I was really ambivalent about expressing my thoughts, feelings, and memories of 9/11. Then two good friends, Heather and Vicky, expressed their thoughts and feelings eloquently and with great honesty and sensitivity. So being a better follower than a leader, here are my thoughts.
This will be about a number of things. First are my feelings and what happened around me at the time of the event. Second is what I hoped would happen versus what actually happened following the attacks. Third is about what this anniversary means, and the future. Given all the intense feelings and viewpoints that have impacted me and everyone else, this outline may change significantly.
September 11-14, 2001
I worked at the weather office in Gander in 2001, and normally I would have been there. But that September I was finishing up a project in Halifax. That morning I was waiting at a bus stop to go to work, and a young lady came up with a quizzical expression on her face.
“I saw something really strange on the TV this morning, as I was scooting out the door. There was some sort of show where a passenger plane hit one of the Twin Towers in New York. But it looked so real…”, she said. There was an expression on her face, half a smile and half an uncertain frown.
We talked about it for a little bit until the bus came, and she really was uncertain about what had happened. I decided to check it out when I got the Oceanography Department at Dalhousie. Some people were working quietly, while a couple of others were listening to a radio. From what they were saying, there was definitely something going on. I went to my office and tried to get CNN online, then CBC, then the Globe and Mail, then the NY Times, etc. Then on a hunch I tried the Jerusalem Post and got in. They summarised the info on the first tower, but the second plane hadn’t hit yet.
I ran out, bought a tiny radio, and listened through the rest of the morning and afternoon as I tried to get work done. I left early that afternoon and saw what had actually happened, including the Pentagon impact. Who had done this? Why? Were the Americans actually going to fire on airliners still in the air? Why was there no news from the president or vice-president? Why did Cheney hide for so many days after the attacks? Most important, how many people were still in the buildings when they collapsed? The normal occupancy was about 50,000, and it was the beginning of a normal working day.
When people started talking about who had done this and what should be done, I remember feeling strangely angry. For most of my adult life I have been and am opposed to the death penalty, and any sort of war except for the purpose of self-defence. But this time I was almost at the point of agreeing that killing the perpetrators was justified. Then I thought about what the citizens of the United States in general, and New York in particular, must be feeling. That was when I started to feel afraid. Were they going to wait long enough to find out who was really responsible, and were they going to make a reasoned response when they did find out? With Bush and Cheney in power, it could get really bad.
The next day I started thinking about what little I could do to help the people in New York, and at our airports. I was living in a small room for the period of the research project, and had no real resources there. I ended up giving the largest monetary donation I had ever done through the American Red Cross, and I donated blood at an emergency blood clinic on campus, hoping it would help some survivors. Two things happened there to affect the value of my gesture; every other potential blood donor in North America had done the same thing (of course), and as it turned out, there was no need for large amounts of blood. This was for a “good” reason and a bad reason. The good reason was that only about 3,000 of the potential 30-50,000 had been in the buildings when they collapsed; the bad was that almost none of the 3,000 had survived.
Meanwhile the day shift at the weather office in Gander were forecasting good weather for Newfoundland and Labrador, and the only concern was a hurricane threatening the Atlantic Provinces. There were also a number of other forecasters in the office doing some training. Not much training was done that day.
Gander had and still has an important role in Atlantic flight operations. The Newfoundland Weather Center at that time was responsible for, among other things, severe weather for the Western Atlantic flight routes, and aviation weather for all but some military airports in Atlantic Canada. Also in Gander is a NavCan centre responsible for air traffic control for all of the Western Atlantic flight routes (i.e. for about 400 planes heading into the U.S. that morning from Europe). It also has some of the largest runways in Canada, due to its role as the major refueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights during World War II and the post-war years. These three aspects made it especially important during 9/11.
