I should start this by talking about where I was. And I couldn't have been further away from New York City, yet still felt closer. For me, my September 11th was ending in Beijing, China.
After a long day in the office and a dinner with my colleagues, I was back in my hotel room when I got a call to "turn on the TV and turn it on right now." It's the kind of call usually reserved for when a bit of interesting news about your favourite celebrity has done something stupid or you have a friend who somehow (usually for nefarious reasons) has landed themselves on TV. I remember responding "I'm tired and it's late...I catch it in the morning." But then they said "A plane has flown into one of the towers and they think it was a terrorist attack." I lept up out of bed and turned on the TV. And I saw as the second plane hit the other tower. Smoke and fire everywhere. Images of firefighters and police rushing in to burning buildings. My thoughts went to the people on the planes - what a terrible way to die. And then my thoughts went to my address book. I know several people in NYC, and I was worried about them. I shamefully felt relieved that I didn't know anyone personally who worked in the towers. I tried calling those friends to no avail - busy signals at each attempt.
Urgent text messages out, I felt all I could do was wait. And hope that people were making their way out of the towers. And then the South tower fell. Years later when more interviews and footage became available they tell of loud noises and a swaying building. It doesn't look that way on TV. It looks rather controlled. Floors collasping on each other with terrifying percision. You know in your heart that there aren't any survivors. I prayed for those on the ground. I pray for my friends working anywhere near the towers. I pray for returned phone calls or sms messages.
While all of this happening, I then focus on the fact that a plane crashed into the Pentagon. I don't know anyone who works there, but taken in the context of everything that has happened, I begin thinking what is next. I unfairly think in terms of proportion. "The Pentagon is a tough building" I remember thinking. "They'll get everyone out safe." But a plane is a plane is a plane. And it is about as much as what went into the building as who comes out of it. Planes as weapons of mass destruction is unfathomable to me. Then the news comes in over CNN that the FAA is concerned about more aircraft not responding. It can't get worse I think and hope.
Even with a hole in the pentagon, even with the thought of more planes as missles, my thoughts on squarely on the North tower. They were built in the same way, so my thinking is that I hope that although people are exhausted, those trying to make their way out of the tower get new adrenaline to get out of the tower in time. It isn't so long that we then see the North tower fall. Thousands of lives vaporised. People walking around covered in ash and debris. The internet has footage of what appears to be people who chose to jump from windows and plummet to their deaths so that they could die on their own terms. What a shitty choice to have to make. And I kept wishing for rescue helicopters, but I know that flames, smoke, and wind would make that impossible and besides, the doors to the roofs are usually locked. But I kept wishing that life was more like the movies where the daring rescue at the end saves many. But real life is more solemn than that. I start to cry and vomit. It's too much. And then I hear about United Flight 93 and I cry some more. And I cry and cry and cry and cry, because there is nothing more that I can do. And I am still getting no responses from anyone I know who would have been in NYC nor from people whom I have mutual friends.
The next day at the office was surreal. I put on my game face and go on as normal. As normal as one can be. Eventually the e-mails and sms start trickling in. The calls from my family come in - just so that we can hear the sounds of each other voices even though my family was also far away from the terror attack. I stand with my country on this day. Say what you want about Democrats vs Repiblicans, rich vs poor, and all of the debates on multi-culturalism. I'm quite simply an American whose country was attacked. The "aftermath" interviews were conducted with CEOs and Janitors, cooks and celebrities, fund managers and blue-collar workers, families of employees in the towers who were of European, African, Asian, Muslim decent, and so on. None of that mattered. We are all Americans. I know in this endeavour, despite my personal views, I owe it the government to enable them to do what needs to be done without the normal commentary in order to defend America's values and constitution. I mute my opposition to the policy point of the moment. What matters is how the government will evaluate and respond. I feel in my heart that the only one verdict for those who did this - guitly. And there must be only one punish the scale of the atrocity.
I went through most of 12 September secretly relieved that I knew no one personally who was killed in any of the attacks, although I was sad to learn of a few acquaintences (friends of friends) that were killed. Morning became afternoon and then I got an e-mail confirming that a personal friend was killed in the tower, Amy Toyen. I don't think she normally would have been there, but on that day she was there for a meeting. I excused myself from our work area to go cry again. The attacks had hit home even deeper than they had before.
Amy was not only a brother in my fraternity (Delta Sigma Pi) but she was a personal friend as well. I am friends with her fiancee Jeff. The loss becomes real. Amy was someone who I had bonded with in our love for trying new things and thinking about the wider impact of what we want to achieve. We didn't always agree on everything when it came to the fraternity, but friends don't have to do that. They can disagree on some points and walk out of the room still as friends. They can paint a mural on a wall as Amy did to extol the values of community and multiculturalism. I need a moment to collect myself in the bathroom. I can't stay in there too long and cry, and I feel I can't make any sounds like I am crying. That's weakness. So I pick myself up, dry my eyes, and decide that the focus is to make it through the day and cry in my hotel room at night. But there is a hole in my heart. Because to know Amy is to understand how kind and gentle she was. How she held to her faith and her belief in the goodness of people. How undesserving her murder was. How she deserved to complete life's journey like the rest of us. How she deserved to be a mother and a grandmother. How she deserved to to define her future on her own terms instead of having it violently defined for her. We were of different faiths, but I prayed that she didn't feel pain. I prayed that her passing was quick. I prayed that she somehow managed to find calm and in her last moments. I pray she knew that she was loved by many. I pray. I hope. I hope this for all the victims.
So I remember the pain. I remember the sadness. I remember that the shock turned to silence, the silence to grief, the grief to despair. But I also remember that there were moments in which the goodness of people shined through. I remember reading news reports of Jewish and Christian citizens patrolling outside Mosques across the US to help protect them. I remember Buckingham Palace playing the Star Spangled Banner during the changing of the guard. I remember both houses of Congress on the Capitol steps singing the national anthem. I remember that there were heros that day large and small. I even remember Oprah's show "Islam 101" so that people would understand that a minority prevert the honorable religion of a majority. I remember acts of kindness large and small shown to me on my subsequent travels. The good things will never negate the tragedy. But it helps.
In susequent trips to New York I have visited Ground Zero. And emormity of what has happened continues to impact me. I don't talk about the politics before and after. We have 364 other days to let the poison of blood-sport politics tear us apart. What I would leave you all with is a hope that 10 years hasn't faded the feeling that for whatever it is worth, we are in this together. Whether it is the December 2010 terror attacks in Stockholm, the July 7th terror attacks in London, or the domestic terror attack in Oslo. The attack on the towers killed hundreds of citizens from around the world. There is a shared danger and a shared responsibility to get through this together. To become big picture thinkers again and not the circumstances of the moment divide us. That would be my wish for you and yours. And lots of blessings, positivity, and happiness.