I am now soliciting stories about individual reactions to the 9/11 attacks for a story that will appear in Postimees next week. Please free to add your stories - with knowledge that the content may be published - in the comments section.
The date was not September 11, 2001. It was July 4, 2000. And I was in lower Manhattan dragging around a video camera to chronicle Operation Sail 2000 - a big party where big boats circled the tip of Manhattan and big drunks from all over the Big Apple drank a lot of big beers. I was there from early morning to late evening and, after the big fireworks display, I proceeded to follow the masses to the nearest subway stop to get on the train home. Unfortunately, the subways were packed with people. Festering with humanity. And I had to pee. Bad.
It seemed like I oscillated from east to west as I walked up the island in search of a new subway station. I didn't know this part of Manhattan that well as I was pretty lost. Finally I found a large building that was still open. It was next to another very large building and everything in the vicinity seemed tremendously huge. I did my business in the bathroom there and came out. It was then that I looked up. And looked up some more. In fact, I couldn't really see the sky here. It was like being in one of those large fictional cities of the future you see in movies. "So this is the World Trade Center" I thought - feeling like an explorer catching his first glimpse of the Sphynx. "Wow."
I spent the summer of 2001 commuting between Manhattan, where I had an internship at a magazine, and Long Island, where I held a job in construction. I was in New York three days a week until August 1, when my internship abruptly ended and the department I was serving was downsized (ie. everyone I was working with got fired). I then waited for a few weeks before I was scheduled to begin my study abroad program in Copenhagen, Denmark.
At that point, I expected some things out of Denmark. I anticipated drinking a lot of beer, for example, and perhaps the ability to have relations with several nice looking Danish women. And ... I think that's about all I expected. Actually I was very happy to get away from sterile Washington, DC and out of the new George W. Bush-ruled United States. I really didn't like George W. Bush. Despised him in fact. Some people, during the Clinton years, seemed to have an irrational hatred of Clinton. I had something like that for Bush. We have a habit of electing southerners president - because southern states are even more provincial than northern states and refuse to even vote for a northerner for higher office. But Bush's Texas drawl just annoyed the ever loving shit out of me. I couldn't watch a minute of one of his speeches. I didn't need to anyway, as he rarely said anything worthy of discussion and still hadn't mastered the art of reading from a teleprompter.
So I had high hopes for Denmark, but they were shattered within a week or two. I found myself sandwiched in between preppy American students, whose conversations seemed so boring I couldn't really take part, and then when I did, I was ignored because whatever I said did not register with them, and Danish students, who looked like they worked for hours on their hair, listened to the worst music ever made, and seethed discomfort with the loud, rude American students - those students whose country sold weaponry to the Israeli Defense Forces to use on helpless Palestinian children. The immense amount of social pressure I felt weighing down on me, along with the reality that I had signed myself up for three months in a quiet Scandinavian city, brought me to go to the independent city of Christiania and buy some really good hash cookies.
I had never done a drug like that before. It was truly a psychedelic experience. A new plateau of consciousness. Not necessarily a good one - more like a rocking boat on a stormy sea. But when the ride was over I found myself content to be alone more often and not worry about those social pressures. So I sat in the computer lounge a lot. And I was sitting there in the computer lounge on September 11, 2001, when someone said ...
You know what they said. They said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Like everyone on planet Earth, I shrugged my shoulders. We all thought it was a little plane. Not a big plane. But there were two big ones. And both buildings collapsed. The immense sickness I felt in my gut was nearly too much to bear. I went next store to the bar and drank three or four shots of vodka, hoping to numb to uneasy pile of disgustingness at the bottom of my stomach.
My brother worked in Manhattan. Not in the trade center. But who was I to know where he was at that particular moment. An image of him, lying in a pile of rubble with his chest blown open and his guts spilled out everywhere came to me. I tried to keep it away, but it was there. He was there, his eyes glassy and fish-like, gasping for air and dying. I couldn't be around people. I even walked to the administrative building at our "campus" (really just a few buildings in Central Copenhagen) and hid in the toilet there - there where I could get some peace.
