Fork in the Road — My Own Private 9/11

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As it happened for my wife and me, the week of September 11th, 2001, coincided with the week of our wedding anniversary. We had chosen that year to take some time away from our New York jobs and spend it quietly in our “second home” in the Pennsylvania Poconos, about a 90-mile drive from our Bronx apartment.

We were in the throes of remodeling, the weather was great, and there were no “distractions” from cable TV or broadband internet, as we refused to justify the expense at the time. As our place is near the Bushkill river, our cats and the soothing sound of rushing water were our only companions, occasionally punctuated, however, by commercial jets overhead.

Even so, we weren’t completely out of touch with the world. We did have a working land-line phone, allowing a modest dial-up connection for the occasional e-mail. About 9:30 AM, I decided to check e-mail briefly. I received one from a friend in Minnesota asking me for more information about a blurb she had seen on the news earlier, concerning a “plane crashing into the World Trade Center."

While raising my brows a bit, I didn’t think much of it at first, as the context of her message suggested a light plane lost control and crashed into one of the towers — a bizarre and tragic accident for those involved, but nothing earth-changing. There would be recriminations, lurid headlines, and repair work, but life would go on.

Nevertheless, curiosity overtook common sense (recall this was a 44k-at-best dial-up connection, where media-rich websites would slow things to a crawl), and I opted to go to CNN.com just for a “quick” look. I made a fresh pot of coffee while waiting for the page to render.

For the next four hours, that little trickle of digital packets became our lifeline to world events. The first image told me categorically this was no little Piper Cherokee causing all that havoc.

Those images also sent me into paroxysms of grief. One of my best friends was doing consulting work for a financial services firm downtown. He worked on the 97th floor of Tower One. He was a very prompt individual — always at the desk by 8AM, without fail. Ergo, I had convinced myself, he was surely gone.

Each fresh, but agonizingly slow rendering of the pages revealed a new digitally captured horror. After swapping reassuring missives with concerned friends and cohorts, the picture of what had happened to us that day became clear. Our grief deepened.

After a couple of hours, my wife wisely suggested we take a break, log off, and check phone messages. There were already half a dozen, mostly from non-internet-connected family out west. We made the necessary calls and gave assurances that we were all right. Calling west was no problem — calling New York’s environs was a huge problem, however, both from the massive traffic, and the fact that a major communications hub was located in the WTC. My office in Yonkers was as unreachable as my friend’s home in Brooklyn. Many corporate computer networks were offline for the same reason.

Nonetheless, we persevered. We wanted to at least offer consolation to my friend’s live-in girlfriend. She had been a part of his life for quite awhile, and they had plans to marry. We couldn’t imagine what she would be feeling.

So you can visualize my shock and awe when, about 2:30 in the afternoon, I actually got through to Brooklyn, and my friend actually picked up! He sounded as amazed to still be alive to hear my voice, as I was relieved and overjoyed to hear his. Apparently, as destiny would have it, he had decided to go into the office a little late — believing it more efficient to exercise his voting rights in the New York mayoral primary before going to work, rather than endure the longer lines at the polls afterward. His “civic duty” saved his life, as the attacks were underway before the subway could reach its destination. He had to walk back home, across the Brooklyn Bridge, with thousands of other dazed, overwhelmed New Yorkers, and had only recently arrived there.

(A year later, I stood by his side and spoke at his wedding. In January 2004, he became the father of twin sons. Today, there is a third on the way. All of this joy from a single, last minute decision at a key moment in time, a testament to the uncertainty and fragility of life.)

Later that afternoon, we opted to drive into the nearest town, Marshalls Creek, for a meal and to find a TV. This is where we saw our first live news coverage of the events. We also learned that we were cut off from our Bronx apartment. Not only were all bridges and tunnels leading into the city shut down, but even the spans over the Delaware River from PA to NJ, a handful of miles from us, were closed. Even had we chosen to cut short our “vacation," we could not. Everyone around us appeared equally dazed, with a few individuals already beginning to repeat what would soon become the mantras for the next half-decade: “nine-one-one," and “nine-eleven." We got home late, and fell into an exhausted sleep.

