9/11: How I Lost the Country I Used to Know and the Person I Used To Be
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Author's note: The following piece is a memoir. It is an accounting of my memory of the experiences; actual events may have, and likely did, differ in small ways. Likewise, quotes from others are my memory of what was said, not the precise words that were spoken.
He walked through the front door, a thick roll of blueprints tucked under his arm, his eyes brimming with the kind of excitement a six-year-old displays opening his first box of Legos.
"Know what this is, honey?" he asked.
I looked up from the television, where he found me each night, attention focused on one news show or another.
"The World Trade Center!"
We were married then, he a project manager in a small construction company, I a freelance journalist who wrote mostly about the collision of religion and politics. His company specialized in the interior build-outs of retail stores and office suites; they had just landed a job for the renovation of a flower shop on the ground floor of the South Tower. It was maybe 1994 or 1995.
He unrolled the prints on the rickety dining-room table in our Weehawken, N.J., apartment. We had the top floor of a two-family house built late in the previous century, just two blocks from a magnificent park perched on the Palisades that offered a sweeping view of Manhattan, all the way out to New York Harbor, from the west side of the Hudson River. The towers were built when we were entering our teenage years, a source of true excitement at the prospect of yet another technological wonder just on our doorstep -- the tallest building in the world! -- and the subject of great debate as to their appearance. The lines were harsh, the buildings unornamented, and, once finished, they appeared to overweight the tip of Manhattan Island, whose skyline had long featured its tallest buildings at the island's center, with the building heights tapering downward at the northern- and southernmost points.
None of that mattered now. Ben* had a job to do in one of the biggest buildings in the world. He stood over the unfurled prints, examining the electrical schematics with an obvious sense of wonder on his face. Then he looked up with a quizzical look, saying, "You know what's so weird, Addie? I just walked into the building engineer's office and asked for these prints. They didn't ask for ID or anything. I think they would've given 'em to anybody." It was only two or three years before then that terrorists loyal to Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman had tried to blow up the buildings with a bomb, and failed, but still managed to kill six people in the effort.
* * *
Ours was not what you would call a good marriage, but it was filled with many kindnesses we accorded one another, perhaps to make up for our fundamental incompatibility, or to try to get the other one to see things one's own way. Or maybe we just loved each other. When I had to make impossible deadlines, he'd drive me to the city with my manuscripts and fellowship applications in the middle of the night; when he put in a long night at the 2 World Trade Center, I'd bring him a meal, traveling to and from the site via the PATH train, a subway that runs between Jersey and the Big Town.
The PATH station sat underneath the south tower, as 2 WTC was also known, its escalators leading to a large concourse filled with retail stores, some chain stores, some quirky little family-owned business, like the coffee joint where I'd hang, waiting for Ben to catch his break. At rush hour some 25,000 people moved through that concourse; more than double that number worked in the Trade Center. Long before Ben got his first WTC gig, I knew that concourse and the landscape of the financial district that surrounded it. Once within the buildings, there was more to appreciate aesthetically than was apparent from a distance -- especially the narrow, arched windows that echoed the Gothic forms of the ancient Trinity Church, just yards way, where George Washington prayed on the day of his inauguration, now cast into shadow by the towers.
Other times I just stopped by a makeshift plywood storefront with an offering of sustenance, finding Ben in the unglamorous surroundings of a gutted space, all wires, pipes and dusty concrete floor.
Only once had I ventured to the building's upper floors, for a glamorous press event at Windows on the World, the swanky restaurant whose main attraction was the sweeping views it offered of the city and the harbor. I was happy to have seen it, and indeed it was beautiful, but I never wanted to go back. It made me uneasy, the obvious vulnerability, and the palpable wind that relentlessly blew, unbroken by anything but the tower and its twin.
* * *
In 1998, I moved to Washington, D.C., without my husband. He continued to rack up job after job in the World Trade Center, as well as other store build-outs elsewhere in Manhattan. We were not quite through with each other, but our marriage was pretty much over. I took a job with a non-profit organization to work on a project about women and religion. By April, I was in Peshawar, where Osama bin Laden had set up shop, having just issued a fatwa against Americans and their property.