I called my father. He seemed sad but calm. He kept said that "a lot of people were in the towers" and "thousands of people are probably dead." I asked about my brother and he said that he didn't know where he was. How could he not know! The event had just happened. He called me back pretty soon afterwards and told me that all of our family was safe. And in a way, that was all I needed to hear. I could live with the deaths of the faceless, but I couldn't live with the deaths of my flesh and blood. It was selfish but true.
That evening I went to my dormitory and settled down to watch Paula Zahn on CNN quote FDR and watch the towers fall over and over again. I kept waiting to find out who did it. But that wouldn't come for at least two more days. The fellow Danish students were generally concerned for us. The image that remained in my head was the people jumping from the buildings. Everything about their deaths seemed so cold and forbidding. Here they were in a cold, gray, steel high rise of a building, surrounded by gnashing metal, and jumping in the still September air to their deaths in the wreckage below. There was something so dark ... so clinical about it. That's all there was. Just a leap and a death. And it was over for them. It was over for so many people. It was - for me - a passionless death. It was someone holding a gun to your head and telling you to commit suicide.
On the wall of the train station the next day was written a new word. A word I came to know quite well. It was "jihad" written in black magic marker. It meant "holy war." I was scared. There were people that sympathized with this act in my community. People that could look at me and see right through me. Who saw my death as justifiable, just because of the country on my passport. I couldn't fathom this mentality and it frightened me. I usually thought myself open minded. I wasn't, for example, shocked that people out there hated the US. But I couldn't understand how you could just mercilessly and purposefully kill random individuals and call it acceptable.
And because I couldn't understand that, I was frightened by it. And the thing is, I never thought of my people as "Americans." To me we were - and are - just people that happen to live in the US. What did all these people really know about our policies in Israel, for example. In what way did they actually contribute to whatever it was that fueled the hatred that led to widespread massacres of innocent lives? The whole thing just didn't make sense. When I found out it was teams of young men that carried out the strikes against us - two words came to mind "useful idiots."
I wiped the word "jihad" off the wall with my hand and later boarded a bus to the north of Denmark. In a town called Aalborg my friends were busy seducing some local girl but I just couldn't put on my party face. All I could talk about was the death. Maybe it was less real for the Californians and Georgians and Tennesseans on my trip. But for me, for that week, I couldn't really do anything. I couldn't even listen to music. All I could think about was the death. Up until that time, I was on a messageboard for leftwing activists from Washington. They were busy preparing to protest the forthcoming war on Afghanistan. I was so disgusted. 9/11 had hurt so many, but it hadn't damaged the academic left's desire to organize a protest to something - whatever that was.
One of my friends, a guy who also was active in activist circles sent me a letter sympathizing with me. "Those kids are idiots," he said. "We need to find whoever did this and blow them to pieces." And I even managed to listen to all of George W. Bush's speech on September 12, or was it 13th? I can't put it all together in my head now, it's all a bit blurry.
I'll never forget the face of my friend standing on the shore near Skagen though, in Denmark. He looked up at me and said simply "I'm scared." I had images of being drafted into service and being sent to fight some Biblical war. I even thought of staying in Denmark should someone try to force me to do anything. Whatever the case was, the idea of the government taking possession of my life didn't suit me. I was an American, this much was true. But I would always be myself first, without a nationality or a loyalty. My very heartbeat and breath seemed more important that anything at that moment. It could be seen as cowardice. Sure. But that's how I felt.
On the Saturday after the event, I put on music again. It was a sunny day. I opened the windows in my room and, for the first time in a week, the grayness of death had escaped my mind. I could go on. Some people in my dorm avoided the topic altogether. They refused to even discuss it. It was too much for them. For example, a new TIME magazine sat on the table in the communal kitchen and one fellow student, and American, refused to to even look at it. "Look, I just can't deal with it," he said.
Others, the Europeans, played with ideas. A German student reminded me of all the people that had died in Vietnam, felled by US bullets. "No country has a clean past, not even Germany" I mustered. "What has Germany done in the past 50 years," he responded. "Nothing," I said. "But what about the past 60 years." He was silent.
