It was around 8:45 in the morning when I pulled my van into my employer's parking lot in Melville, a part of Long Island's Suffolk County. After parking my car I made my way into the long black building on that bright, almost cloudless day and proceeded to the company cafeteria. I was on a low-carbohydrate diet at the time, so I picked up 3 hot sausage patties and a large coffee, then with food in hand I headed downstairs to my cubicle in the Information Technology division. It was then about 9 o'clock. The date was September 11th, 2001.
Just as I came to within a few steps of the bottom of the stairs, I noticed a small group of my fellow IT staffers huddled silently in a mid-size cubicle just to the right of the steps. I walked over and asked them what was going on that kept them so engaged. In response, I received the news that a plane had plowed into the World Trade Center. I then did something that I'm now almost ashamed to admit: I just shrugged it off. To me, it was then nothing major as I knew that a military airplane had once struck the Empire State Building, but while that event did cause death and damage, the building survived and the incident itself has been consigned to the misty realm of forgotten trivia. I went to my office, powered on my computer and just out of curiosity I accessed a news website. It reported that a plane, possibly a small corporate jet, had smacked into the north tower. However, the image shown on the site appeared to be less the work of a small jet and more the work of a gigantic smoking fist.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my wife was in a car on an elevated section of the Long Island Expressway (LIE), and from her vantage point she saw and heard that which was the first awful strike against mainland America in the new millennium. As the north tower burst into flames and smoke filled the downtown Manhattan skyline, traffic around my wife immediately slowed to a crawl as drivers and passengers alike sat in awe of the distant, fiery spectacle.
As I sat in my cubicle in Suffolk County, I continued for some time to shrug off the incident as a tragic accident until someone said, "The second tower's been hit!" I initially thought that flaming debris from the first crash had sparked what I thought to be a secondary fire in the south tower. I clicked "refresh" on my browser and waited to see a picture of a minor spark. What I saw looked as though an atomic blast had erupted from within the other tower. That's when I joined a growing chorus of gasps and whispers as all of us on the floor uttered the same things over and over: "IT'S TERRORISTS!", "IT'S NO ACCIDENT!", "WE'RE UNDER ATTACK!"
From her vantage point on the virtual parking lot called the L.I.E., my wife saw the second terrorist Kamikaze streak into the south tower. Meanwhile, my job, like the expressway, had also slowed to crawl. Mouths gaped. Eyes widened. Tears ran freely. Everyone ran to their computers and browsed to news sites. We were dependent on information from the web because the department was so far underground and behind so much concrete and reinforcing metal, radio signals just couldn't reach us. Unfortunately, with everyone clicking "connect", "refresh" and "live video", our computer network quickly overloaded. Similarly, the local telephone system shut down from overuse and emergency call redirection. Shock turned into disbelief, but strangely, yet amazingly, disbelief did not segue into panic. No, there was just anger. Oh, yes, there was much, much anger. We spoke of bloody vengeance. We wanted, or needed, the skewered heads of every terrorist on a silver platter. We were possessed of a righteous, nationalistic anger born of the helplessness and utter frustration of being unable to do anything but stand around computer monitors that no longer refreshed their images while realizing all the while that we were absolutely powerless to save our doomed, defenseless countrymen.
Within one large cube a single computer miraculously continued to pull information reliably from the web. Just about everyone on the entire floor huddled into that single space where, in tortuous silence, we strained to hear the tale of death and disaster from the computer's small, tinny speaker. As reports filed in, each more vivid than the last, we stood stock-still, as though movement was yet another thing to fear. Faces drew tight. Eyes narrowed. Fists clenched. Brief outbursts of the four-lettered kind caught the air. We found ourselves staring not at each other, but at the computer housing the minimal speaker as though it were a living thing, as if it were Edward R. Murrow somehow reincarnated in wire and silicon chips.
The company president walked up to us from behind, and instead of admonishing us for wasting company time and money by gathering about a speaker, he stated that both the entire company and probably the entire country had stopped cold, riveted by the news. Calmly, quickly, he declared the company closed for the day and the building quickly became a ghost town. I knew that my wife was somewhere in eastern Queens and that our children were in a school in a western part of the same county. She couldn't reach them, not with an impromptu evacuation of lower Manhattan underway and roads closing for the movement of heavy equipment and emergency personnel. I swore that I would reach our kids and bring them home safely. For all I knew -- for all anyone knew -- terrorists commanded the skies, collapsed buildings, killed police and fire personnel and were bringing "God knows what else" to us all. I had to reach my kids. I had to bring them back home even as my mind shut out the reality that our simple wood frame house could never protect us from terrorists and falling aircraft.
I tore along the Long Island Expressway like the desperate madman that I was at the time, yet I knew from radio reports that it would take an extended amount of time for me make my way home as all major and secondary roads leading into New York City were being cleared of all traffic to make way for emergency personnel and equipment. Sure enough, the LIE was soon cleared of traffic and I was forced onto a tertiary road. Some 2½ hours later -- 1 hour and 45 minutes longer than it normally takes at that time of day -- I pulled into the school parking lot. Fifteen minutes later, I had my kids in the imaginary safe haven that was our home. "Imaginary", since nowhere was safe on the day thereafter known simply as "September 11th".
