Observations: September 2001

I awoke a few minutes past 6 AM PDT and came to the living room. The TV was already on and the program was in Breaking News mode, the picture showing a World Trade Center tower on fire. In the first few seconds, I thought I was viewing a high-rise fire. Then that incredible footage of the second plane gave my first hint of the enormity of the events that were unfolding. That image was so surreal that I didn’t react emotionally until later, when my spirits sagged at the horror of living people falling from the sky to their deaths.

In stunned disbelief, I was viewing what appeared to be random acts of terrorism, albeit on a grand scale. That understanding lasted only until I saw the first pictures of carnage at the Pentagon and subsequently saw the collapse of the towers. The scale of events now exceeded anything I could characterize as mere terrorism. Yet even this did not evoke a visceral reaction like shock or anger, but rather an abstract sense of foreboding, together with a strange excitement that one feels when witnessing an event with the potential to change everything. It looked like it had started out to be a nice day back East. Then a storm raged across the skyline, for no comprehensible reason.

Whenever human tragedy strikes, one looks for the heroes to emerge and provide some boost to the spirit. For those first few minutes, there were no heroes visible. But then within the hour, there was news of a plane down in Pennsylvania. By that time, it was being reported that three hijacked airliners had caused all this visible damage. And there was reporting of personal cell phone calls from the doomed airliners. I thought at once that this downed plane was a fourth hijacking gone bad, and felt a strong premonition of what the news folk only deduced a day later. The first heroes had emerged. Tears welled on viewing the first images at the crash scene, as I imagined their last frantic struggle, anonymous, out of the sight of the TV cameras, but saving America from a potential blow that might have wiped out a substantial segment of our government. It seemed I was the only one who sensed this at the time, my secret heroes for a while.

The media folk are seldom mistaken for heroes, and this was no exception. The media had multiple shots of the second plane slicing into the south tower. They played them over and over, each time yet another knife plunging into America’s body and causing me silently to gasp, anger building with each repeat, less at the perpetrators than the media who seemed to be engorging themselves on bloody content. Then the media began alternating these plane segments with the collapse segments. Over and over. Truly the word overkill came to mind. I could imagine the shouts of glee from the perpetrators at each repeat of the attack video. We were glorifying their atrocity. Media, strike one. Fortunately, a greater sense of propriety and self-control came over the TV media in the days that followed, for the plane segments were much less frequently shown.

After a while, a report came that several hundred firefighters and police were missing in the fallen towers. I couldn’t believe the number. I clicked around the channels looking for a happier number. None came. The second set of heroes had emerged. And with a performance under immense sorrow and pressure that could only be described as classy, the NYC mayor would add his name to the list by the end of the first 24 hours. And one hoped that our President would add his name to the list. But he was initially missing in action.

A TV camera was filming our President while he was visiting an elementary school classroom. When receiving the information, the look on his face was of a child transfixed by the headlights of an oncoming truck. He was removed and spirited around the country, from Florida to Louisiana, Nebraska, and finally home. His spin-doctors claimed that there was ‘credible evidence’ that Air Force One was being targeted. It smells of BS. But he did get back to Washington that day. And he would have better days ahead. Yet the perception of disarray in the actions of the Commander in Chief was disquieting, particularly against the backdrop of our heroes on that first day, so few of whom would have the pleasure of awakening on the next. It might not have been different for any other president though. It’s possibly something they should mentally prepare for and practice. They can’t count on a teleprompter being there to feed the prepared speech.

It seems that whenever we have heroes, we also have low life elements whose sole purpose in life is to demonstrate the wide range that exists in the quality of the human spirit. The foremost of this low group of course are the terrorists themselves, in a class unto themselves, the embodiment of an unthinking hatred, zombie ‘sleepers’ infiltrating our society, appearing to be real humans as they accept the generosity of their hosts, but pre-programmed to slit their throats while they sleep. These vile automatons are better off dead from all viewpoints. They are now martyred from the standpoint of their culture, enshrined in paradise where their holy book guarantees sexual favors for eternity, a reflection of their male-saturated culture. From our standpoint, the demise of their lowly lives is a first installment on justice.