The good weather and the good forecasts kept all critical airports open during the emergency. This made it easier for NavCan to redirect hundreds of flights into a few airports, which they did extremely efficiently. Gander was able to take 38 trans-Atlanticaircraft and a few domestic airliners, and was still able to operate the main runway. It must have been a sight to see so many planes landing so quickly. This visitation increased the local population by about 66% (town population:10,000, visitors:6,595); St John’s accomodated 26 aircraft containing 4,426 visitors; eight aircraft and 1,695 passengers ended up in Stephenville; seven aircraft and 788 passengers went to Goose Bay; 44 aircraft holding a total of 8,800 passengers landed in Halifax; and 10 aircraft carrying 1,847 passengers arrived at the Moncton airport. So the population of Newfoundland increased by about 13,500, with about half of them living in and near Gander.
By late that afternoon all the planes were landed and waiting on the aprons and runways. It was a beautiful warm day, and the planes were shut down, and there were too many aircraft for the portable generators designed to keep the air conditioning and power systems running when the engines were shut down. So it became hot, stuffy, smelly, and crowded. No one was allowed to leave the aircraft except for severe medical emergencies, for obvious security reasons, and because it was difficult to arrange for people to be processed through customs quickly and then get to food and shelter as efficiently as possible. In some locations it took more than 24 hours. Meanwhile people at the local pharmacies in Gander stripped their shelves of useful medications for those in need on the planes.
The strangest thing was how quickly the people there were able to organise, with volunteers jumping in where needed, and everyone having a lot of common sense. One thing that helped was the local mindset; they didn’t think in terms of masses of people; someone would get over to the airport, pick up a family and contact information, and proceed to make them feel at home. For those in gyms, parish halls and school there were things like concerts, bingo (aghh!), and singalongs with passengers and locals exchanging music.
My friends at the weather office did a lot. Many of them welcomed families into their homes, some families with children still had visitors over for meals and showers, other helped with large scale kitchen work, blankets, cots, sleeping bags, etc, etc. One of my friends was letting people get showers and breakfasts, and he remembers waking up one morning, going down the stairs in his houserobe, and passing a young lady he’d never met, dressed only in a towel, heading up from her shower.
I still wish I had been there, and that I might have done something to help. I’m proud of my co-workers, and unlike some people they neither inflated their roles nor did they bore you with their stories. However, they did have a few funny stories, and every day they looked out the windows at the planes, and every night they talked with, helped, and entertained their guests.
The Weeks and Months After
There were many different things to worry and think about. First was the growing despair as all that they found at Ground Zero were remains, and the frustrating uncertainty about who and how many had died. Then there was the dark day it stopped being a rescue operation. There were also the allegations that some of the killers had come through Canada, and tensions about border security. And looming over all this were the worries about what the American Government was finding out, and what they were going to do.
Initially the Americans seemed to be responding rather well. They waited until they had good evidence of al-Quaeda’s culpability, they determined the link with the Afghani Taliban, and they organised a multi-national coalition to root out the Taliban government and the camps in that war-torn area. Then they proceeded to attacke in an intelligent and measured way. I was worried that they would not carry though the campaign to the point where there was a stable government, but things looked good to that point. The Bush administration also made a point of being inclusive with the mainstream followers of Islam in the States and abroad. In general, things were not as bad as I had feared. The great danger was that the United States would attack indiscriminately and then leave the country in a shambles, and create a new wave of disillusioned people with little recourse to revenge through terrorism, the only (albeit two-edged) tool available to them.
The Last Four Years
Then there was the State of the Union Address, where the president declared Iraq, Iran, and Korea as an “Axis of Evil”. Domestically the Patriot Act was being set up, and Homeland Security was getting broad and sweeping search and seizure powers. Muslims were starting to be victims of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination. Many of those captured during the war on terror were carefully classified so they wouldn’t be subject to the Geneva Conventions, and detention camps including Guantanamo Bay and more secret centers were growing. Other countries were using the American precedent to declare their favourite enemies as “terrorists”; in many cases the smaller side in a civil war or struggle would be named terrorists.