September 12th, like the previous day, dawned brightly. I took stock:

  1. I was still in shock over the attack, and concerned for the state of the city, and the families of the victims,
  2. I was still angry, and wanted to find and severely punish the perpetrators….but most importantly,
  3. I was still a libertarian, a peace-preferring free-marketer, a defender of civil liberties, and a global non-interventionist.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of pundits from the New York Post (“kill them all”), to WorldNetDaily (“hallelujah, Armageddon is here!”), I didn’t toss my moral and philosophical principles out the window upon viewing the first video clip of the planes hitting the towers.

We sat on our deck that morning, listened to the river flow past, and appreciated what we realized was an “unnatural” silence — caused by the lack of commercial jets flying overhead, due to the FAA-ordered lockdown. That silence became symbolic for us, in a way we’ve never forgotten.

Within that moment of preternatural quiet, we could literally visualize the fork in the road for our nation and our culture…

Path 1:

  • We bury and honor our dead
  • We refrain from knee-jerk responses, and resolve to move thoughtfully, with specific goals in mind
  • We take a long hard look inside ourselves to determine the root causes of this horrendous, gut-wrenching attack, in terms of our long-term policy decisions over the previous 50+ years
  • We reaffirm America’s founding principles that made her great to begin with (particularly the commitment to protecting individual rights and freedoms)
  • We make the appropriate (and fundamental) alterations in our foreign policies, to ensure that the root causes of terrorist acts are eliminated, and
  • We make use of the overwhelming good will offered us by the rest of the world that day, by enlisting international aid to track down, capture, and bring to justice the perpetrators, and doing so in a way that, to the best extent possible, doesn’t undermine the sovereignty of other nations

Path 2:

  • We bury and honor our dead, then callously use them as emotional hostages for domestic short-term political advantage
  • We invade other countries (mostly Muslim) in a savage response, and mindlessly destroy innocent people and infrastructure
  • We clamp down on civil liberties at home, claiming it’s for “security” — warrantless searches, secret wiretaps and records gathering, national IDs, the works
  • We squander that international good will by unilaterally throwing our weight around, abrogating treaties, rattling the nuclear saber, and insulting our allies
  • In so doing, we run up huge budget deficits, paid for by our economic adversaries carrying our debt, and thus placing our economy and even the stability of the dollar itself at huge risk

Well, we obviously know the path taken — the words “war on terror," “Homeland Security," “Patriot Act," “Afghanistan," and “Iraq” pretty much say it all. I have nevertheless refused to give in to bitterness and cynicism over this course, as it would be so easy to do. Instead, I have given what I can to add my light, as I see that light, to fight the darkness threatening to descend around all of us.

There is an area of spiritual philosophy which teaches that we all choose our path, our destiny, and even create our own reality, reflective of our own conscious thought. Each new decision creates a new reality; all that we dwell upon, whether good or bad, we magnify and manifest in our lives. (Quantum Physics actually supports this notion.) So by that token, it wasn’t so much the country had chosen a path (although it clearly did), but that we had, ourselves. We opted to go along for this ride instead of that one over there…we could have chosen a different direction for our own consciousness, but deliberately chose that which we currently share. As my wife and I have frequently asked ourselves over the last five years, with a certain sardonic wit: Why would we choose this one?

The only reason
we can come up with, is that it is our path, our purpose, in these
uncertain and tragic times, to observe, record, and bear witness
to the treasonous perfidy of our officials, and others who pretend
to act in our names. It is our task to do our best to set right things
that have gone terribly wrong with the American soul, and proffer
a way out, to peace, stability, and abundance, all of which provide
“security” as a welcome byproduct.

As you contemplate the path this country has taken in the last five years, do not despair. These times shall pass. And when they finally do, there will be a record kept by the uncompromising, freedom-minded people who survived them — people like you and me — a record of those who publicly, on principle, went against the prevailing political winds of the era. A record that will both enlighten, and warn future generations against engaging in what Barbara Tuchman called “The March of Folly." This is why we are here. This is why LRC is here, and TLE, Antiwar.com, the Huffington Post, news anchors like Keith Olbermann, and many, many others. Our ranks grow by the day. The Bad Guys aren’t on the run yet, but it is clear their time is coming.

We shall bear witness to that, as well.

Thomas Andrew Olson [send him mail] is a New York-based writer and speaker, whose topics range from technology and the future to politics and policy. Here is his blog, where this week he is reprinting “9/11″ columns from his old Lycos page.

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