It was about 9:15 am on September 11 in New York City, and I
was at the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue
waiting to catch a bus, when I noticed people looking up at something in the
distance. I looked up too, and what I saw I will never forget.
There about 2 miles from us, as the crow flies, was one tower
of the World Trade Center on fire at about the 100th
floor. Massive clouds of smoke were billowing up, enough that I could see at a
glance that folks above that floor would not be able to make it out of the
I turned to the gentleman next to me and asked what had
happened. He said that a plane had hit that tower and that another had hit the
tower behind it, the one we could not see from where we were standing. With a
second plane involved, we both knew what was going on, and muttered to each
other "a terrorist attack" – it could be nothing else.
I stood and watched for a few moments, decided that the police
and firemen were surely there doing what could be done, and didn’t see
anything that I could do, so I left for my 9:30 meeting at Hunter College. (I
knew the Towers were designed to withstand the impact of a 747, so it never
dawned upon me that they could collapse.)
I got to my meeting on time – it was about assisting and
organizing community health workers – we all talked about the bombing. Then
we agreed to go on with the meeting – if some people were trying to stop us,
then we would defy them by going on with our lives. It was a minor gesture of
defiance, one that paled further as the events of the day unfolded.
I had to leave early for a union meeting – I’m Co-Chair of
the City University teacher’s union (PSC-CUNY) health and safety committee.
I hopped a bus north to midtown (they were still running then), which took me
further away from the WTC buildings. Inside all of the passengers were talking
out loud about the bombing in one big, bus-wide conversation – an unusual
New York City moment, to say the least. Who did this? Why? What should we do?
We tried, all of us, to support each other, to put the best face on this
disaster we could. I still didn’t realize that the two buildings had (or
were soon going to) collapse.
'REALITY CRASHED IN'
When I got to the union office, reality crashed in around me.
The TV screen was running and re-running each tower’s collapse. I saw fear
in people’s eyes; so many of us had friends and family members working
downtown near the WTC buildings. A visceral fear hit me – my wife Ronda
works about six blocks away from the WTC. Could the buildings or parts of them
have tipped over and fell near her or her colleagues? Maybe she had gone over
to the WTC to purchase something just then? The TV said and I saw that the
collapse was straight down. But was this the whole story? Frantically I
started to call my wife, and also my daughter, who happened to be home from
college that week. But, no surprise, the phone lines were all busy, clogged
with people like me trying to contact their friends and loved ones.
After about an hour of unsuccessful phone calls, my wife and I
both got through to my daughter and we all knew we were OK. Eventually
everyone in the union office got through to his or her loved ones – and the
news was good for each of us. Our pent-up tears burst forth, and we hugged one
Not so lucky, many of our friends and colleagues. A colleague
at school lost her sister, another her husband. As the day went on the losses
hit, and hit hard. Over 300 firemen died. (Later a firefighter union rep told
us that prior to this disaster, the worst disaster ever to hit a U.S. fire
team took 30 lives, one-tenth the number here!) Almost 100 policemen and
policewomen lost their lives. Many other union workers died. Over 70 members
of the Restaurant Workers union, working at the Windows on the World
restaurant, lost their lives. Twenty-seven members of the Local 32BJ of SEIU,
who ran the elevators and cleaned and maintained the buildings, died. Many,
many foreign nationals lost their lives, as well as over 600 persons of the
Islamic faith, both American and foreign.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The bombings were and are a first-class tragedy. And it will
take us many years as a nation to recover, but recover we will – changed by
the bombings and the deaths, just as we are changed by wars and losses in our
families. But life goes on with its pleasures and joys, as well as its
sufferings and worries.
But where do we go from here? What have we learned from this
tragedy? I honestly don’t know what "we" as Americans have
learned, we’re too diverse a country and people for that. But the following
thoughts have been on my mind since the bombing:
That there are people in the world who are so filled with
hate and anger that they are willing to do almost anything to harm us. I
must say it grieves me to see that in some parts of the world, many people
consider Mr. Bin Laden a hero for what he and his supporters did, despite
the massive losses of lives involved. There are too many such people, in
my opinion, simply to be brushed off as "crazed" or "out of
their minds." We need to find out why so many peoples in the Middle
East are so angry and upset with us. And if there is merit to
the reasons for their hostility, we should try to address them, even as we
continue to search for the perpetrators of the bombing and bring them to
That we are going to be fighting wars in the Middle East
for the rest of our lives, and our children’s lives, and our
grandchildren’s lives if we don’t find some way as a nation to quench
our national thirst for third-world oil. We must begin to make a serious
national effort to conserve energy, starting with home and office heating
and improved fuel efficiency for our cars (Yes, gas-guzzling vans and SUVs
are an ecological disaster), and seriously develop renewable fuel sources
like wind, sun and water. Fifteen years ago I was telling environmental
classes at Hunter College that reliance on foreign fuels would embroil us
in wars in the Middle East for generations to come. Since then we have
fought or are fighting two wars there, and as the threats to Saudi Arabia
and Egypt increase more wars are on the horizon. And who knows what Saddam
Hussein will decide to do before he leaves the international stage?
Finally, we need to keep our cool in fighting Bin Laden
and his network. Our chief goal should be to go after him and his
associates, and bring them to justice. Bringing down the government in
Afghanistan should be a secondary goal for us, but increasingly this
appears to be the chief goal of our military effort. We can no more
install a government in Afghanistan and expect it to survive as a
legitimate national government without foreign support (read: US soldiers)
than we could do so in South Vietnam forty years ago. These efforts didn’t
work then and they won’t work now, in my opinion, no matter how much we
are aggrieved by the Taliban’s support for Bin Laden. Bin Laden and
associates carried out the attacks on the U.S., let us go after them and
bring them to justice.
For the more distant future, we should heed Mother Jones’
advice: "Let’s mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the