The Days After: A 9/11 Memoire, Part III

Cortland Subway stop post-9/11

Prior to 9/11, all of my visits to New York City left me in awe of the vastness of the city. Used to the wide open spaces and small towns of the Midwest, in New York I felt totally anonymous, just another human being amongst millions, dwarfed by soaring skyscrapers and chilled by cement, glass, steel and granite structures everywhere one turned. In the days after 9/11, those feelings were turned upside down. Most amazing was that when riding the subways, once they partially reopened, everyone was talking to one another, sharing their experiences. Suddenly, New York City felt like a town and I felt like a part of it. That experience left me thinking of myself as a New Yorker, an honorary one at least. I suddenly felt able to grasp this place and its size seemed manageable and no longer dwarfed me. New York City, the metropolis, now felt like a town, and that complete reshaping of my perspective has informed every visit paid to that city since. Intense experiences are the ones which leave the most lasting impact on us.

Back at the rectory, Curt was on the phone with his wife. The neighbors to their home in South Carolina had gone into their house and thrown all their belongings out onto the curb … in the rain. This was in retaliation for their having expressed solidarity with the Iraqi people suffering under US sanctions and bombing. He was looking for a way out of the city to go home and take care of this mess, but for the first three days, it was difficult to find public transport.

Prior to the attack and in response to the protest at the US Consulate to the UN, officials there had invited Kathy Kelly to a meeting there around September 13th or 14th. She had assumed that given the 9/11 attack, the meeting was off. But she got the call early one morning and they still wanted to meet. There being no one else available, I agreed to accompany her. The consulate officials were quite hostile in their questioning of her. I had expected this; but imagining it and experiencing it are two different things. It felt more as if we were speaking to a group of corporate officials than public officials, the way they spoke and dressed. Their demeanor was utterly condescending, so one wondered: what was the point? At some point in that conversation around a board room table in a rather dark room, I must have lost my composure a bit and pressed them on the issue of sanctions and bombing of Iraq: over a million civilians dead. No response, other than to ask us why we were not making noise about the human rights of Kuwaitis, referring to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait eleven years prior.

At one point I recall one of them saying ‘And now this!’, referring to the attack. One could feel the intensity of it weighing upon all of us, despite our differences of perspective. Neither Kathy nor I at that point saw any reason to believe that Iraq was behind the attacks. The idea made little sense, since the result would undoubtedly be enormous retaliation. The FBI had already pieced together names of the hijackers from airport camera surveillance and, surprisingly and somewhat incredulously, what remained of their passports in the wreckage. Most were from Saudi Arabia. All were identified with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida. But I do not think any of us in the room at that point felt that this was reliable information or that we clearly understood who organized these attacks and why. I would venture to stay we still do not. As we were exchanging contact info, I tossed my National Network to End the War business card across the table and it spun to a halt in front of the meeting chair. Bad form I guess, but I was upset with the way they were questioning Kathy’s integrity. I assumed I was a nobody to them, so my integrity was not the issue. I believe they suggested another meeting, which never happened. On the way out, Kathy explained that what was happening is that she was being tested to see if she would give away hints as if she were an agent for Iraq. I had not entirely picked up on this, but it made sense: put her on the defensive and then dismiss our critique of human rights violations perpetrated being perpetrated by our own government.

Walking around the city, you could feel it coming slowly back to life, but you also felt the weight of fear, since no one knew yet whether more attacks, perhaps in a different form, were yet to come. I remember walking past a wax museum where the wax statue of President George W. Bush was brought out onto the sidewalk. People had lined up around the block waiting for a chance to take a picture with the likeness of Bush II. One could understand the identification with the strong man whose job it now was to protect us. But what of the Iraqi people who had been suffering and dying under a sanctions regime for a decade now? And what of the violence to come? It was so disturbing that these people either did not know about that or did not care.

Around the 15th, it was time to go home. The bus was full and we waited perhaps an hour for the bus driver. Once he climbed on board, he shouted, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here!’ Everyone cheered. It was a four hour ride to DC and my thoughts meandered to dark places. The signs of a turn toward authoritarian governance and future, large-scale military action in the Middle East were clear. What sort of country would the United States become in short order? Arriving at Union Station in DC, I had to walk several blocks to the Library of Congress, where my sister worked, to get a ride home. Along the way, and about two blocks from the Capitol, I saw a brown-skinned fellow, he looked Latino but I could not tell, being dragged out of a tiny red VW Golf by armed guards in gray uniforms completely unfamiliar to me. ‘Can I at least go back and get my cell phone?’ he asked. They were not listening. They stuffed him into the back of a windowless van and whisked him away. Racial profiling, almost certainly. Welcome to the new militarism.

Home at last in the tiny apartment my sister and I were then sharing in Takoma Park, I turned on the tv only to find that an entirely new news channel had just been created under a name like ‘America at War’. Much of the information being dished out was useful, but the overall tone was one of propaganda to get you to support a retaliatory attack of some kind. How had they managed to pull this together in just a few days without having planned it out beforehand? It was possible, but it was so slick, you wondered. We did learn later that some seventeen countries sent warnings to the United States about and impending attack, some even suggesting it would occur on 9/11.