you?” I explained that the CEO of my company was also stuck somewhere — Nebraska I think. He’d somehow gotten a car and was driving back to New York.

On TV, the World Trade Center site was glowing in the night sky. The fire had not gone out, plus I think by this time some kleig lights had been erected to help with the rescue. News was starting to filter in about cellphone calls by airline passengers and by people trapped inside the upper floors of the towers — giving reports and saying goodbye. I tried to imagine 10,000 souls all dying in these horrible conflagrations. It was sickening and sad, and paralyzed my heart.

Of course, at that moment, I hated the people who had committed this murderous act. But what was worse was realizing they hated me, and my people, so much more than I could ever hate them. That’s the true nature of asymmetrical warfare. We in America don’t sustain hatreds for very long. We lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in World War Two, the worst cataclysm in U.S. history, and within a very few years had made our peace, basically, with the Germans and Japanese. Within 20 years, we were joking about the whole thing on shows like “McHale’s Navy” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” We would soon forget the rage about this attack that was not yet called “9/11,” and instead try to figure out what we had done wrong. Or so I predicted, somewhat fatalistically.

I know many people would say my prediction was totally wrong. We went to war almost immediately in Afghanistan, and soon in Iraq, and we have shown our most violent side in atrocities like Abu Graibh. We’ve declared war on what people from Christopher Hitchens to George W. Bush are now calling “Islamofascism.” But I think it’s too early to tell. Bush has a horrible time trying to define this war, and if anything the Democrats are worse. Our political system has failed to rise to the challenge, to say the least. This week’s absurd pissing match over the ABC docudrama served as a perfect illustration of how sadly inadequate our political class is to the task before us.

The Iraq war’s endless denouement has seemingly wearied our nation. It was absolutely a good thing to overthrow Hussein, but now what? All we’ve managed to do is unleash more of what we’re really supposedly fighting against. And many Americans think we should pull out, which means essentially letting the most ruthless of the Islamofascists to take over Iraq. The global Islamofascism war overflows with ironies like that. It is exhausting us already, and it has barely begun.

On the other hand, 9/11 hasn’t happened again on our turf. As tattered as our Homeland Security seems to be, it’s apparently working. Or we’ve been lucky. Or, more likely, we don’t understand the historical framework of our enemy. If it takes another 10 years to stage an apocalyptic attack like 9/11, to them, that’s a blink in the eye of history, barely any time at all from the vantage point of Allah.

Eventually, of course, my colleague and I made it home from St. Louis. It took until Saturday. We had to line up at 4 a.m. at the airport. Everyone was very quiet in that line. It reminded me of the last scene of “The Birds,” where the traumatized people leave as silently as they can, so as not to disturb the flocks of angry birds lining their route. Only we couldn’t see the angry birds. We weren’t even sure whether the angry birds were our ostensible enemy or our own people in hypersecurity mode. I was careful not to make any jokes that morning.

st-louis-arch.JPGIn the days between, I’d eaten a lot of room service until finally discovering a health food store where I could buy some organic soups. On what I thought would probably be my last day, I took trip to see the great St. Louis Arch, and to eat catfish in a restored gaslight district restaurant. I also jogged one evening around Chase Park, and swatted a lot of mosquitos. A friendly hotel employee took my colleague and I clothes-shopping, since neither of us had brought enough to wear for such a long stay. And I had several more conference calls about Flight Simulator. Microsoft ended up releasing the new version, but delayed it about 10 days. Why that was the best solution, I can no longer remember.

I was traveling with a Swiss Army knife that I knew I couldn’t get onto the plane. I asked the hotel desk staff if they could mail it to me, and I gave them all the information. The knife never made it home, but I did. My wife had already started packing to move us into our new place. It was a long time before I agreed to fly anywhere again.


One thought on “My 9/11/01

  1. Great work, John.

    So much of this post grabbed me, but perhaps this most of all:

    So much hatred had to go into these attacks. Boundless, bloodthirsty hatred. Suicidal in the sense that, to this enemy, people didn’t matter, not even their own people; only history and God. It was, I began to realize, a war of revenge against western society, for a thousand years of crimes that could never be atoned for. There was no negotiation possible. The grievances went back a millennium, but were palpable today in the fury they stoked. We were seen as the same people who waged the wars of the Crusades and then went on to blaspheme the Muslim religion by allowing naked women to dance on cable TV. It was all one crime.

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