The Somali in our dorm was usually friendly to me. One day he and the German both toyed with the word "jihad" again, playing on my American paranoia. I don't recall exactly what they said, but I think it has something to do with the Somali conspiring to kill me. I couldn't find it funny.
And there were lots of Muslims - or people from Muslim countries - in Denmark. You could see them down at any nightclub on a Friday night. The guys would be slick in black clothing, and they almost always had blonde Danish girlfriends. I almost never saw a Muslim woman though dancing with a Danish guy. This, to me, always seemed strange. They seemed invisible. But maybe I don't know what I am talking about. If they were there, I didn't notice them.
These kids seemed integrated. But at every falafel hut there would be men with beards reading newspapers in Arabic. Their world seemed so different. They came to live here in Denmark, but they probably only spoke enough Danish to sell you your falafel sandwich. They didn't seem like the kinds of guys who would share a beer with you. They didn't even seem to look into your eyes. I remember one guy was reading a newspaper in Arabic with the photos of the hijackers. "What did it say?" I wondered. "What is he thinking." It seemed like there was a wall between us. Something that could not be bridged. I remember cooking sausage in the communal kitchen and the Somali student covered his plate so that the smoke from my sausage wouldn't taint his food.
On a lighter note I remember sharing some food with Pakistanis at the kitchen table. They were of this subpopulation - conservative and cut off. I was a sore thumb to them, an American with bad manners who hadn't shaved that weekend. But we did share some some good food. And nobody got their head chopped off.
As the month rolled on we attacked Afghanistan. It took a whole month to assemble a nice coalition. And in the end we had no Osama bin Ladin. It was he I wanted. He I wanted to be taken alive, put on trial, locked in a cell with Manuel Noriega and forced to eat pork sandwiches everyday. But they couldn't find him. Later, when I returned to the US in December, the drum roll for the war in Iraq had already started. The focus went elsewhere. Public enemy number one took a backburner to Saddam Hussein. It was all quite surreal.
Back in the US, things seemed to be actually the same. I was expecting something different, but other than a lot of funerals and a lot of American flags displayed I was glad to see the whole place hadn't gone to hell. I went to visit the trade center site with my parents - to see where this big thing had actually happened. On the blocks around the trade center site there were gentlemen selling souvenirs - commemorative books and flyers and anything you can imagine that would capture that special "moment" for you and your coffee table.
A huge crowd of people were gathered around the gaping wound in the earth, and I distinctly remember a small kid asking his father if there were any "dead people in there." But being there, actually looking at the ground, reminded me even more that it was something that happened. It was something in the past. A past event. All we could do now was look at this hole in the ground and think about it. And where could our thoughts lead to? Anywhere.
Today, nearly five years later, Osama bin Ladin is still at large. We never caught him - can you believe that? Can you believe the most powerful country on earth lacks the political or moral or actual will to reach into the caves of Pakistan and pull that squirming, self-appointed prophet out by his beard?
The US hasn't been attacked for five years, but it doesn't mean it won't be attacked again. All we New Yorkers can do is sit and wait. Will the authorities protect us? They can't even decide on a building design for the new trade center site. I'd personally prefer that no World Trade Center-like building goes in there. But who am I? Just a little peon on the Internet.
Because of the surreal turns that have taken place since 9/11 it's hard to figure out exactly what has happened since and what has to do with 9/11 and what doesn't. Is the Iraq War part of the response? Bush says "yes" but Bush's advisors had been planning the military removal of Hussein even prior to his presidency.
There have been other attacks too - in Bali, in Madrid, and last year in London. Each time the same images come back to haunt me. The grayness of death. The finality of mortality. The purposelessness of slaughtering innocents. In December 2001 I attended a rooftop party in lower Manhattan. Standing there looking at the absence of those two buildings, I couldn't help but think of how stupid those men who killed themselves and 2,900 others were on that day.
They thought they could change the world in an action. They thought that they could provide a cause and provoke an anticipated effect. But they didn't. They didn't accomplish anything. Their efforts were worthless. Their lives, useless. And in the end nearly 3,000 people were irrationally murdered for the selfish purposes of confused and sick individuals. There was no logic. There was only chaos and then more chaos.
How could anybody be so foolish?