Personal Narrative

On September 11

I am compelled to write about 9/11, an event which affected me profoundly in ways I still do not completely understand.

On September 11, 2001, we were on Long Island at a company offsite. During a break, I went back to my room and picked up a message from Jill telling me that an event scheduled for the next day had been cancelled “for obvious reasons.” It was to have been held at the Wall Street Journal, right across the street from the World Trade Center. The meeting was to launch my new book and the cancellation infuriated me. I called her voicemail, left a sharp message and slammed down the phone. On the way back to my meeting, I paused when I saw a group congregated in the bar, and was getting an explanation from the bartender when the first tower fell. I stayed and watched in disbelief as the second collapsed.

Later, not sure what else to do, we tried to continue our meeting. But it was no use. Our New York office was located just a half mile from the WTC, and many of our staff lived in the area. Eventually the meeting broke up and we all wandered away in different directions. I walked the beach for awhile, then later that night went over to my agent’s house, sat by his pool and got hopelessly drunk. At some point, I remember him steadying me while I stood on a cinder block peering through a crack into Jackson Pollock’s barn and then, later, eating at some restaurant where I allegedly sat back to back with Alec Baldwin. I will never know because I stubbornly refused to turn around and look. I barely remember driving back to my hotel at midnight, weaving between ditch and center line.

I spent most of the next day on the phone with my travel agent and Avis. When I finally got through, they told me to bring the car back “when you can, wherever you can.” Peep and I decided to drive to Chicago the next morning, since there was no other way to get back. Even though Peep was well up into his sixties, two decades older than me, he ended up driving most of the way. I would try to drive, but after a few minutes would almost pass out, my head falling on to my chest and my arms and legs filled with cement, and I would have to pull over. When we drove over one of the bridges to New Jersey, I don’t remember which one, I looked back over my shoulder and gasped when I saw the Manhattan skyline, two plumes of smoke where the towers should be. I wasn’t ready for it.

We drove through the night and got back to Chicago early in the morning. My assistant picked me up at the airport rental car office. A wonderful author named Seth Godin called me later than morning about something, and I found myself yelling at him for no reason. I pulled myself together, apologized, left the office and went home. My wife came home from work six hours later and found me sitting in front of the TV watching the replay over and over and sobbing. She turned off the TV and led me upstairs to bed, where I stayed for two days. I had small moments of profound depression over the next year or so.

I have never spoken to a psychiatrist about it, but I assume it was some sort of stress reaction. (The experience gave me an entirely new level of sympathy for those who suffer from clinical depression.)

At any rate, the big question for me is not “What happened?” but rather “Why?” Why did this event, in which no one I knew died or was even injured, affect me so profoundly? Clearly I got caught up in the mass hysteria, and it was a time of mass hysteria. But I am not a hysteric. Two weeks later I was sitting in the Roosevelt Hotel bar in midtown having a drink when a waiter ran in and shouted, “There’s anthrax loose in Manhattan!” Half the room jumped up and bolted for the exits. I told the people I was with to sit down and we finished our drinks.

I am not generally prone to mass anything. I don’t line up at midnight for the new Harry Potter or go to Superbowls. Recently, this site carried a moving series on the Challenger disaster. I barely even remember that. Nor do I remember having an emotional reaction to other national or global events—JFK or John Lennon’s assassinations, the Munich Olympics, the tsunami, Katrina, or any other disaster I can think of. But I was clearly caught up in 9/11 in a way I have never been caught up in anything else.

The glib answer is of course “patriotism.” Of course it was patriotism, whatever that word means. A year later, I went into a jewelry store and bought a set of American flag cufflinks, which I wore on 9/11/12 and every anniversary for the next five years. But I served in Peace Corps, not in the military. I do not drape myself in flags or plaster my bumper with stickers about freedom, guns and god.

Anyway, patriotism is supposed to be noble and positive, uplifting even. But there was little of that in what I felt. Yes, I spent a little more time thinking about all the good parts of this country. And I also felt a pang of gratitude for this country that took in my penniless immigrant ancestors a few hundred years ago. But most of what I felt was not positive patriotism, not a soaring, flags-flapping-in-slow motion, violins-playing-in-the-background swelling of pride.

For the most part, the patriotism I felt was dark, uncompromising and savage. It was nasty and brutal. Had I had the opportunity, I would have strangled Osama Bin Laden with my bare hands. I took grim satisfaction from the massacre at Mazar-i-Sharif, where we “forgot” to search 500 Taliban fighters before imprisoning them and then had to annhilate them when they rioted. Really? We forgot to search prisoners for rocket launchers and assault rifles before locking them up? O-k-a-y……

Hundreds of Taliban died? Good riddance. Civilians, too? Tough. That’s what happens when you harbor people like Al Quaida. Nor was I troubled by Gitmo, not really. I was more troubled that I was not troubled. When the news of the towers hit Cairo and the wealthy kids wearing designer jeans abandoned their cappuccinos and poured out from the cafes into the streets cheering, I glared at the screen. I hated the people who had done the act and those who had sheltered them and those who called them heroes.

Part of the intensity of my emotion may well be that it occurred here. There’s something about being attacked or violated in your home that creates a visceral reaction. Many years ago, a home I lived in was robbed. I never felt the same about that house again. Maybe 9/11 was particularly impactful because of its proximity.

This wasn’t some far off event in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam, it was lower Manhattan. I’d eaten in WTTW, the restaurant at the top of one of those buildings, and held meetings in its conference rooms. It occurred a half mile from my office, an office I closed six months later because I could not get it out of my head that the burnt smell in the air was the smell of incinerated human flesh. I have talked to older Australians who talk about the 97 Japanese attacks on Australia in WWII as if they occurred last Tuesday. And my mother and father could tell you exactly where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor. When you are separated by thousands of miles of ocean, a certain complacency sets in. You take for granted that you are untouchable. Maybe part of the shock of 9/11 was about learning that in an interconnected world, safety is an illusion.

But still, other events have occurred on American soil that did not cause me to react similarly. I don’t remember where I was when I heard about Oklahoma City. I don’t even remember what year that was. Was it different because I can persuade myself that Oklahoma City was the work of a few misguided individuals rather than the work of an organized movement? But were they really that different? Is the real difference in the two that Oklahoma City was done by a member of my light skinned tribe rather than dark skinned men from a different tribe?

I don’t know.

Over the next two days, we’re going to hear a lot of blather about how 9/11 changed America forever. Maybe, but I doubt it. Instead, I suspect it really simply exposed some things that had already happened, like our evolution from isolationist nation to active interventionalist, and our inability to separate the words “freedom and democracy” from the words “white Christian,” with the result we increasingly get caught up in wars that are ostensibly about liberation but are really crusades, wars to defend Christians or to kill non-Christians, e.g., Korea, Vietnam, and everything we do in the Middle East.

And 9/11 probably did not change me, it probably simply exposed what was already there, like a hard rain exposing the rocks in a freshly plowed field.

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