Later came an astonishing parade of our own petty low lives of absolutely no character at all, people who stole trade center rubble and tried to auction it on the Internet, people who tried to sell trade center debris to victims’ families, charities that collected money for the victims’ families and just absorbed much of the money until public opinion intervened on the victims’ behalf, employers that wouldn’t assist their dead employees’ families, ambulance-chasing lawyers, insurance scams using names of deceased people from the towers, businesses (gas stations, rental car agencies, hotels) raising their prices several fold for the days after the tragedy, all the usual suspects who prey on the unfortunates and on us all. This parade of characters without character is so uniformly lacking in charity that it forces one to be uncharitable in return, to ask why it is that the wrong ones die?

The final spokesmodel for low life schlock was a clueless reporter standing near ground zero at the trade center debris, clutching four sheets of paper that had landed on the pavement, sheets that had hours earlier been in the towers on someone’s desk or cabinet, perhaps someone who would never see their loved ones again. And this reporter was describing these nothing sheets of paper and reading them and showing them to the camera with such enthusiasm and manufactured zeal, as if she saw in them some profound importance, or as if she were interviewing for a TV news job and trying to make a big impression. Well, she did that. I will not soon forget that woman’s soul-less face. Media, strike two.

Anger was missing from my immediate emotional responses to these events, except perhaps some disgust with the media. Real anger at the perpetrators didn’t appear until the video footage of mobs of Palestinian young men cheering at the news of our misfortune, as if this were sport and the home team had just scored a goal. Yet if one looked past the radicalized youth, in the background, in the shadows, on the sidewalks, one could see real Palestinians looking bewildered and saddened by this display, wondering perhaps how they had become involved. I found myself hoping that these quiet folk and their leaders will find a way to prevent that ugly, screaming mob of zombie sleeper wannabes from determining the cumulative identity of their people and thus blighting their destiny. If my anger is indicative of the majority feeling, the destiny of our newly declared enemies will be unpleasant. We have much noble work ahead of us.

I deduced early on that morning that I wouldn’t be going to work, since I am employed at a high-profile facility related to the federal government. I was out the next day as well while my employer was scrambling to install appropriate security measures. Fortunately I wasn’t one of the unlucky ones traveling that week.

Sporting events were cancelled for that week and weekend for reasons that I question; maintaining normalcy is always the best antidote to catastrophe, and I think it honors those lost lives when we do not interrupt our routines, but rather go about them with an enhanced reverence. But was normalcy really possible? Two weeks later, watching a game at the Coliseum, a jetliner banked relatively close to the stadium. You could feel all 54,000 pairs of eyes look upward. Perhaps our primal fears of being snatched by birds of prey have been re-awakened, terror from the sky. The man next to me commented that we would never look at airplanes the same way again. Yep.

What my sleepy eyes observed that wake-up morning were the first few moments of a violent eruption of programmed hostility, issuing a warning and challenge to a free world, and setting the stage for a theater of war that must follow, a play in which our children’s children’s children will still be performing. There are many now waiting for justice to visit. They did not choose their enemy wisely.

That said, we must not waste this moment to become more self-reflective and to ask what our role might be in supporting the enemy’s ability to incite blind anger? Have we also killed too many innocents in our chosen armed conflicts around the world? Does not our own culture of corporatism turn an official blind eye to the disadvantaged, our own and the world’s? Has not the long term corrosive effects of the early 20th century colonialism of our European allies wreaked havoc on Middle East political stability? Has not our meddling in late 20th century politics in the Middle East stained our reputation further, as it has in Latin America? Our foreign and domestic policy strategies too often have not targeted the high road. Our history of heavy-handed foreign interventions tend to make us a pariah in the eyes of lesser nations.

October 11, 2001

A month has passed. My workplace has now returned to modified Threatcon Charlie on the way back to Threatcon Bravo. The stock market is making a small recovery. The weather is typical LA. But the world is different from an American perspective, and will not return to as it was.

Airport safety changes are the immediate evidence that things have changed dramatically. Non-commercial vehicles are not permitted into LAX. The on-airport parking lots are closed. Passengers are dropped off and picked up at off-airport long-term parking lots.

The scene at night at the pick-up lot consists of a crowd of people waiting, milling around in an area lighted by portable spotlights, with concrete and wooden barriers dividing areas of no obvious functionality, and some tent-like covers to protect from daylight sun. Tram after tram pulls up at the curb stuffed with arriving passengers from around the world, and somehow the arrivals find their waiting rides in this sea of humanity. There are no signs or directions, but a few folding chairs have been provided. They are used as much for people to stand on as for sitting, to get a better view of the new arrivals disembarking.

