9/11: a Personal Reflection After 20 Years

For 20 years I resisted making any personal remarks about the attacks September the 11th, particularly regarding the World Trade Center in NYC. I thought it was inappropriate and inconsequential because I did not suffer personal loss like so many that day. But I have been reflecting a lot on that historic event lately. And given that the US war against Afghanistan is now over, at least officially if not covertly, I think there is good reason for that.

I grew up in New York. Long Island to be specific. But I had family and friends scattered all around the tri-state area, from Queens to Manhattan to Union City to Astoria to Flushing. My father was born in a tenement in Manhattan to poor immigrants from Greece who barely spoke English. The twin towers loomed large in my childhood memory because we went into the city at least once a week, frequently more, to go to church and to visit family and friends. They, along with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, were usually the first dominant features one would see as they approached the city.

When I was a kid I went there on a class trip. I was the only child not allowed to go on the roof because my mom, who was one of the parent chaperones, thought it was too high and too windy and that because I was so skinny I might blow off. I went back again several times over the years, not to the top, just to the plaza or to the bars around the area. New York was a different place back then. This was before Giuliani’s disneyfication crusade. It was more gritty. More dangerous. And, to be honest, more exciting.

One rainy day in the mid-90s, when I was in graduate school on Long Island, I got a call. “How would you like to work in the twin towers?” asked a woman with a thick Bronx accent. The position would have been at Cantor Fitzgerald. I had no idea how she got my number. I didn’t even know what Cantor Fitzgerald was. And I wasn’t even studying finance, but rather public health and social welfare. “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “We are looking for a diversified group.” I found out later that recruiting college or university students in this way was pretty commonplace at the time.

I remember considering her offer for a long moment. I loved Manhattan. I would get there every chance I could. But my math skills are abysmal. “That doesn’t matter either,” she said. We will train you in what you need to know. It will be exciting.” I hung up the phone imagining myself taking the LIRR (Long Island Railroad) into work every weekday. That is, of course, until I could find an apartment in the city, preferably near the Village or Soho. I never called her back. But sometimes I’ve wondered what my life would have looked like if I had.

Now maybe some of you are scratching your heads right now. Me? Taking a job in investments and trading stocks? Capitalism on steroids, I know. But it was Manhattan. The city. And that was very enticing to me at the time. After all, my mother eagerly came to NYC from rural Nova Scotia when she was just 18 years old. She wanted nothing else than to get there. She only knew a couple people there at the time and got a place to stay and a job right near Gramercy Park in a matter of days. My parents met and fell in love in Manhattan. That is where they married. I went in often, met with friends, had a few flings, had a few adventures and made some ill advised decisions. It has always held a kind of magic for me.

Fast forward to 2001. I had moved to San Diego, California, right after grad school, at the invitation of my sister who had already been living there. It was in that city that I had met the love of my life and I was working in hospice care. The night before the attacks I was out at a pub with a friend after choir practice. Ironically, we had been talking about NYC and how he had always wanted to visit. I said we should plan a trip. Early the next morning, my sister called me and told me that planes had hit both towers of the World Trade Center. I rushed to the television and just minutes after I turned it on, the North Tower collapsed. Like millions of others, I stayed pinned to my tv for several hours, calling friends and relatives, some in New York, hoping they were safe, trying to make sense of what was unfolding.

Over the day I tried to go about my job visiting patients, but all anyone could do is watch the television. I drove around town in a daze, having to stop several times to just close my eyes. Like so many others, I remember seeing the clips of people jumping. My sister urged me to stop watching the news coverage because she saw me break down sobbing at the sight of one woman who plunged to her death, flying through the blue skies of that September morning, as if she were one of the thousands of papers falling with her to the pavement below.

I remember the dust coated survivors, trudging through the streets that no longer resembled a modern city. The haunting sound of the firefighters PASS units going off incessantly under the rubble, signaling their probable death. I remember the bewilderment on so many faces, the worried eyes, the hunched shoulders. And I couldn’t help but see the name Cantor Fitzgerald flash by several times. Later I would learn that every employee who went to work for that firm on that morning was killed. 658 souls.

In the weeks and months that followed those horrific events, I watched a country rally together in collective grief. Spontaneous vigils were held. Kindness and hospitality spread. Friendships were deepened. It was a time of collective shock and grief that could only be assuaged in embrace and distraction.

It wasn’t long, however, before I saw nationalism spread like a cancer throughout the country. Egged on by a criminal administration in the White House and their useful tools in corporate media, xenophobia, racism and the drums of war began to beat louder and louder. It was almost everywhere I went. Stores, restaurants, the post office, on the freeway, at dinner parties. A lust for revenge. For blood. Especially among those who had lost no loved one in the attacks. And then there were the chants of “USA,USA,USA.” Anything loud to numb the mind of reason, stamp out empathy and solidarity, and drown out any rational discourse.

After that, came the justifications for invading another country. Feminism was used as a cloak for militaristic aggression. As if bombing impoverished villages to smithereens would somehow liberate women from patriarchal oppression. Then came the assault on civil liberties. The growth of the surveillance state. And after Afghanistan, Iraq. And the rampage went on and on and on throughout the global south. The lessons of Vietnam were buried. Forgotten. Scoffed at. It was now all about “shock and awe.” Anyone who opposed this madness, which included me, were cast as cowards, traitors or worse. How dare we dishonour the lives of those killed? How dare we defend terrorists? We were silenced. Marginalized. Our dissent was crushed.

And so it proceeded. Whole families would be incinerated by sophisticated “smart” bombs or gunned down at checkpoints by the mercenaries of Blackwater. Men and boys humiliated, tortured, raped and murdered at gulags like Abu Ghraib. Infants born with horrific deformities thanks to the depleted uranium the US military used liberally. Whole villages erased, countless lives shattered, mutilated. And all the twisted excuses to justify even more atrocities. Ironically, congresswoman Barbara Lee’s warning “let us not become the evil that we deplore” was merely a portent of what was to unfold.

Twenty years have passed. In my mind, I can still see the towers billowing smoke, the people falling to the earth, the dust of humans and concrete. But I can also see the many layers of deliberately caused misery that came after, in far off places. The attacks on 9/11 were unspeakable crimes against humanity. But if there is any lesson to be learned, it is that it was used by the most powerful empire in the world to crush the poorest people on earth. People who had nothing to do with the crimes committed on that day in the first place. Our shock and grief were used, not to end atrocities, but to expand on them.

I realize that my connection to Manhattan and to the iconic towers is far less than so many others. I realize that families and loved ones will always feel the weight of loss from that tragic day in September, 2001. But I also realize how our fears and prejudices can be cynically manipulated by the powerful to justify unimaginable brutality. And that is what I will be thinking about the most as we cross this twenty year threshold of unnecessary pain, destruction and despair.


Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.