When my wife finally came home late in the afternoon, she joined me in our living room and together we watched replay after replay of the World Trade Center tragedy. A plane swooped in across the screen and (POW!) there went a tower from an upwards view. A plane swooped in across the screen and (POW!) there went a tower from a side view. A plane swooped in across the screen and (POW!) there went a tower from a wide-angle view. A plane swooped in across the screen and (POW!) there went a tower in slow-motion. A plane swooped in across the screen only to meet a fiery end time after time and we finally turned off the television in disgust. We felt like the media had become death's voyeurs as they proffered image after image of the impacts, people falling, the towers collapsing and then, perhaps most haunting of all, playing the sound of fire department emergency locator beacons sounding the positions of first responders who were crushed dead within the rubble. We were at once numb, angry, depressed, frustrated and scared beyond belief. Personally, when I saw the suffering of the people trapped in the upper floors of the buildings, when I saw the herculean efforts of the rescuers, when I saw human beings flinging themselves into oblivion to escape the flaming carnage around them, I actually gained a new perspective on life through the unedited and wholly incessant presentation of death.
Given that I was obsessed with the terrorist attacks and given that America as a whole was similarly and justifiably fixated on the tragedy, the question of how we dealt with the tragic events and our rampant emotions in the intervening years can be asked. That is, have we handled them correctly? Oh, sure, there was the sudden surge of flag-waving patriotism, but such sentiment, such love of one's country, frequently comes with price tags marked "bigotry" and "nationalism". Yes, it's both commendable and necessary to rally 'round the flag, our troops and our leadership during a time of crisis, but too often is the love of country expressed in terms of hatred for foreigners and for religious, ethnic and racial minorities. As the nation was engulfed in the flaming debris that was the false sense of American security, we were seated at the grand table of sociopolitical commonality, the critical moment when America was presented with the greatest opportunity since the start of World War II to discuss and resolve the entirety of her social, political and economic ills with a common element at the core.
I believe in who we are and who we should be. We are Democrats, Republicans, Liberals, Conservatives, yet we should be beyond all political affiliation. We are shades of brown and pink, yet we should be beyond mere color. We are poor, rich, middle class, yet we should be beyond all concepts of wealth and resource. We are Sikhs, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and other followings, yet we should be beyond religious dogma. We are Americans. That common fact alone is why the enemy wanted us stone-cold dead and the reality of our situation since the rise of international extremism is just that plain and simple. We are, to our enemies, a nation of corpses-to-be. Our individual religions, our social statuses and the other facets of our everyday lives are, to them, things as inconsequential as our lives. The attacks were against Americans perceived as the blasphemous denizens of an enemy state and we would almost justify that dehumanization if we had failed to do what even a few lowly prey animals do in times of crisis. And what certain animals do is forget their rankings within their herds, temporarily band together and face the challenge of an enemy when threatened. Only after the common threat has been eluded or dealt with do the animals revert to their pre-established social dynamics, but if we wish to show our true humanity, we'll have to do better than animals. My point is that the enemy from without wants to kill us even as the demons within other Americans seek to corrupt and divide us, so our battle must be fought with the double-edged sword that is truth and justice. Unfortunately, as America emerged from the smoke and shadows in the uncertain days following September 11th, she drew a blade dulled and tarnished by lies and supposition, and she obstinately went to war against the wrong country. We needed to be more than animals, better than animals; our campaign needed to yield a lasting peace from without and a true, lasting domestic tranquility. Yes, we needed to annihilate our foreign enemies, but we also needed to annihilate the poisons that divide America.
Following the attacks, America was beset by so-called "patriots" who attacked Muslims at-will even as they swore absolutely loyalty to this nation and the ideals it stands for. The "patriots" conveniently forgot that America is the world's racial, ethnic and religious "melting pot", a kaleidoscope of the human kind, so they attacked innocent persons such as Sikhs and Hindus for absolutely inane reasons including (but not limited to) looking, sounding or dressing in ways the attackers perceived to be like Muslims or Arabs, or for just not looking "American enough" in their eyes. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant notes filled in-boxes on a daily basis. Political pundits vilified all Arabs and Muslims in order to further their anti-immigrant agendas. President George W. Bush won a second term by running a campaign that relied on American insecurity and vicious, unsubstantiated smears against Senator John Kerry. The Bush administration assailed us with a color-coded threat level system in which no day was a "normal" day and it gave its implicit approval to the vaporous "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" as they derailed Kerry's campaign. Conversely, Barack Obama ran a campaign of hope and change against an opponent who openly embraced the warmongering, economy-destroying, fear-instilling policies of President George W. Bush, yet Obama won the presidency in a general election that broke down along racial lines between white and minority voters as seen in the table below.
Voters by Race - 2008 Presidential Election
The issue is that the above percentages show a definite skew by race, one that is especially obvious in the percentage of votes given each candidate by blacks and whites. Additionally, it shows that whites and all other racial groups were not on the same page and that is key thing here: how American voters perceived the needs of the nation and who they estimated to be the best choice to address those needs was at least partially determined by skin color. I believe that if race played no part in election results, then the percentages afforded to Obama and McCain would've had the same relative evenness among all races as they did among Hispanics, Asians, and the "other" racial group since those groups are neither white nor black; thus their votes were based not on color, but for the person they believed to be the best equipped to handle the job.
America, we blew it. Badly. I believe that in failing to seize the moment, in failing to reach commonality following the greatest national tragedy since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, in failing to come together as a society in times that all but demand a cohesive national effort, we have absolutely failed those innocents who died in the first American war of the 21st century. Now we stand in a nation largely divided along racial and political lines and this was absolutely unthinkable in the flag-waving days following the attacks on September 11th. We came so damn close to coming together as a cohesive whole, but just as we did in the years following World War II, we retreated from that which is the common good and embraced self-interest and the comfort of those whose race and/or sociopolitical slant is similar to ours. We are again a divided nation, yet if we are to honor the thousands who died on September 11th, we need to understand that the differences between Americans don't have to be liked, but they do have to be accepted if we are to join together to forge a better nation.
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