At the time, Peshawar, the provincial capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, was home to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees, who lived in dusty camps guarded by hostile, Urdu-speaking Pakistani security forces, and ruled in part by the Taliban.
The plight of Afghanistan's women under the rule of the Taliban was a feminist cause célèbre; since Kabul had fallen to the black-turbaned mullahs, Afghan women were banned from just about any public place, unless they were covered head-to-toe in a burqa and accompanied by a male relative. Girls were banned from attending school. If accused of adultery, there were subject to public execution by stoning. Now there was noise coming out of the Clinton administration about possible diplomatic recognition of the Taliban, which at that point was recognized by only three countries. One of them was Saudi Arabia. A U.S. company was looking to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, and the administration was considering cutting a deal.
I came to Peshawar to interview to women's rights activists -- both Afghan and expatriate -- about the Taliban, and about Islam. I was about as dumb and naive an American as you might find. Up until my South Asian sojourn, my international experience amounted to a weekend Ben and I had spent in Quebec. Oh, I was pretty book-smart about it all; I knew my Pastuns from my Hazaras, and had followed news of the region since the Soviet invasion in the 1970s.
And I knew what the Taliban were doing to women. I just didn't know why. The common assumptions you heard among progressives and feminists in Washington were rooted in extolling the horrors of patriarchal religion and patriarchal societies, and what happens when those are given their ultimate expression. And while all that was important, it wasn't that simple once you were on the ground.
In the Nasir Bagh refugee camp, more than 120,000 Afghans lived in mud huts made by their own hands. Many had arrived long before the Taliban ever came to power in Afghanistan, fleeing Soviet tanks and the civil war that followed -- a war fought with the artillery provided by the United States via Pakistan, taken through the Khyber Pass before which Peshawar is the last big city. The automatic rifles and shoulder-launched missiles paid for with U.S. tax dollars were meant to vanquish the Soviets -- and they did, in the hands of the Islamic fighters. That mission accomplished, the U.S. looked away while Afghanistan descended into chaos, without so much as a, "Hey, thanks, fellas, for helping us win the Cold War."
Among those who helped in that cause, of course, was Osama bin Laden, who had also helped to import an extreme form of Islam, Wahabbism, to Afghanistan from his native Saudi Arabia. The Taliban, which adopted much of Wahabbi belief, was born of the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. (Peshawar is a Pashtun town.) They have an honor code known as Pastunwali, which promises the utmost consideration and hospitality to the enemy of one's enemy.
Since that time, a whole generation of young men had grown up in the refugee camps of Peshawar. They were angry, had no prospects and owned no land. They were ripe for the picking by the Taliban.
In the camps I found plenty of women wearing the burqa. But it wasn't because the Taliban made them; many of them came from families in which the burqa had always been worn. Other women dressed in a common Afghan style that featured a loosely worn, scarf-like veil, and the pants-and-tunic outfit known as a shalwar kamiz. It was complicated.
For the Taliban, women were cultural symbols, the Afghanistan scholar Nancy Hatch Dupree, sitting in her Peshawar office at the ACBAR Resource Center, explained to me. The Westernized woman who held positions in universities and government ministries during the Soviet occupation became the symbol of the occupier, Dupree explained. And the Taliban's harsh treatment of women, with their vice police beating women on the streets, was a means of asserting the Taliban's primacy in face of other men. Before the Taliban came to power, it was unthinkable that any man would beat the wife of another. That was the husband's right.
I met with a group of women activists at the offices of a non-profit in Peshawar who told me second-hand stories of what was happening in the camps, since few in the camps were wiling to talk to me. Women were being sexually abused by the guards, they said. If it became known that a woman had been raped, she could be disowned or worse by her own family. Several women told the same story of a family whose daughter was kidnapped, only to be deposited on their doorstep two days later, barely alive, with a kidney missing.
