As I went to bed last night, I was dreading the inevitable "LIVE!" reports from the Mall of America about how heavy or light the Black Friday mall traffic was. Little did I know that, by the time I woke up and fully caught up with the news, I would be praying for mundane mall reports. Because mundane mall reports would mean that the situation in Mumbai India, tragic as it already was, would have been winding down.
Yet I awoke to reports of five Jewish hostages being killed and a gunman (gunmen?) still on the loose in the posh Taj hotel. I thought about the people of Mumbai - all who are there - and I thought about the stress and horror they must be experiencing. I connected most to the fear I knew they'd feel. And it transported me back to my own story, one of millions told about 9/11. A retelling of my story and then my advice to the Mumbai Terrorism Survivors over the fold.
I was pretty damned close to 9/11. Not as close (thankfully) as the people in the planes or the people in the Twin Towers or the people in the Pentagon - but damned close nonetheless. I was on my way to a meeting downtown at US Treasury's main building at 15th and Pennsylvania Ave. NW. I had a big presentation to give. I usually ride with my radio tuned to news, but this day, I had turned it down as I glanced at a hard-copy of my presentation on the passenger seat and went through, mentally, what I would say. I was nervous (always am before presentations) and focused.
My phone rang. It was Mr. RenaRF. He called to tell me the strangest thing had happened. Had I heard about the small plane that had hit one of the Twin Towers? Well, while he was watching, another small plane flew into the other tower. How strange is that? Uh huh, I said. I told him I loved him but that I needed to get off the phone. I went back to thinking about my presentation. As I neared the city from 66 eastbound (about a mile shy of the Rosslyn exit, for those who know the area), my friend and co-worker called and told me to get out of Washington. A bomb went off at the State Department, she said. Someone is shooting at the FBI building, she said. New York City was under terrorist attack.
This woke me out of my concentration, naturally. I hung up with her and quickly took the Rosslyn/Key Bridge exit. As I was rounding the ramp to get onto Key Bridge pointed towards Georgetown/DC, I heard BOOOOOM. I looked around - didn't see anything in my rearview or in front of me. As I was barely fully onto Key Bridge proper, I looked to my right - down the Potomac River towards the Roosavelt and 14th St. bridges and towards the Pentagon and National Airport (sorry - won't call it Reagan Airport) - and over the trees came a plume of black smoke. The Pentagon (though I didn't specifically know this at the time).
My heart quickened. I finally reached for my radio (mere moments had passed since my friend called to warn me out of DC) and turned up WTOP, our local news channel. It told the story we all know too well now. Key Bridge was jammed - I needed to get across it and hook a left onto Canal Road to head back toward Virginia via Chain Bridge. So much was happening at once. My stepson, then still in high school, attended Langley, which was dangerously close to CIA headquarters. I kept trying to call the school - my husband - my parents. Phones were jammed. I crept along Canal Road and my mind was so riotous that I didn't notice the chilling silence. No one was honking - everyone was listening to their radios and trying to dial their phones.
I did finally get through to my stepson's school and, totally coincidentally, found that he was in the office trying to have them reach me to release him to get a ride home with his friends. I did so - he was safe. I called my husband. Tried several times, and got through. He was also safe. I kept trying especially to call my parents. They knew I had a downtown meeting and I knew my mother would be utterly frantic until she heard from me. I kept dialing - dialing - dialing. I finally got through and spent time talking to her on the phone. Oddly, when I first reached them, they had been out playing tennis and had absolutely no idea anything was happening. They turned on the TV while I was on the phone and we listened - both of us - to their TV without saying a word. I hung up with my mother, telling her I would call her back, that I needed to call work and call home and check on my stepson.
I'm still on Canal Road while all of this is going on, and I have to use the bathroom. I know that if I can just hold out until Fletcher's Boat House, I could pull in, take a break, and use the public restrooms. I called my mother back with the turnoff in sight (yet still 20 minutes from actually making the turn, so thick was the traffic) and talked more about the unfolding tragedy. At some point in the call, I said something to the effect of hoping that they (authorities) could find a way to get on the roof of the Twin Towers to rescue people trapped above the impact. My mother said (and I'll never forget this): "Rena. One of the Towers collapsed. It crashed to the ground." I don't remember much after that. It was months later that my mother told me that I burst into tears and hung up the phone.
I reached Fletcher's Boat House, used the restroom, and stood with other people who had done the same as we listened to the news. We didn't talk. People coming off the C&O Canal trail - who had NO idea anything was happening - would stop and listen. I'd see the shock dawn on their faces. When we all heard WTOP announce the the FAA had grounded ALL air traffic, 3/4 of us collectively looked skyward and realized why things were additionally odd - there was no noise from air traffic in one of the busiest corridors in the area. I wouldn't get to my home until nearly 5 hours after the first call from my husband, and only then would I actually see what had happened.
