Friday, September 9, 2011

I remember

Khalid al-Midhar was dead even before I woke up that morning. Not that I knew who he was, or knew anyone who did know who he was. The only connection is that he and I were both registered as students at Mesa College, in San Diego, California. Though, by all accounts, he never attended a class there.

On the morning of 11 September 2001, I fell out of bed just before 6 a.m., showered, dressed and jumped into my car to head to a 7 a.m. philosophy of logic class at Mesa. It was a typical beautiful San Diego morning: the sun shining so brightly it bounced off my rearview mirrors and into my eyes as I drove west through the sparse early-morning traffic on Friars Road. With a Starbucks white chocolate mocha in my car's cup holder and a cranberry orange muffin in my lap, I started to learn what Khalid, his room-mate Nawaf al-Hazmi, and 17 others, had done.

I have never been a fan of morning radio. I don't understand why people would want to listen to incessant talking at that time of morning. Surely you would want to rock -- get your heart pumping in anticipation to take on another day -- rather than listen to yet another cookie-cutter wax-voiced DJ tell yet another cookie-cutter dumb-girl DJ what he thinks about that show you don't watch that was on last night. Apparently I am in the minority; such programmes are inescapable on both sides of the Atlantic. Generally I choose not to listen at all but the only CDs in the car that morning were all from a Barry Manilow box set. My ex-wife loved Barry Manilow, and not in an ironic way. Add that to the list of reasons things eventually fell apart.

So, I found myself skipping across the radio dial. I let the radio scan three circuits, each time allocating 101.5 to be the start/stop point, hoping the "morning zoo" of Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw would shut up for a bit and simply play some Blackfoot. "Train, Train," by Blackfoot, is one of the all-time best songs to gear yourself up to go to school/work/rob a bank. No such luck, however. Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw were obsessed with something they were watching on TV in the studio.

Few things are less interesting than listening to a group of people watch television, especially when that group are too engrossed to properly explain what they are seeing. As best I could figure out, a plane had crashed into a building in New York City. Their inadequate powers of description did nothing to contradict the vision I had of a single-engine Cessna smacking against a skyscraper, breaking a few windows and -- at the very worst -- possibly killing four people. That sort of thing had happened from time to time in San Diego. No one had run into a building, admittedly, but plenty of tragically inexperienced pilots had managed to put their planes into the side of a mountain. And I could not see why it was drawing so much of Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw's attention.

In those days I was an active member of the Global Media Conspiracy, working at one of the local television stations. You may have guessed this, but within the newsroom mind there exists a kind of equation for tragic events: a ÷ b = c. Where a is the number of people dead, b is the distance of the event from the news market and c is the event's level of newsworthiness. By this equation, a maximum of four people being killed in a novelty accident roughly 4,000 miles away does not warrant taking time from local traffic and weather, talk of that bitchy one on "The Bachelor," or the possibility of rocking out to Blackfoot. Dave, Shelly and Chainsaw were wasting my time. And I was starting to eye the Barry Manilow box set when I heard them all gasp.

"Oh, fuck," said one of the male presenters.

As I say, I was a member of the Global Media Conspiracy in those days. I knew full well the implications of profanity on the airwaves. I had seen coworkers instantly fired, their careers ended, because they had used tamer words on air. My ears perked up and I devilishly prepared to listen to the torrent of mea culpa that was almost certain to follow. They would all awkwardly apologise, possibly go to commercial, and maybe when the show eventually came back it would be one presenter short. But that didn't happen.

"Oh, God," Shelly said. "That building just fell down. Oh, God. Oh, my God."

In the background I heard others using profanity. Someone screamed. And I realised something was happening.

This was only ten years ago, so it's hard to remember there were no smart phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, etc. -- nothing to spread information quite so instantly as we have today. Even blogs had not yet hit the mainstream. I worked on my television station's website and it was still occasionally a challenge to convince management such a technology was more than a fad. Instant information was hard to come by. So, when I arrived at my class at Mesa College I still only knew something was happening, but I had no idea what. Searching the AM and FM radio stations en route had provided little additional knowledge.

In the classroom, a handful of other people had heard of the something that had happened but were equally in the dark. One guy had thought to tune a pocket radio to Howard Stern, reasoning that since this event was taking place "back east" Stern would surely comment on it -- but not realising Stern's show was on time delay. Whatever Stern was saying at that moment would not be broadcast in the West Coast for three more hours.