During my stay in Peshawar, I received an invitation to a reception at the U.S. consulate in honor of a State Department official who was touring the region. All the local women's rights activists were there -- from the U.N., from the European and U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, from the Afghan groups. We all wanted to know what the U.S. would do to save Afghanistan's imperiled women.
Well, the diplomat explained, we could get birth control to the women in the north, in a region of the country that was not controlled by the Taliban. That was pretty much it. The women who were being stoned to death in Kabul were beyond our reach.
I sat with an Afghan woman who ran a sewing collective sponsored by a Scandinavian nation. She was a Pashtun poet, and very gentle in her affect. I asked her what one thing she wanted people in the U.S. to understand about her people. "All Taliban are Pushtun," she said, "but not all Pashtun are Taliban." I didn't have the heart to tell her that most Americans had never heard of the Pashtuns, and that many thought Afghans and Arabs to be pretty much the same people.
I came home from South Asia sick as a dog -- sick with a water-borne parasite, sick over the fate of the brilliant women I had met along the way for whom there was no future, sick over the destruction of lives and culture my nation had facilitated and ignored, sick over my own confusion about it all, and still sick over the fate of my marriage.
While I was in Pakistan, Ben called to wish me a happy birthday. I was 42. Things were going fine on his latest job at the World Trade Center, he said.
* * *
In November of 2000, we finally divorced, but it would still be a while before we truly let go. We scheduled long phone calls with each other, and occasionally got together, though the time gaps between our meetings became further and further apart.
As my marriage had unraveled, so had my career, and I had been fast at work putting it back together, and trying to make a life. I started going to a 12-step recovery program, and began eeking out a living as a full-time journalist again, with regular gigs at two Web sites and a column at a monthly magazine. Then the dot-com bust hit, and the Web work disappeared.
In August 2001, the magazine went belly-up quite suddenly, and I was panicked for work. A call to a temp agency landed me a secretarial stint at a notoriously right-wing advocacy organization for big corporations. I needed to make rent, and figured I'd probably learn a few things that would prove useful when I got back to reporting.
The organization headquarters is in a sleekly decorated office building that adjoins the National Press Building, just three blocks from the White House, on Pennsylvania Avenue. If there was any camaraderie in that place, I didn't find it. Surveillance cameras were mounted in the corridors, and the admin staff toiled in open cubicles that faced the corridors. On the other side of the hallway, the higher-ups worked in nicely-appointed fishbowl offices, many with televisions running all day long, tuned to CNN (which was then an actual news channel).
I arrived at my cube to word that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. I took that to mean a small plane had hit high one of the towers. I was worried, but I knew that Ben's work was on the lower floors in the south tower, so I focused on putting together the packets for the briefing my boss was convening the next day on how employers could minimize their health-care costs. Then came word of the second plane hitting the south tower, and I dared to look into the glass-walled office of one of the lobbyists at the television. I looked with alarm at the woman whose cube space adjoined mine. "Must be that Osama bin Laden," she said.
I began frantically dialing Ben's numbers, but phone service was already down between New York and Washington. I went back to my packets, stopping every few minutes to dial, to no avail. Within a half hour, the Pentagon was struck. I was now in automaton mode, in a rhythm of futile dialing and packet-stuffing. My boss came around and told me they were shutting the building. I offered to stay to finish the packets. No, he said, we all have to leave.
"But what about the briefing?" I asked. I was trying to cling to a schedule, a promise of mundane normality within 24 hours.
"Adele, there's not going to be any briefing," he said with a kindly look on his face.
* * *
Outside, the weather was perfect and the sirens were screaming. All of downtown Washington was turned out into the streets. There was still a plane unaccounted for. Smoke rose in the distance. All mass transit was shut down, as were the bridges and tunnels. People walked in throngs, quietly talking amongst themselves, kind of dazed, not really knowing where to go.
My apartment was only a mile and change from the office, and my route took me past Lafayette Park, the public space that lays between the White House and St. John's Church. The park is small, and even at the far side from the White House, the view of the executive mansion is clear. I still couldn't reach Ben, so I decided to stand at the edge of the park and watch the White House. If the missing plane was headed that way, I would be there to watch it. I could see men with guns moving on the roof.
