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September 11, 2006

September 11th was a Tuesday

Posted by Phil on September 11, 2006 7:13 PM

-----Original Message-----

From: Kitchel, Phil

Sent: Monday, September 17, 2001 7:51 PM

Subject: welcome to normal

My apologies, but I'm sending a blanket reply, given the number of inquiries in my mailbox this morning. I was in the office Thursday, but the e-mail was down, and I didn't come in on Friday. [This gets really long. I should've just sent a quick "Hi! We're OK!", but I've had a lot on my mind.]

Cindy and I are fine, as are nearly all of our closest friends here. Unfortunately, our landlord, neighbor, and friend Scott is gone. He and his wife, Kelly, and their two kids live in our four-story building, and he was on the 100th floor of the north tower. It's unspeakably tragic. In the ironic way of these stories, they had just finished renovating the second floor to be their bedrooms (they'd been living on the first floor and sleeping in the finished basement). After five-six years, they finally had a two-story house with a basement and a back yard--basically a city-living fantasy--and nothing to do but enjoy it and raise their kids. Last Sunday I finally told Kelly we were moving, and in the course of our conversation I said, "You guys have it made now," and she said, "We're DONE! We're NEVER LEAVING!" In addition to the cloud we're all under now, there's a much darker one over our home here and our upcoming departure.

I was in my underwear, brushing my teeth, when the local NPR anchor said there was smoke coming from the north tower at the World Trade Center. He didn't know anything else, and said he'd keep us posted. We live on Park Slope in Brooklyn, and our roof has a panorama of the harbor and Manhattan, about two miles away. Remembering a couple weeks ago when some bonehead got his parachute stuck on the Statue of Liberty's torch--I had still been at home and could've gone up and seen it if I'd known--I thought "I'm not missing this!" and ran to pull on shorts and a t-shirt. I grabbed binoculars, the camera, and the radio and headed up. By this time they were saying a "small plane" had hit it; I figured it was some guy in a Cessna who got his throttle stuck or something.

It was an absolutely clear morning. As I climbed onto the roof, I saw a lot more smoke than I'd expected. The north tower looked like a giant chimney. I was looking at the east face of the towers, and I could see what looked like a hole, which I assumed was THE hole. I learned later that the plane had impacted the north face, and I was looking at the "exit" hole, but it looked about right for a small prop plane. But there was a LOT of smoke, and as I looked through the binoculars I could see the orange of the fires inside. The air around it was a cloud of shimmering paper, everything brilliantly shining in the sun. It was silent. I took some pictures. The radio had a guy on the phone with a view of the whole thing looking south from his office or apartment, describing what he saw and had seen.

I was sitting, looking through the binoculars and listening, when suddenly another airplane came incongruously into my field of vision. It was clearly a commercial jetliner; it was as long as the tower was wide. It just appeared where it had no business being, and I had this instant of feeling annoyed, like, "What's that doing there? That's too close! Get away from there, you stupid, persistent thing!" Then it disappeared, and there was a tremendous, silent explosion, a huge orange and black ball that engulfed the building and swept upward. I watched it go up, then thought, "Oh, shit, I didn't watch where the plane went!" The eyewitness on the radio started shouting, "OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD," and describing what I'd just seen, but he was to the north and said, "No, there's no plane, just a fireball coming out of the east side." I said, "NO, there was ANOTHER PLANE! ANOTHER PLANE crashed into the OTHER TOWER!" All in the same instant I realized that I had just watched a large, commercial jet crash into the World Trade Center, 15 minutes after a plane crashed into the other tower, that this meant both crashes were intentional, that this was a terrorist attack, that the plane I'd seen must have been hijacked and was probably full of passengers, that I was now looking at two burning towers, the second one worse than the first, and I was alone on my roof in New York City in the midst of an aerial assault. I was on my feet, looking around me in the sky, pacing back and forth, talking to myself, talking back to the radio. There was nothing in the sky. There was no sound except the radio. There were people walking normally down the block. I didn't know what to do. I took some more pictures. I replayed what I'd seen: the shining jet, the vicious, violent intention of it. I looked through the binoculars again. I thought I could see people falling. I couldn't tell if it was people or debris. I thought I'd better go call my wife. I paced and looked some more. I didn't want anything else to happen, but I didn't want to miss anything.

