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September 11, 2001

Perhaps 10,000 other bloggers are doing the very same thing, writing today about their experiences of 9/11. Perhaps this will seem cliched -- if not now, then in the future. Perhaps the experience of someone who did not suffer directly from the attacks is a trivial thing. But I write this blog for myself, and writing this down is important to me.

A year ago today, I was living in Seattle, but working most of the time in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I was that day. I had left my girlfriend's house for work early that morning -- I wanted to beat the rush hour traffic, and I had plenty of work to do before a scheduled flight to San Diego that afternoon. It was around 0630 Pacific Time when I turned on the radio in the car. Normally, I would have been listening to NPR or the CBC, but for some reason, I had left the radio on an all-sports station. Within a few seconds of turning on the radio, the announcer mentioned the terrorist attacks, and I tuned into one of the Seattle NPR stations. Both towers of the World Trade Center had been struck, and the Pentagon was about to be hit. It felt like we were at war -- like what was happening was the tip of an iceberg, and that a hundred more attacks would ensue.

I called my girlfriend, who was just waking up. "Go downstairs and turn on the TV," I said. "Just go." She did. I asked her what was happening, asked her to tell me what she was seeing. I decided to go ahead and drive into work -- I was closer to the office at that point and wanted to get to a television. I listened to NPR's reporter at the Pentagon as it was hit. Were we truly at war? Were we being attacked on every front? It felt like it. In Canada, I felt safe, and yet I wanted very much to be home just then.

I parked at the office and then immediately walked up the street to a nearby hotel where I knew a large-screen television was set up in the breakfast area. When I walked in, the South Tower had already collapsed. The breakfast area was full of people watching intently, quietly. A couple nearby me was eating their breakfast as they watched. The incongruence of seeing such an unbelievably horrific event while a middle-aged woman next to me spread jam on her bagel was intensely disturbing. I wanted to grab her and shake her. I wanted to scream at her. "Don't you see what's happening? Thousands of people have just died! How can you eat while you watch that?" I said nothing.

It was hard to believe what was happening. I didn't think back to it at the time, but I had been to the World Trade Center once, for a business meeting many years before. It didn't make a huge impression on me, so I had no distinct memories of it to draw upon.

I wondered how many people were in the WTC. 10,000? 20,000? Whatever the number, the loss of life was staggering.

While we watched, the North Tower collapsed. I began sobbing. All those people... all that life... gone in an instant. No one else reacted audibly; I looked around and saw that I was the only one crying. For the first and only moment during all my time in Canada -- a country I both admire and enjoy -- I wanted out. More than anything, I wanted out and back to my own country. As I was walking out, one of the front desk staff stopped to talk to me. Was I okay? Did I need help? No, I wasn't okay. Didn't she see what had happened?

I couldn't be home, so I wanted to be with Americans. I got back to the office and called a co-worker of mine, a woman who had lived in New York for many years. It wasn't possible to meet her at that moment. I wanted to be with someone, and anyway, Internet news sources were barely functional, so I called another co-worker, a Canadian who lived nearby. I drove over to his place and we watched the news together. After a couple of hours, the coverage became repetitious and speculative, and so we turned off the TV and drove into the office. Of course, I didn't fly to San Diego that day. In fact, I don't think any of us worked at all that day -- mostly we just talked. Who could have done this? Why? Would more attacks follow? Were any of my American co-worker's friends missing?

My girlfriend changed her plans to be home with me that night. I was still extremely upset, and more than a little embarrassed at being so distraught given that I hadn't lost anyone or anything in the attacks.

It was either late that day or the next that I heard the report of a couple who had been seen holding hands as they jumped to escape the fires in one of the towers, and I started crying all over again. This time, the tears were mixed with intense anger. I wanted the US to find who had done this to us and hurt them.

NPR ran a story yesterday on the good, if any, that might have come from 9/11. With a year's perspective, I would have to say that for me, I give far more thought to civil liberties and their fragility. We preserve our freedom from external tyranny through defense, but we preserve our freedom from internal tyranny simply by agreeing to do so. I worry that, in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11, this agreement may be breaking down. I worry that we are trading freedom for safety. Of course, I want both, but if I have to choose, I choose freedom.

I have often thought back to that couple who jumped together, to how awful it must have been for that to seem their only option, and to what might have been going through their minds as they did so. I have never seen a photo of them, and if one exists, I hope I never do... yet for me they remain the indelible image of the attacks. Whoever you were, I will never forget you.

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