I stood there a long time, maybe an hour, maybe less. Nothing happened. Thank God, I thought, and trudged home. That's when I saw the video of the south tower -- Ben's tower -- collapsing.
The ensuing hours became a vigil of hitting the redial button on the phone, and watching endless video loops of the same horror. Then finally, miraculously, sometime in the afternoon, Linda picked up the phone at Ben's office. She was an empath; her voice was soothing. She said the magic words: "Adele, he's okay. He didn't go to the city today." When we finally spoke -- it might have been the next day -- I learned that he had been on his way to his office, in New Jersey, sitting on a stretch of highway with a clear view of the skyline when the first tower collapsed.
Ben is an avid photographer and always keeps a camera with him; he's been known to shoot drive-by photos of weird stuff on the highway -- burning cars and the like. But not this. "I just couldn't," he said. He knew people inside that place who were busy dying.
* * *
There comes a point in the coverage of any disaster when the television has been saying and showing nothing new for many hours, and you finally give up hope for finding a satisfying answer. In the late afternoon of September 11, 2001, the phones still weren't really working; it seems I had gotten through to Jersey on a fluke. I wandered out into an empty street, drawn to the clubhouse where we had our 12-step meetings. There was no meeting scheduled, and I had no reason to expect the club to be open, but it was. My sponsor, Anna, had a key, and there she was. Soon, two other friends wandered in, and nobody else. It was odd, because we were all close with each other, and we had converged at the same time, but no one other than us had.
Marshall suggested we try to find an open restaurant. Thankfully, the social entrepreneur Andy Shallal and kept his Luna Grille open. So we four crowded into a booth. "Let's all talk about where we'd like to be in five years," Marshall said. He's not a therapist, but he should be. Honestly, I can't remember what any of us said, including me. I do know this: by the beginning of the following year, Anna left D.C., where she was from, to move to Ohio, because of the attack. Denny left the city, too, to move an hour out into the suburbs, where he would work, as well.
There was no work the next day, so I started dialing around to some of the sources I'd developed when I was researching Afghanistan. One number yielded a middling-level government official who apparently needed to talk to somebody. I reached him by accident, trying to find somebody who no longer worked there. Did I know that Gen. Mahmud Ahmed, head of the Pakistani intelligence agency had been in the U.S. when the attacks took place? Why, no, I did not. Ahmed helped stage the coup that brought Gen. Pervez Musharaff to power as Pakistan's head of state; he was also known to be sympathetic to the Taliban.
I talked to the official again over the weekend. He confirmed that, after the attacks, Ahmed met with U.S. government officials who demanded Pakistani cooperation in securing the Taliban's cooperation in capturing bin Laden. Jeez, I thought, never gonna happen. Haven't these guys ever heard of Pashtunwali?
I thought I had a tidbit interesting enough to be worthy of a short article for the one Web site among my former clients that was still in business. "Um, I don't know. I mean, what are you trying to say?"
"Nothing," I said. "Just that the head of the ISI was in the U.S. at the time of the attacks, and now he's being told to surrender bin Laden. I mean, if nothing else, it's kinda interesting."
No dice -- could be taken for a conspiracy theory.
When National Organization of Greedy Corporations** reopened its offices later that week, we were convened in a large conference by one of the executives. "Let's all bow our heads in a moment of silence for those who lost their lives," he said. The words were barely out his mouth when he picked his head and said, "Well, okay." He thought we should throw out ideas for what we could do at this time in the spirit of coming together and helping out in the aftermath of the attacks.
People looked really stricken. I particularly remember this one woman, an attorney, whom I had really been scared of, her broad and permanent scowl was always perfectly painted in dark red lipstick, setting off her pale skin and dark hair. She looked small and frightened now herself, and a bit teary. The staff offered up earnest suggestions: "We could bring sandwiches to the firefighters at the Pentagon," or, "We could give staff time to volunteer at the disaster site."