I went back downstairs. I tried to call Cindy. She didn't answer. I heard somebody sobbing in the back yard. I thought it might be Kelly. I turned on the TV. I called my friend Amy. A plane crashed into the Pentagon. Amy's husband Dan had just left for work. She went to stop him. I called Cindy and got her. The story was flying around her office. I told her what I saw. We decided I shouldn't go to work. I told her to stay there. (She works at 54th and 3rd, uptown on the east side.) I told her it wouldn't be all bad to stay there all night. Amy called back. She stopped Dan at the subway, but he went to work anyway. (He works downtown, across from City Hall, a few blocks from the World Trade Center.) We were looking at our TVs, the sound down on mine, up on hers. A plane crashed in Pennsylvania. There was a truck bomb at the Capitol. There was video from downtown, but I couldn't tell what I was seeing. A woman was screaming, "OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD," on Amy's TV and I said, "What's going on?" and she said, "The tower collapsed." I said "collapsed" the same way you'd say "bullshit," but the smoke was going down, not up, spreading and then rising again out of the canyons of downtown. Then on another channel, a shot of one tower. I was flabbergasted. It hadn't occurred to me that that could happen at all. We hung up and I took the phone, camera, binoculars, radio, and water bottle (finally, someone actually using his cargo shorts) back up to the roof. I was like a goddamn Boy Scout, but now there was nothing to see. The smoke and dust from the collapsed tower now completely obscured the west side from view. There was the front line of eastside skyscrapers, and a wall of smoke rising over it and blowing east over the harbor into Brooklyn. Somebody was now blasting Bob Marley's "Exodus" into the courtyard. I didn't like the way it made me feel. The radio said the other tower had now collapsed. My upstairs neighbor, Richard, and his roommate climbed onto the roof. I'd heard Kelly earlier, shouting to Richard that she was going to get the kids from school. I didn't know where Scott worked, and I didn't want to ask, but I did, and Richard said, "He's there." I said, "Oh, Jesus."

The rest of the day probably didn't play out much differently from the rest of yours. Cindy and our friend David walked down Manhattan to Chinatown before they found a train that was running, then they rode back into Brooklyn. We got the rest of our news from TV; there was nothing more to witness from the roof except an absence. Our hopes of news about Scott went up and down. Cindy and I didn't know what floor or building he was in, and didn't want to ask. At first I thought there was no chance, but as more people reported making it down from high up in each one, we thought maybe there was a good chance. Then too much time went by and it was obvious there wasn't. Although there are now lots of relatives, neighbors, and friends gathered downstairs, and it often sounds like a party or a family reunion, the funereal atmosphere is inescapable. It seems impossible that in less than a month we're just going to drive away from all this. I feel guilty that that month can't pass quickly enough for me, and I feel sorry that I'm leaving when the city needs all the support it can get. And it's disturbing that none of us can drive away from it at all.

I don't have that feeling I had in Indiana when the Challenger blew up, or the Gulf War, or Oklahoma City, when I was surrounded by people the majority of whom had likely felt no more personal impact from those things than I had--and yet, everywhere, yellow ribbons, flags, Lee Greenwood singing "Proud To Be An American." All these people taking it so personally seemed shallow, contrived, superficial. #1 song, #1 movie, #1 national tragedy.

This time, such displays, at least locally, feel entirely appropriate. I was here. I saw it happen from the roof of my house. My neighbor Scott is dead. Two buildings I looked at all the time, that I used to orient myself on the street, are gone. I'm sad and scared. My city has changed. I basically didn't go to work for four days, and the subways still aren't right. The newly returned sound of constant air traffic overhead seriously creeps me out. Almost half of the men in the firehouse two blocks away were killed. My neighborhood feels weird. So I put candles in my windows. I wanted to be a part of the community; I wanted the community to know I was part of it.

But now, although my house won't feel "normal" again, the rest of the city is starting to. Downtown won't function normally for months, and it will never be the same, but that was basically someplace I might go walk around once every couple of months. For me, the local crisis is starting to pass, and I'm focusing more on the one we're all in together, and I do feel like I'm outside the national mood. I'm not feeling particularly left-wing--I don't think my landlord deserved to die in some sort of comeuppance for American arrogance. And of course I'm not feeling right-wing--I'm not ready to believe war is the answer.

