Sept. 11, 2001, yesterday was Tuesday, the day I head to New York City for my radio show. I make my way out of the quiet hills 200 km northeast of the city to drive to the metropolis. WBAI Pacifica Radio where I broadcast two weekly programs is located in lower Manhattan.
I would not reach there this Tuesday.
An hour out from the city limits at 9:30 am I casually turn on the car radio. I hear accounts of the catastrophic events just down the highway from me. I pull off the road to listen carefully to what I hear. It doesn’t take long for me to absorb the magnitude of this news. I find myself weeping uncontrollably. This lasts a few moments. I look around me to see cars passing me silently. Do they know? Have they too heard? Do they too grasp the magnitude of the catastrophe we have entered?
Newscasters repeatedly announce that all bridges and tunnels into Manhattan are closed. I decide nevertheless to continue southwards in that direction. I can stop at the home of a friend en route. Before restarting the car, I open my cell phone. The first call I make is to colleagues at the radio station. Silence. I try again. Nothing.
The studio from where we broadcast is just 400 meters from the World Trade Center. Somehow I do not expect our building is in imminent danger. I want to join my fellow broadcasters doing what journalists must do at such a time. I abandon the phone and switch my car radio to 99.5 fm. Ahhh. We are sending out signals. I hear the voices of Jose and Sally, Bernard and Deepak. They are calm, professional, as they try
to make sense of the terror in the streets below. I wish I were there with them–not for the scoop; there is no scoop today.
Any seasoned announcer knows how to use her voice and experience to help our stunned public through this. I need to be with my colleagues, knowing the political magnitude of this calamity. This is the job of a journalist, especially broadcasters, in moments of crisis.
At 20 kilometers from Manhattan I reach Mountain View, the crest of a hill on the six-lane highway funneling traffic towards the city. From here, one can see beyond surrounding hills to the iconic Manhattan skyline. On this unhappy morning, reaching this summit on the road, something is missing. The air is clear but I cannot see those distinctive two towers at the southern tip of Manhattan Island. What I can distinguish is a cloud of smoke seeping skyward. I began to weep again.
I have no doubt that I will be turned back at the George Washington Bridge. So before reaching there, I detour to the home of friends. I exit highway 4 and within a few moments, pull into their drive. Their television is on, and I am pulled slowly, hesitatingly forward to gaze at the catastrophe close up. All the channels–news, drama, marketing, sports, history– replay shots of the crash of the planes into those enormous buildings, then the soft, crumbling towers, sinking to the pavement.
I reach for my phone. Still no connection with the radio station. I try the homes of others who live in lower Manhattan. Nothing. I manage to reach my sister in a far away city, then, surprisingly connect to the phones of my guests scheduled for tonight’s live broadcast. The show will be cancelled. Of course.
I return to the television. My companions and I hardly speak. As I watch the spectacular images, (a spectacle indeed, so crushing–you have all seen them) of the impacting planes and the collapsing buildings, I feel sick. Inside that inferno and fuming rubble are thousands of women and men being incinerated, pulverized. The replays go on. And on. Each cycle takes but five minutes. But this rumble begins to deepen, to erode a status–a truth–that I know will last a generation. I watch, stunned, wanting this to be just a film. Just a film.
Weekly, en route through the city to our downtown studios, I regularly passed through the World Trade Center. Usually I exit the subway train that terminates underground, beneath that maze of towers. I walk through the busy mezzanine and out to the street and proceed to the east end of Wall Street. This subway stop is now a mass tomb.
Those two towers are–were–so colossal. I’ve always been aware of their immensity. They spread over large blocks across the city pavement and sweep upwards. They dwarf everything around, even the 19-story building where I work.
That was yesterday.
Today, Wednesday–the day after, our station, although undamaged, has ceased sending out news, along with other communications centers in the lower part of Manhattan. Were we forced to evacuate? Perhaps our transmitter is damaged; perhaps electrical cables are cut.