The executive let this go on for a while. Then he made a suggestion of his own. How 'bout if the organization's member companies offered up some small percentage of the purchase price of certain goods or services to donate to a special 9/11 fund for I can't remember what. It would be a 9/11 marketing campaign. (Look for specially marked packages...) I felt bile start to move up my esophagus; I was really going to throw up.
By the time I was done in the bathroom, the meeting had ended. I went to my boss' office and told him I had to go to New York. I didn't really, but I had to give him some reason that I couldn't come back. "So, you'll be back next week?" he asked.
"No," I said. "You have to understand. I'm really sick from this."
Like I was the only one.
* * *
The doorbell was buzzing, but my mind was far away. I sat on the balcony of my apartment, gazing up into the sky, glimpsing the outline of a fighter jet, high above, tiny yet unmistakable in its triangular form. I didn't want to talk to anybody. But she saw me out there, so I had to let her up.
"I figured I'd find you in some kind of a zone," my friend, Eileen, said.
She dragged me out for coffee, and then told me that her brother-in-law was missing. He worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, the brokerage firm that had been headquartered in the World Trade Center. Making matters worse, he was now her ex-brother-in-law, as Eileen and her partner of 19 years had broken up only months before. And he was never legally her brother-in-law, because there was no marriage available to same-sex couples at that time. But he was someone she loved, and the world gave her no legitimate claim to the torment she felt as she contemplated the horrors that had likely befallen him.
That's the part that gets us. It's much more than the death. It's knowing that those who died suffered so horrifically before their lives ended so unfairly.
* * *
The next week, a week to the day of the attacks, I started a new temp job, this one a much better fit, as they say, at the American Federation of Government Employees. The attacks were pretty much all anyone could talk about, when they managed to talk at all. I stepped outside on my coffee break, and found myself chatting with a young man from the in-house print shop. He lost his aunt at the Pentagon, he told me, his eyes welling up. We had just met.
And that's how it was for everybody. Even if you and yours were spared, everybody knew somebody who lost somebody, it seemed. Grief was never more than a degree of separation away.
A few weeks later, the U.S. began airstrikes in Afghanistan. I knew the Pakistanis had been trying to force the people of the Nasir Bagh camp to go back to their homeland, and wondered if any of the refugees I met had made it home, only to be bombed when they got there.
The terrorist attacks soon provided a pretext for any extraconstitutional measure the Bush administration -- and even local governments -- cared to take. Muslim men were rounded up in Paterson, New Jersey. Illegal wiretapping became widespread. Congress passed the USA PATRIOT ACT. We were now engaged in a "war on terror," a contradiction in terms if there ever was one, terror being an emotion that has never been alleviated by war.
When Congress went on to create the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush administration saw its opening for another sort of a war -- a war on the rights of public employees. And there I was, by complete happenstance, in the headquarters of the resistance, typing up my new boss's strategy memos.
The creation of TSA took place in an atmosphere of total chaos. The administration hired a contractor, NCS Pearson, to put the new agency together, even though its very creation was an attempt to correct the corrupt and shoddy screening system staffed by contractors who had allowed the 9/11 hijackers to board the planes they ultimately used as weapons. The contractor that did the hiring for TSA proved to be no more effective, and no less corrupt. Ultimately, the government paid more than $12,000 to hire each screener. Meanwhile, screeners weren't receiving their paychecks, weren't properly trained, were subjected to mandatory overtime and abusive behavior by managers.
Originally, the Bush administration opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which combined 22 disparate government agencies and entities under a single cabinet secretary. When public opinion went against the administration, it relented, but with a stipulation. Bush would sign the bill if the president was granted broad authority to deny collective bargaining rights to those moved into the new department.
In the House, Majority Leader Dick Armey led the charge for the anti-union provisions. Today, Armey leads FreedomWorks, one of the two main astroturf groups responsible for the organization of the Tea Party movement. In a sense, you could say that the Tea Party movement was born in November 2002, when George W. Bush signed the Homeland Security Act.