The course instructor eventually arrived, confirmed he was aware something was happening and announced that in light of that something our class was cancelled.

"Before I let you go, however," he said. "I think it's appropriate, this being a course on logic and reason, that we remember not to rush to judgment about who is responsible for whatever this is. And when we find out who is responsible, it's even more important to remember not to stereotype, not to group an entire race or religion or culture into a box just because of the actions of a minority. OK, go home and be with your families. I'm not sure when classes will resume."


I called my news manager as soon I got back to the apartment.

"Want me to come in now?"

I was scheduled to come into work that afternoon, but when something happens a part of the journalist's soul aches to be in the newsroom. There is a need to be there, to be acting, to be doing something. It is a kind of coping mechanism, I think. For me it always was, at least. It was my way of firing into the air, I suppose.

When Custer's men were being slaughtered at Little Bighorn many of them simply fired randomly into the air, the innate frantic desire to act overpowering the rational ability to pick a target. They couldn't really think of what to do but knew they had to do something, so they shot wildly and screamed at nothing in particular.

A journalist knows he can do nothing about the people in burning and collapsing buildings, but he still feels the need to scream and to shoot into the air, so he talks and talks or writes and writes until the shock of the thing starts to wear off. My news manager told me to wait to come in.

"You're definitely going to be here late," she said. "You should try to get some sleep."

I would not sleep for another 36 hours. I managed 45 minutes of lying on the couch, watching Peter Jennings try to make sense of it all, before I decided to go in early. I went straight to work churning out story after story -- this event cancelled, that Navy ship on stand-by, this official claiming such and such, that official warning so and so, these people raising money, those people collecting blankets. It went on and on. And the whole world felt confused. Over and over I wrote stories from all corners of the San Diego viewing area for which the underlying theme was: "What the hell is happening?"

People brought in pizza, then Mexican food, then breakfast, then pizza again. Occasionally I would get up, go to the toilet and walk slow back to my desk, but for the most part I just worked -- pushing the assignment desk and reporters to give me anything, so I could write it and publish it and feel like I was doing something. So I could keep firing into the air.

Early in the evening of 12 September 2001, one of the guys from the assignment desk came up to me with a box of Krispy Kremes.

"Hey, man," he said. "You're wearing the same clothes as yesterday. Did you go home?"


"Have a donut, man. Take a second. People are starting to burn out."

He sat and talked to me about nothing. I can't remember the conversation now. In the back of my head I realised he had made it his job to distract people in the newsroom for the sake of their sanity. I think there must have been long pauses in the conversation, points where I'd say, "Yeah," and trail off into silence. On my desk a television ran the ABC satellite feed, and suddenly there were the Coldstream Guard outside Buckingham Palace. The Queen had directed them to play the Star Spangled Banner. And they did so brilliantly. Staccato. Defiant. Unapologetic.

And it got me. It still gets me.

Because here's the thing about being an American: the rest of the world loves to see you fail. Yes, sometimes American arrogance seems to deserve the karmic repayment of failure. But as an American you can't help but notice the glee other nationalities take in seeing that failure, urging it on at times, baying for it. Each American deals with this in his or her own way. Some Americans try to turn from the rest of the world, some of us try to accept the criticism with a grain of salt. It is not so horrible, but it can be annoying. And amid the immediate blur of 9/11 I felt that around the world people were probably tutting judgmentally and impishly declaring we had brought this on ourselves.

But here was the British monarchy, the institution we had rebelled against to form our very beginning, rushing forward to show unwavering support. Still amid the confusion, Britain seemed to be saying: "We don't know what's going on, but we know we are beside you."

It got me. It still gets me. That display of support is one of the reasons I love Britain so fiercely to this day. And it was the reason I fell apart crying on that early evening the day after the attacks. I cried so hard my lungs shook. I have only once in my life cried harder.


I got an email from Radio Cymru the other day asking if I'd be interested in coming on air to discuss the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. As one of only a few Welsh-speaking Americans I frequently get the call to comment on whatever big news item is taking place at the moment. Over the years I've provided Yanqui analysis of presidential campaigns, political dealings, tornadoes, financial woes and the significance of Thanksgiving dinner. I had suspected I might get a call about the 10-year anniversary, as well.