In the days and weeks and months and years that followed 9/11, my anxiety was palpable. A lot of that has to do with how and where I do my job. I'm downtown. A LOT. In Federal buildings, surrounded by Federal landmarks. The feelings of vulnerability were almost overwhelming immediately following 9/11. I was damned close on 9/11 itself, when it all went down - and I couldn't shake the idea that my job would always place me damned close to targets of attack.
We're 7 years and 2 months past 9/11. I still think about my surroundings whenever I'm downtown or in any Federal building, and that occurs with weekly regularity.
But I have the benefit of hindsight.
In my own way, I think I - along with so many others - suffered some kind of anxiety and stress for a long time following the 9/11 attacks. I don't want to call it PTSD, but it was something like that with less severity (at least for me). My immediate thoughts on the day of 9/11 were: a) get out of the city; b) find your family and friends and make sure they are safe. Following 9/11, they were different. I took the Metro frequently to downtown meetings and when I got off at certain stops - near the White House, or the FBI, or the Capitol, for example - I'd come up the escalator to find DC SWAT standing on the corner. I'd be waiting for a train and see a guy with a backpack (a common occurrence) and wonder if he was going to blow himself up. I would look around the Metro and the areas around the Metro and wonder at how vulnerable it was still, requiring no metal detectors or anything of the sort to gain entry.
I was so vulnerable in those days - not to terrorists, though. Vulnerable to my own government. I was so afraid that I would have felt supremely comforted if the SWAT had not only been outside the Metro station - but had been walking around the Metro station and on the trains. I was so scared that I would have felt comforted by the presence of video cameras and surveillance - some sense that I was being protected and kept safe.
Yet I realized - even if a SWAT team member had been handcuffed to me, it wouldn't make a difference if someone decided to blow themselves up in our proximity. Even if the whole of Washington DC was canvassed with cameras to rival the view from a Las Vegas casino control room, all that would do would document my destruction, should that come to pass.
I felt vulnerable and unsafe still, but I realized - I had ALWAYS been vulnerable and unsafe. I just didn't know it.
So for those of you in Mumbai India, should you be reading this. I sort of know how you feel. I understand that slightly-nauseated feeling you have when you think about doing anything you did "before". In its own way, it's like when I found out there was no Santa Claus. The acceptance of that fact caused me to go back and revisit everything that had been told to me "before", and I felt foolish - duped. Lied to. After 9/11, I felt soft. Tearable. Filled with blood. Fragile.
One thing that 9/11 did for all Americans - in different ways, mind you - was reconnect them to being American. For my part, it caused me to step back and really think about what that meant to me. I'm partially ashamed to say, I don't know that I had done that before. Contemplating my American-ness took me back to reading about the birth of our country - about our collective American history, and then my individual experience of it.
And what I kept coming back to was what I have always believed made being American something to be proud of: our rights. I reconnected to those. It was a bittersweet irony, frankly - because even as I more tightly held our rights and values in the aftermath, our government was moving to undermine them. I remember watching Bush and other notorious members of his Administration talk about the things they were going to do, all in the name of keeping us safe. I remember turning to my husband and flatly stating: "The terrorists already won." He looked puzzled, so I launched into a discussion of how willingly handing up the very thing that defines America - that makes America relatively unique - that made our forbears, living and passed, willing to die to protect America - was profane and disgusting. And the sheer numbers in which Americans flock to safety, gratefully handing over their liberty in the process, made me despair.
To those of you who have survived stress and fear in Mumbai, and are now citizens of a country whose reality is fundamentally altered - my advice is this:
- Ask yourself: What do you love about your country? What are the good things that you would die to defend?
- What are your bottom-line, no-compromise values, from a nationalistic perspective?
- Resist anything that compromises (1) or (2) above. I know you're afraid, and it's hard. But learn from our lesson. Fear caused a majority of Americans to get in line behind going into Iraq. Fear caused a majority of us to not really care that our conversations might be listened to by some disembodied government entity. Fear allowed an erosion of our rights - allowed our public library records to be accessed - allowed our personal data to be sifted through without any cause. Fear allowed demonstrably NON-terrorist Americans who were members of groups - environmental action groups - civil rights action groups - to be infiltrated and watched and reported on. Fear exacted a price far beyond the very short list I have included here, and continues to exact that price for us today.
I was afraid in the days that followed 9/11. And if I'm telling the truth - I'm still afraid now. But honestly - I reconciled myself long ago to the idea that I can't ever truly be 100% safe. All I can do is draw my line in the sand - the one that says THIS is what I stand for and on THIS I will not compromise, and be MUCH more proactive than I was in the past in cajoling/convincing others to think about their lines in the sand.
Benjamin Franklin was wise:
Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. (wikiquote)
Now is the time that you are at your most vulnerable. To terrorists, perhaps - but to your government, most absolutely.