AFGE began organizing airport screeners almost as soon as TSA came into being. But in January 2003, TSA chief James Loy signed an executive order forbidding the screeners to collectively bargain.
Meanwhile, the administration began setting up DHS in ways designed to be destructive to the unions that represented the employees being folded into the new agency, creating new bargaining units that pit the existing unions in competition with each other for the retention of their members. It was pure evil genius.
I would spend the next four years at AFGE, engaged in this fight, first as a secretary, and then as a communications specialist, working with the organizers of the TSA screeners, before I returned again to journalism.
* * *
After the attacks of 9/11, it took a while before I found my way back to New York. It was Eastertime before I saw, first-hand, the big hole in the ground where the towers used to stand. There was a throng of us gawkers, standing across the street from the site, held back by orange plastic fencing and cops on guard duty. Like New York itself, the small crowd comprised all races, and people from across the spectrum of social class.
A young man stood just in front of me, a small yarmulke pinned to the back of his head. I murmured something, I don't remember what, as I stood awestruck at the enormity of the hole, and the huge, yellow earth-mover being used to pick up soil and debris that would then be sifted by hand in the search for evidence and human remains.
He turned around. "I was supposed to be there," he said to me, "but I was 20 minutes late for work that day."
Two years later, I returned to New York, on leave from the union, to cover the 2004 Republican National Convention for the Washington Blade. New York had been chosen specifically as the convention city because of the World Trade Center attacks. The invasion of Iraq was going into its second year, and the administration was arbitrarily detaining whomever it wanted to and contracting out the torture of so-called "enemy combatants" to governments run by dictators. The abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was a full-blown scandal. And GITMO was in full swing.
The New York I found in September 2004 was not a New York I had ever seen before. It was a city under martial law. Mayor Michael Bloomberg illegally detained hundreds of protesters in a makeshift prison on the Chelsea Pier, and the people of New York re-elected him either in spite or because of it.
The perimeter around Madison Square Garden, where the convention took place, was so vast that those of us who covered what was taking place within the Garden never even caught a glimpse of the protesters. In order to get to the Blade's New York offices in midtown, I had to prove my bona fides to a phalanx of cops, presenting a press pass and an assignment letter.
In the convention hall, speech after speech hailed the glories of the Iraq war and highlighted the horrors of 9/11. "U-S-A! U-S-A!" the crowd chanted in unison, especially during the convention speech delivered by Vice President Dick Cheney, who declared Democratic candidate John Kerry, a decorated war veteran, "unfit" for office.
The opening night of the convention featured a "special tribute" to 9/11 families and first responders that featured searing video of the attacks on the towers, and a speech Rudolph Giuliani, who had been New York's mayor at the time of the attacks. "Thank God George W. Bush is president," he said.
I was on the convention floor, wandering around during the video tribute. I knew it was propaganda. Nonetheless, if made me cry. In my wanderings, I found myself standing next to the row in which Bloomberg and then-Gov. George Pataki sat together, with tears streaming down their faces, as the Bill of Rights was suspended for protesters who spent the night in unsafe conditions in a makeshift jail. No tears for them, or for the U.S Constitution, which may as well have been laying charred, and in tatters, at their feet.
Labor unions, led by AFGE, eventually did win the right to organize TSA screeners, and screeners chose AFGE as their union earlier this year, even as the public employees of Wisconsin, Michigan and other states lost theirs.
Last year, a judge ruled that the City of New York did not have to release documents detailing the surveillance it conducted on protesters at the 2004 convention.
Osama bin Laden is dead, but the United States is still at war in Afghanistan.
The U.S. Constitution has not been restored. The surveillance provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act that were set to expire were reauthorized by a Democratic Congress in 2010, and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Eileen fell in love and moved to Europe.
Ben and I stopped speaking, for no particular reason. I learned through a friend that he married again and has children. He now does still-life art photography.
I returned to journalism in 2006, and now mostly cover the Tea Party movement. I think about the people I met in Peshawar every day.
*Ben is not his real name. The names of all people who are not public figures have been changed to protect their privacy.
**Not its real name.