Basically, I'm scared. I'm scared like I used to be when I was a kid and I learned that there were unstoppable, irrational forces in the world--killer bees, nuclear annihilation--that would kill us, ME, and there was nothing that my dad or the president could do about it. I hear people talking about capture and punishment and war, and it doesn't make me feel less scared. It's not a cowardly fear, or that I don't have the stomach for killing or dying. It's the fear that nothing can be done, or that what will be done won't do any good. I cannot figure out how you punish people who are not afraid to die. I cannot figure out how you settle things with people who just want YOU to die. If there is no room for compromise, is our goal then to be what their goal is? Extermination? Genocide? Even if that were possible, and it isn't, resorting to it would forfeit everything we have wrung our hands and claimed to represent this week. Aren't we supposed to be morally as well as militarily superior? There's no army to defeat, there's no government to unseat. There's just this zealous ideal that, I am positive, can NEVER be defeated. It is not that kind of enemy. Attempts to kill it will only strengthen it. It can only be discredited from within.

I hear people saying that they attacked us because we're a "beacon of freedom." Come on. (It wasn't because God is angry about gays, abortion, and Internet porn, either. Just whose side are Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on?) What the hell does that mean? They attacked us because they're poor and hungry and living in dirt, and our global corporate hegemony has been stomping all over what little they have that's sacred in order to make the world safe for Big Oil, Hollywood, and hamburgers. We do the same thing right here! However, nothing we've done justifies what happened on September 11. More than five thousand innocent people were killed by a few dozen men armed with BOX CUTTERS. More than died at Antietam. More than Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and the Titanic put together. It staggers the imagination. It was an act of pure evil. But I believe evil is madness, and those men weren't insane. Those men believed WE are evil. Why? America isn't EVIL. We're just sort of hamfisted and greedy. People like that have already crossed the line, and I don't suppose there's a way to get all of them back to our side of it. A careful use of force is probably necessary, but it has to be combined with a generous helping hand--like the one we offered Japan after World War II--or this "war" will never end.

A land war in Afghanistan--or wherever it is that we think bombing or invading will stop men in Florida or Texas or Minnesota from whatever mischief they already have planned--will not prevent more events like last Tuesday's, and it will not get at the root cause. If we caught and executed bin Laden by the end of the week and simply returned to the status quo, we would create something much worse: an immortal hero. Leaders like him don't spring out of a vacuum--grievances have to be deep and profound for that kind of zeal to take hold. However, the vast majority of the Islamic world does not want this kind of war. They may not like us, they may not agree with us, but they would rather find a way to live with us. We have to take positive actions to prevent people who do not yet but could be convinced to follow him from wanting to. We have to remove the conditions that produce unquenchable hatred. We need to try to understand what actions of ours caused that hatred, and create conditions by which that brand of extremism is marginalized in the culture from which he sprang. We won't do this by bombing mud huts and creating more martyrs and misery. We do it by showing that there are benefits to a cooperative existence--and then we have to make those benefits tangible in a way that they have not been.

The point is that we were not their enemy, and I'm afraid that what we are planning will make it seem even more like we are, and plunge us deeper into this morass, and perhaps win them even more converts. The most chilling thing about this conflict is that there is something very fundamental and basic about it. It isn't over land or oil or money or even ideology, and it can't be won--by either side--with indiscriminate use of violence and weapons. If we are more advanced and more powerful, then we need to be the first to recognize that. We need to very carefully help those nations whose margins these people hover upon to root them out and deflate them. Bitterness, bigotry, and xenophobia are the common enemies, and they can only be defeated from WITHIN our respective cultures. Assholes in Wyoming or Indiana or Times Square harassing and assaulting and vandalizing property and persons of the supposed "enemy" are just as misguided, and just as sure to perpetuate this kind of unspeakable violence. We need to stamp out American bigotry as surely as those people need to stamp out Islamic fundamentalism. Believing that that's possible is the only thing that makes me feel any better. It's certainly no more impossible than the alternative, nor are the sacrifices any greater.

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