Thursday, September 11, 2008

OT - It's the Least Wonderful Time of the Year

Seven years ago today I was a newlywed of 4 1/2 months living in a different city. I was spending the morning at home, waiting for a contractor to put in a new front door on the house. While doing my delayed morning routine the DJs on the radio announced a plane crash in Manhattan and the World Trade Center had been hit.

No one knew what was going on. It's unlikely that a plane would randomly crash into a building like that due to equipment failure, but it wasn't impossible. I snapped on the TV and every channel was showing live footage of smoke billowing out of the top of one of the towers. Verbal diarrhea ensued from broadcasters with not much to say but obviously in love with the sound of their own voices.

Then, in just a second or so, in absolute silence because there was no microphone on the live footage, the second plane banked in to the shot at full throttle and exploded the second tower.

That's what I remember the most. Watching live at the moment when everyone realized for sure we were under attack.

Pete was scheduled to go on a business trip in a week or so. I called him to turn on the news. It was already on in the main atrium of his office building. I can't even remember what I said. His asshole boss tried to insist on him flying even though we were all scared to death. The company eventually cancelled all business flights before he had to go.

I called my folks. My dad's family and part of my mom's were from NYC and we still have relatives there. The twin towers were a usual stop when we trekked into the city to visit and dinner at Windows on the World was non-negotiable. Dad hadn't heard the news yet. I couldn't tell him. "Just turn on the TV...." I choked out, and hung up.

I called the office manager at work.
"Have you seen the news??"
"Not yet, but a runner from admin just came in to tell us. We're turning it on now."
"Is anyone flying today?"
"Just Eddie."

Eddie: the one doctor in the department on travel today was a first-generation American whose parents were from Palestine and who had an Arabic last name. Eddie was going to have a bad trip. It was only hours after the initial strike that word came in we were dealing with Islamic extremists.

I shooed the contractor back to his truck when the work was finished and headed in myself. Every last person in sight in the medical center was in as much shock as if that attack had happened there. The only aircraft in motion were Air Force fighters. Even the ambulance choppers were grounded. The hospital honchos, up to the president himself were running around with government people; no one knew how widespread this attack would be and our city could be a tempting target. They were planning to convert the specialized hospital into a Level One trauma center, hoping they wouldn't need to.

Every drop of blood stored in a plastic bag was being rerouted to NYC by the Red Cross. Our hospital alone had over 100 major surgeries scheduled over the next two days and they were not elective - the patients couldn't wait for blood. Every able-bodied employee, volunteer, and visitor queued up in a treatment center to roll up their sleeve and donate. I did too, even though I always get dizzy afterwards.

This hospital is an international treatment and research center. The staff is from every corner of the globe. Not a whole lot of work got done. Everyone's face was ashen from the horror of watching people jump out of the buildings. The staff tried to turn off the TVs but riots almost ensued in the waiting rooms. The worst shock of all was on the faces of my friends and colleagues from the Middle East. Every religion has their nutjobs and bad press but now the spotllight was on them as Muslims. Many wanted to make signs to wear that said "I'm a Muslim and I didn't do it." Normally there isn't a lot of conflict between employees of different ethnicities or religions. It's just one of those places where you get used to being around people different from you or you won't do well there. I didn't recognize the woman who was sitting in the cube next to mine - because I was used to seeing her in her hijab. She confessed that she took it off in shame, even though she had done nothing to be ashamed of. But now she felt naked without it.

No one felt like eating but I gave blood earlier so I crawled downstairs for a sandwich. The little man who ran the soup-and-sandwich kiosk - a Chaldean Catholic who escaped from Iraq - wasn't charging for his lunches today. His family had been attcked by Saddam Hussein's regime and he empathised with his new American neighbors who were blindsided that morning.

That following Sunday was the first day of my volunteer job as a Sunday school teacher that academic year. I was teaching junior high kids about Church history. Oh yeah, my first lesson plan got tabled. Instead I spent the week getting some quick lessons in Koran and Islamic history from my work colleagues, Omar and Aisha. Come Sunday, I had never seen a more scared, shocked, and unsure-about-life room of kids in my life. They had already guessed I would be saying something about the attacks. Starting with a quickie true/false pop quiz I got the teens asking questions and looking at Islam and its followers as a whole, not just the caricature that the extremists made it out to be. I couldn't do a complete history, and even if I wanted to, I wasn't qualified. But I could make the point that the kid named Muhammad who sits next to them in algebra class and plays shortstop on the baseball team wasn't going to blow up their house.

The end of the class was something I hadn't done before. We always make sure that the kids get a chance to read their Bibles or learn something from it but this was one hard lesson.
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father...
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? ... if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

--Matthew 5:43-48
The above is a mandate. Not a suggestion, an idea submitted for your consideration, or an agenda item up for discussion. If you're a Christian, this is what you're supposed to do. That's it. I am no saint, believe me. And this is one area of the practice of my faith that I really suck at. But I was commissioned to set a good example for these kids, not flaunt my weaknesses. So the class ended with a sincere prayer that these extremists would see the light of their own faith and change their ways. It was the hardest thing I ever did.

Like it did for the rest of the nation, the shock wore off and we got used to knowing that Islamic extremists were after us again. My feelings on war vs negotiation in this are very mixed. IMHO, most people are torn in half over that question if they are very honest with themselves. Islamic extremists have a long history in attacking the US. It predates 9/11, the attack on the USS Cole, the airline hijackings and bombings through the 80s and even the Iranian Revolution and the hostages taken in 1979. The first time the USA got hit by this type of extremism was in 1783 by the Barbary pirates. (Sources: The Barbary Wars on Wikipedia, Victory at Tripoli on

These pirates took the same tack that the terrorists do today: their interpretation of the Koran demands that they attack any "infidel" and enslave anyone they captured. (There's a more exact quote from Thomas Jefferson's correspondence on one of the Wikipedia articles.) So, again, IMHO, our politics aren't the issue - the terrorists' politics are. Jefferson and Madison realized quickly that paying tribute/bribes wasn't going to last long and negotiating was a joke. It was more effective (and cheaper!) to just raise a navy and bomb the ever-lovin' shit out of them. It worked for a while - Islamic extremists left America alone for nearly 200 years.

But is that the right tack for today? The world is a different place, even if our enemy's way of thinking isn't. Does America or the world really want to go the distance and take the measures that it will require to get these extremists to back off, at least for another 200 years? Weaponry today is more advanced than James Madison ever dreamed of; I think even he would have a hard time with that question. In addition, the USA is more ethnically diverse than it was then. Many of our own citizens would be torn over seeing their ancestral homelands attacked, justified or not. Deciding to go to war sounds a lot harder once you see the pictures of your colleagues' relatives who still live over there.

I don't have the answers. I'm just sad that so much of the world I grew up with is gone and pissed that the solution isn't cut-and-dried, even for me. The art I included at the bottom shows the jumble of thoughts and feelings better than this diatribe did.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent points! I saw a movie about terrorism the other day and the main character said, "My grandfather used to put out crosses that the KKK burned in our neighbor's yards. Extremists exist in every religion."

    I was thinking of that verse today as well. Loving your enemies is possibly one of the hardest mandates God has given us; but Jesus set the example. I'm still battling that on a daily basis.