People are talking to others, asking what you know, how long you have been waiting, if you are so and so who was supposed to be wearing a shirt like that. A large number of folk are talking on their cell phones. For those of us who are cell-challenged, a bank of pay phones is provided, as are a few port-a-potties. There is a roadside mobile food vendor parked nearby. One thinks, this is so primitive, such a long cry from the modern facility a couple of miles away. But, bottom line, it works, showing us immediately how much we could stand to lose of our fat and luxury and still function well. Nobody seems aggravated at this scene, and in fact the people seem more polite than usual. The weather is nice tonight, and the roar of wide-bodies floating down a few hundred feet over the tops of the illuminated palm trees gives much more sense of airport than any modern terminal can do. I will miss that experience, that sense of being somehow more alive.

The FBI this afternoon posted a general terrorist threat advisory. It is unique in American annals in its chilling tone and lack of advisory specifics. Credible intelligence informs us the sleeper terrorist cells are on the move here and abroad. But we cannot defend ourselves against the non-specific threat. The possibilities overwhelm our imaginations as well as our resources. And there is nothing, nothing on the horizon that will change this. A complacent nation has of bleak necessity become a wary nation in the space of one month. We can now begin to appreciate how others outside our borders have lived and coped for generations. The world we have chosen to pay little mind to in the past has come a’callin’. This is the first episode of a foreign aggressor waging war on American soil since the War of 1812.

The month has produced questions. One asks if it all were inevitable, or if it were preventable? I believe the former. The enemy’s hatred of us is based in an ideology of religious fascism. It uses perceived past injustice only as a tool for mind control. As long as hatred is a lesson taught and learned, we reap war. And ignorant humans are uniquely competent in manufacturing hatred based on fear of real or imagined events. Teaching it to the children then takes it to a new level of intensity, stratifying the hatred throughout the society. That, I believe, is the defining characteristic of our newly declared enemy.

One next asks what form will our struggle take? That depends. The script for the first act has been written. But we don’t know how it will turn out, for our lines have been given to us as on a teleprompter, and we must simply respond. But we look ahead anyway, trying to guess where the plot will twist. We are trying to ad lib a little while we assess, but we do not yet know whether the playwright has already anticipated this, and thus we may still unknowingly be following the script. A game of cat and mouse comprises the play’s second scene. How many of our response moves have been anticipated by the enemy, and what response does he have planned? How many moves ahead has he plotted? The enemy on the ground, programmed zombies, shows that mind-controlled agents are still capable of being resourceful. The puppet masters are showing themselves to be quite clever as well, but in the long run too clever for their own good.

There is one big unknown that makes us uneasy and prevents us from predicting how Act 1 will end. Although for now it is clear our enemy has no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) he can deliver against us, his efforts to procure some must be a given in our response strategy. Rumors abound regarding small tactical thermonuclear devices (suitcase bombs stolen from Russia), and biochemical weapons supplied by some co-opted state or another. Such rumors can likely be discounted, but they have succeeded in getting our attention anyway.

The coast guard is on high alert in our ports. The National Guard protects some airports. NATO military planes prowl the skies over some cities, forming a protective shield over us, perhaps the first defense of American soil by other nations since the Revolution. All truck traffic is routed away from our Capitol. Airport procedures have changed dramatically. I have an extra checkpoint to clear when going to work, and I have my briefcase searched each day. All is not well. And there may be good reason for the concern.

Over the first month of war, our President has projected enhanced stature. His presidency went through a shock and confusion period initially as did we all. As one would expect, the President then spoke dramatically of war in absolute terms, as if America had the answers and would take care of business. It smacked of Rambo jingoism (a commentator’s phrase, not mine) with lots of flag waving, catch phrases such as ‘We will bring the enemy to justice, or we will bring justice to the enemy’, a caricature of an America of cowboys with images on posters: ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’.

Lately our President has become more nuanced and presidential, recognizing that we are not in this alone, that we do not have all the answers, that the solutions are complex, that we and our allies will be at this task for a long time. All this is encouraging in one sense. A better, stronger America and her government may be emerging. More sensibly, we avoid showing too much confidence, because we can see well the long, hard, costly road that lies ahead.

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