In the email, a producer posited a few of the questions that have and will be asked ad nauseam in connection to 9/11: Are there any lessons to learn? Could this all have been avoided had the West behaved better?

Those are the producer's words: "pe bai'r Gorllewin wedi ymddwyn yn well" -- if the West were to have behaved better. To me this smacks of the sentiment that America had it coming, that somehow 9/11 was deserved. I didn't respond to the email for a full day because I found it difficult to avoid abusive language. Once I calmed, I said I would be happy to discuss the 10-year anniversary but that phrasing of that particular question was exceedingly poor. How exactly was the United States supposed to have "behaved better?" What is "better" in the eyes of the Islamic extremist who seeks only the total eradication of Western culture? When your critic wants you dead it's impossible to find common ground.

As we look back 10 years, I think it is foolish, revisionist and naïve to suggest the United States, or any of the myriad other countries attacked by al-Qaida, somehow were responsible for the tragedies directed at them. The people who died in 9/11 were simply living their lives. I'm willing to bet, based on the law of averages, that some of those people were dickheads. But none of them deserved to die. None of them had it coming to be struck down by a group of extremist zealots who felt they had a right to kill in Allah's name. And none of them could have or should have "behaved better" to avoid being killed.

The United States could perhaps have prevented 9/11 from happening had various security services not been so keen on being proprietary with information. But there is nothing, save not existing, it could have ever done to spare itself being the target of extremist Islamist ire. The extremists are crazy; there is no negotiability in their standpoint; they are wrong.

The assertion that America has no culpability in the causes of 9/11 may sound like arrogant patriotism to some people from the Soggy Nations. In Britain, one seemingly must assume at least a portion of guilt for every bad thing in order to be properly cultured. I don't buy that in this case. And although I am unrepentantly pro-American (strangely more so since moving to the UK), I don't think that makes me a blind patriot.

This 11 September, as they do every year, a number of my friends back home will commemorate the day by posting to their Facebook/Twitter/whatever messages like, "I haven't forgotten," or "I still remember," or some equally inane statement of the same sentiment. This is ridiculous. It is simply a declaration of memory. I haven't forgotten 9/11, but additionally I haven't forgotten the birthday cake Jenn made for me in March. I haven't forgotten my high school locker combination. I haven't forgotten what I had for lunch yesterday. There are any number of things my memory is capable of recalling. But that isn't a declaration of patriotism, it's a taunt of Alzheimer's sufferers.

For the purveyors of these functioning memory claims I think the assertion is that America somehow changed as a result of 9/11 and they remain resolved to uphold that change. I suppose this is similar to the attitude conveyed in Johnny Mathis' "Secret of Christmas:" It's not the things you do at Christmas, but the Christmas things you do all year through. But what, exactly, are these people remembering? I would argue their memories are, in fact, a bit fuzzy. Because in fundamental terms the United States did not change. We have different technologies, we are paying attention to different surgically enhanced celebrities and we are simultaneously lamenting and upholding different politicians, but at its core America has not changed. It remains the brash, friendly, right-of-centre, wonderful, ridiculous country it has long, long been.

Eliminating political specifics, technological advances and pop culture, the United States is the same place it was a decade ago. So, what was the effect of 9/11? Nothing. All those people died and, essentially, nothing happened as a result.

That sounds cruel but, to me, it is a good thing. It shows the resiliency of the human spirit and also draws a huge, blood-stained line under the biggest lesson of 9/11: Terrorism Does Not Work. As a means of change it is woefully ineffective. It accomplishes nothing toward the terrorist's stated aims.

The attacks of 11 September broke my heart but they didn't change me. On this ten-year anniversary I may go to Starbucks, I may rock out to Blackfoot, I may cry. But I will still be American. Unapologetically so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice piece Chris
It's something that you remember where you were when the news came through. Me, I was on holiday in Menorca with 2 small kids and no telly - so it wasn't until the evening when we wandered into a packed but silent bar I saw it on Spanish TV. Strange things I recall,one was at the paper shop the following morning where there
was a long line of people buying every paper (this was before the Interweb),another a queue at a 'phone box of people trying to get hold of their travel company as they had stopped all flights over the UK and people were worried about getting home.

Still very,very sad.Doesn't seem a decade............