My thoughts shift from the dead and grieving to the future, not a distant future, but the weeks and months ahead. This catastrophe is bound to affect Arab and Muslim Americans. Already newscasters are speculating that the perpetrators are of Arab origin. This is going to bear down on every one of us, wherever we are in the USA. Not because of more terror attacks here. Because authorities will launch a hunt. Expansion of intelligence activity across the country is inevitable.
After earlier, less horrific incidents, our Congress hastily passed anti-terrorism laws that already began overriding our civil rights. Most citizens were unaware of this because the immediate target of those laws was one community–local Muslims and Arabs. The press was not alarmed. But regulations were in place, here and abroad. Congress had already granted greatly expanded power to our intelligence agencies and the civil liberties of our people has already felt the terror of the anti-terror laws.
Thirty hours have passed since that morning. I returned home, mournfully, slowly, silently that same Tuesday. Once in my town, I do not seek out neighbors. In coming days we encounter one another on the street. Few words are exchanged. Yet I find myself disputing their “get them” threats, pulling back from their wild emotions—“wipe them all out”.
“We are grieving; we must be united. We still know so little, really”, I try to remind them. They do not hear me. I abruptly cut off these discussions to be alone at home, with my hand on the radio dial, switching from one radio station or another. I am indolent. I cannot think logically.
We are afraid. All of us are afraid for our future (yes, the future of this disneyland of democracy and all the stuff we strive to possess, stuff that we take so for granted– for ourselves). I think many are very angry because they are overcome with a sense of sudden vulnerability in this hitherto invincible land. I expect that this country will answer with revenge, not reflection. This frightens me most.
I ask myself: what about our much lauded surveillance intelligence systems? Isn’t it built to protect the nation, to safeguard the money centers and fun parks and military research locations? I ask others the same question; they’re not interested. Neither are the newscasters, neither the commentators, neither our civic leaders.
Surely this tragedy is a huge intelligence and military blunder by our own government. Why is no one else questioning its failure? How could a high-jacked plane get close enough to fly into the pentagon? The pentagon! That’s the American defense center, probably the most secure structure on the planet!
The citizens pay heavily for that supersafe, invincible complex. With its bravado and its secret budget and hoards of heroic generals and intelligence agents, how could they not have foreseen this invasion? Tell me.
And now, in the failure, the shirkers will lash out at others. They will call for more spies and more enhanced spying, more equipment and more reports by experts. They’re already launching investigations of those they failed to identify beforehand.
Today, somehow, our security agents are certain who did this. We hear news reports naming the men who carried out the attacks. Swiftly and with such certitude, authorities now zero in on the culprits. Just days after the fact, we are given details of the criminals they say flew those planes into America.
Thus far, I personally feel unmolested, thus far. But now my personal and professional missions seem in jeopardy. For thirteen years, at considerable risk, cost and hard work, I’ve devoted all my energies and resources to fighting stereotypes and educating the US public about our Arab culture, our people, Islam. At times, as a journalist I think I helped people understand our dreams and our common values. Whatever small successes we had building the bridges may now be wiped out. Just as the Gulf War in 1991 erased our efforts in community work and education in the previous decade. Today, we do not start at zero, but far earlier than zero.
It’s still possible that emerging ‘facts’ that first lead the government and media to identify Arabs and Muslims as the perpetrators of this awful crimes turn out to be mistaken. It may not matter if they are wrong. Because in the end, ultimately, it is the American government that must change its policy towards the world’s peoples. It is our administration and our citizens who must reverse their actions and attitudes. It is here that the humiliation and devastation of millions if not billions of people began.
I try to be optimistic. Perhaps unseen, behind the militant posturing and threats, the leadership of this nation will indeed reflect. Perhaps it will reconsider its own barbarous military policies across the world. Perhaps it will change itself.
Will our new American experience of fleeing through the streets of a city in terror, facing daily uncertainties about our security, searching for the dead and watching so many perish, finally connect us to so many others around the world for whom these are all to common experiences?