History

Requiem for a monster

I am not a warlike person. I served in the Peace Corps, not the Marine Corps. I am not violent. I am tough, in a stringy, phlegmatic Scots-Irish sort of way, but I am not vengeful.

I am glad Osama is dead. I am not exuberant as I expected I would be. But I am glad.

Ten years ago on September 11, I was at a company meeting on Long Island. The next day I was supposed to launch a book at the Journal, right across from the World Trade Towers. We watched the second plane hit on the TV in the bar. We tried to be professional and continue our meeting, but one of our team had an apartment within blocks of ground zero, and halfway through our next session she broke down into hysterics and starting shouting about her cat, which was locked in her apartment. We canceled the meeting and walked on the beach quietly for the rest of the day.

The next day, I called Avis, and they said to get the rental car back when we could wherever we could, so John and I drove back to Chicago. I did a double take as we crossed the bridge when I turned to look at Manhattan and where the Towers had always been was empty save a plume of smoke.

When I got home, I turned on the TV. Seven hours later my wife got home and found me sitting on the sofa in the same place watching the TV, sobbing uncontrollably. She turned off the TV and led me upstairs to bed, where I stayed for two days. I suppose it is the only time in my life I have ever felt real depression.

I think I know why the event hit me so hard. At the end of the day, America is a land of immigrants. We are here because we had nowhere else to go. The countries we came from didn’t want us, and were happy to see us go. Some of my forebears came on debtor prison ships from England, literally transported in chains away from their families and home country. I am an American, despite all my liberal affectations of worldly sophistication. I am an American, and when I saw those planes hit that building I felt the same rush of fear and hatred my ancestors felt a thousand years ago when someone yelled “Norse” and blond savages streamed into my village with swords and clubs.

Six months later, I went to New York to make a sales call on a client at Philip Morris. She chain smoked with shaking hands, and somehow we started talking about 9-11. Not somehow, that was all anyone in New York talked about for that next year. Anyway, she had a lovely story of giving her shoes away to a woman who needed them and walking to the ferry and hitching a ride home in a car full of strangers brought together by this event. She started crying and soon I was crying again too. I walked over and turned out the office light and we sat in the almost dark for an hour, while she told the rest of her story and talked about people she knew who’d been killed. I left her in the dark room.

We closed our office in downtown NY because of the smell. I couldn’t get it out of my head that I was breathing burned bodies.

On the El this morning no one was high fiving or celebrating. Many of the people there were just children when it all happened, and probably don’t feel what I feel.

What I feel is not really happiness, but more like satisfaction, albeit of a grim sort.  I understand that we are a nation of laws, and nations of laws do not carry out extra-judicial assasinations in other countries. What we did was murder, pure and simple, and that I have as much blood on my hands as those who stormed the compound. And I am OK with it. Because he killed my people. If I could have, I would have strangled him with my own hands. He is dead, and my day is better for it.

Categories: History, War/Security

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6 replies »

  1. My wife and I were in bed about 10:30 last night when we both got text messages from our daughter, “Are y’all watching the news?”

    My oldest son was going to school in New York just a block north of your NY office. He saw the first plane sticking out of the tower while in the coffee shop on the first floor of his dorm. I was walking out the door when I saw the pictures on ABC news. The second plan hit when I pulled into the parking lot at work; my son was arriving at his clase; my wife fainted when she emerged from getting some tests at the dr’s office. At work I watched as the plume of dust, smoke and debris moved up Manhattan towards my son’s dorm on Grande. He had the wherewithall to call and then email me to let me know he was okay. I called my wife. We had numberous plans to get him off the island only to meet his response, “That’s not going to happen.” He stayed to help but there was little to do and he ended up playing stickball with some neighborhood kids in the streets.

    Like the Kennedy assasination I remember a tremendous amount of detail surrounding 9-11. I am still in awe about the passengers on flight 93.

    Grim satisfaction may capture it. Or maybe the fulfillment of a resolve too long in coming to fruition: it’s about damn time. Never really doubting the day would eventually come. But after a 10 year cooling off period I can only hope that some good will come of it beyond grim satisfaction.

  2. I forgot to mention that I visited my son in October after 9-11. I remember the smell; and I remember all the unclaimed, dust covered, shiney under the dust, new, expensive cars in lower manhattan; I remember the spontaneous memorials in every fire station I passed as I walked through lower manhattan; I remember the pictures of the victims, young, vibrant, our “best and brightest”; I remember the melted i-beams across the street from the twin towers; and I remember the emptiness — my hotel was just off Wall St — I will never forget the smell.

  3. Timmy

    Thanks for the link. Dont quite know what to make of the RPCV story. My RPCV friends and I passed it around and discussed it. Our conclusion was a little unsympathetic. Those of us who served the full two years generally discount the stories of those who come home early. Quitting is a big deal. It’s a slap to the staff and to the faces of the villagers who prepared for a volunteer. The returnees have to come home and explain to their family and friends why they are back so soon. Etc, etc. And they almost always have elaborate and well-practiced stories to explain why they came home and it wasn’t their fault. I wasn’t there and I don’t know the truth, of course, but I will put this story in my “might be true” bucket and leave it there.

    By the way, I was in Sierra Leone of blood diamonds fame, which ain’t Club Med.

  4. It’d be interesting if our tribe kept a running total of the number of people who have died in Afghanistan (not to mention Iraq) to avenge those 3,000 Americans who died on 9/11. But i suppose that since they’re from another tribe, they don’t have the same value.

    On the other hand, the family members of a few of those may decide somewhere down the road to avenge their loss by killing Americans. Of course they don’t have the same right to avenge their loses that we do, because they’re brown or Muslim or something. So we’ll respond again.

    Nice little cycle our tribalism perpetuates. Makes me proud to be an American, clearly better than anyone else on the planet by grace of freedom, justice and democracy.

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