Writing about September 11th is always hard for me, and I almost skipped it (again). Maybe just a tweet or two? No, too much to say.
Twenty years has some extra significance to me as I think about the twentieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I was 5 on that anniversary, and I don’t recall it being treated as special though I’m sure it was. What I realize now, what I’ve come to realize in general as I’ve aged, is the view my parents and grandparents must have had when I was a child. World War II wasn’t history to them, it was yesterday. The Korean War wasn’t history to them, it wasn’t even over (and technically it still isn’t, there is just an armistice). We can talk about Afghanistan, and it being America’s longest war, but WWII led directly into the Cold War. From Pearl Harbor to the end of the Cold War was 50 years. The U.S. had troops in Germany and Japan for more than 46 of those 50 years. Did my parents and grandparents realize on December 7th 1961 that they’d been in endless war, a war that would not end for another 30 years? For completeness we still have troops in Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Our botched exit from Afghanistan is not the subject of this post, its just part of the context. We’ve been fighting against, or helping to defend, Germany for 80 years. Mind boggling. But back to 9/11. When I was a child my parents wanted nothing to do with Germany or Japan. No German or Japanese cars for them, for example. Eventually they forgave Japan for Pearl Harbor, but as Jews they could never forgive Germany. When I was very young I could not understand this at all, as it seemed the transgressions they were reacting to were ancient history. Now on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 I truly understand, for them the WWII trauma was still fresh.
On 9/11/2001 Microsoft CVP Lewis Levin and I were in Minneapolis on a customer visit to the St. Paul Companies. We’d flown in the night before, our fist stop on an investigation tour of what “BI Applications” Microsoft might build. The local Microsoft account rep picked us up and took us to the customer’s offices. An assistant picked us up in the lobby and escorted us to a conference room. Along the way there was a sign announcing that former President George H.W. Bush was to speak at a company event that afternoon. Everyone was excited about President Bush’s visit. As we entered the conference room the assistant said “Did you hear a plane hit the World Trade Center”. I was surprised, but not shocked, to hear this news. My head immediately went to the thought of the occasional idiot private pilot who screws up their aerial tour of NYC and manages to crash into a building. Someone flying along the Hudson and getting too close to the WTC was not that hard to conceive. The assistant said nothing else about it, she had mentioned it somewhat nonchalantly, and went off to get us coffee. The next couple of hours are somewhat of a blur to me.
I can’t remember if the assistant delivered the coffee and then returned with the next bit of news, or if she just came back with it and no coffee. The reason I raise this is that normally I recall shocking amounts of detail, so I find these gaps disconcerting. Of course, they deserve to be there. To put it simply, she walked back into the room and said “A second plane has hit the World Trade Center.” I don’t think I said it out loud but my brain went “that can’t be a coincidence” and a kind of disorientation overcame me that I have not experienced before or since. She also said they were evacuating the building and escorted us out. Once back to the account reps car we could listen to the confusion on the radio, but by the time we were back at the hotel we still didn’t really know anything. We walked up to a TV just in time to see the South Tower fall. Lewis and I stayed glued to the television the rest of the day.
I’m a native New Yorker, so I took the attack really personally. Moreover, it took about a day to confirm that no family or friends were lost in the attack. There was a close call, a cousin who worked at 22 Cortland Street directly across from the towers. 22 Cortland, the Century 21 Department Store building, was severely damaged when the towers collapsed. Other family members were also in lower Manhattan at the time, but not in the WTC, and made their way north to safety. For weeks afterwards I would monitor High School and Technology related distribution lists for news. People from an office I’d worked at in the 70s were at a meeting at Windows on the World and perished when the North Tower collapsed. When their names finally came out I was relieved that it was no one I personally knew had perished, but it was only two degrees of separation. And that applied across the board, no one I knew personally but only two degrees of separation.
What I realize on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is that it will forever seem like yesterday. It will forever be a little raw. The horrors of the attack itself are prevalent in my thoughts, but the freedoms lost as we sought to prevent another such attack are not far behind. 9/11 altered the trajectory of our society (and of the world) in ways that those who weren’t adults (or at least close) at the time will never understand. To many of my readers, and certainly for their children, 9/11 is ancient history.
Which brings me to an observation that is both humorous and sad. I have seen complaints that 9/11 is not taught in schools. So let me tell you about World War II, the Korean War, and the education of the Baby Boom generation. We were not taught about those wars in school either. I remember an incredible level of frustration that history pretty much ended with World War I. Only now do I understand. Twenty years isn’t enough time for something to become history. It took almost a decade to track down and kill Osama Bin Laden. The trial of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is still not scheduled. The Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. There is no closure. The history books aren’t done yet. No wonder 9/11 itself feels fresh and raw.
I want to end with something positive and forward looking, but to do so we need to look to the past. At the end of the Vietnam War the U.S. absorbed large numbers of Vietnamese refugees fleeing the the communist government. They added immeasurably to our society, becoming a major contributor to the late 20th Century melting pot. Now we have an opportunity to absorb a large number of refugees from Afghanistan, refugees who were our supporters, friends, and allies in the years after 9/11. 9/11 may be fresh and raw to me, but that also means it is Al-Qeada and their supporters in the Taliban that I see as the enemy. If we can refresh the American Melting Pot at their expense, that will be quite the victory.