So there were reduced freedoms at home in the name of safety, which often seemed to be more threatened near and before important elections. Meanwhile Afghanistan was allowed to reinstate warlords outside of Kandahar other key areas protected by American and UN forces. Then came the pressure to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq, combined with claims that Iraq was supporting Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.
After Desert Storm in 1991, Iraq was basically toothless, and was being constantly searched and intermittently bombed for the next ten years. And everyone knows about the WMD. Regarding Iraq as an Islamic fundamentalist stronghold is a little surreal. Saddam was the head of the Baathist Party, which was Socialist, atheistic, and almost entirely secular. In the 1980’s there had been a number of attempts at assasinating him by religious factions both within Iraq and from neighboring countries. The ruling faction in Iraq was Sunni (usually moderate Islam) throughout his dictatorship. He did express Islamic sentiments near the beginning Desert Storm, but this was widely considered as a pragmatic survival tactic, and possibly part of his position vis a vis Israel and the Palestinians.
Now Iraq had been conquered, Saddam deposed, and the country freed by a surprisingly small army with amazing despatch. The army was too small to hold it, so it has had to increase. Many of the population have become frustrated with how the country has been administered, and see their post-war aspirations for power fading under the constraints the Americans wish to impose. And the Shiite majority in the south started to use guerilla (or terrorist to the American) tactics to win the upcoming civil war. In the meantime the country is becoming a source of bitter young men who hate the United States, so the terrorists are finally starting to appear. And of course this is spreading to other countries in the area.
Finally, the Bush administration’s stand of not having a dialogue nor negotiating with state sponsors of terror has isolated them; in the case of North Korea they have reneged on a path to nuclear disarmament initiated by the Clinton administration, which has alienated the Koreans. The Mid-East is becoming progressively more polarised against the United States in particular, and the west in general. Because they are weak economically and strategically many of the young people become fodder for a retreat to the radical Islamists who argue for suicidal attacks today for a life in paradise tomorrow. Heavan can’t be made in this world, so perform these appalling acts for your positively-absolutely guaranteed place of eternal grace.
A Better Future?
Instead of the Us versus Them ideology of the current administration, the government needs to learn how to learn new ways to remove their enemies. One is to deal in good faith and to be pragmatic about what the U.S. can offer to others to get stability. For example, in Libya the government was given some pragmatic concessions, including measures to help their economy, in exchange for throwing out the terrorist training camps in their country and in exchange for their nuclear arms. You don’t hear too much about this precedent today, because it doesn’t support the current doctrine.
Another good measure would be measures to help the economies and education of potentially dangerous countries and groups. Most soldiers/guerillas/terrorists come from marginalised and poor groups. Help them have better lives and you start creating amity as well as removing some of the sources of discontent and anger. If your life is good, why fight?
A third measure is to treat your enemy with fairness and respect, and not to sink to treating them as devils, regardless of how they think of you. If you are a faith-holder, you will be judged by your actions, not by theirs. If you’re not, think of it from their side. They are fighting rich, well-equipped soldiers with much superior firepower. Moreover, the devastation is happening on their land and in their homes. Then the western soldiers dis-respect their beliefs and culture, and treat their fighters like dogs and inhuman criminals. Respect and fair treatment may reduce the animosity and feelings of inferiority held by many of the terrorists.
What I Feel Today
The world almost feels like the Palestinian-Israeli situation grown large. This really scares me, because that conflict has gotten to the point that neither side can think rationally anymore. Each side thinks their list of perceived crimes and abuses is unassailable, and thus there is no will to forget the past and think of a future where they can live in peace. I’m pessimistic about the Middle East and I don’t want that type of situation to spread to my world.
I’m sure you remember the old saying, “Diplomacy is the Art of the Possible”. Rigid and black-and-white stands make “the possible” extremely small. Remember the First and Second World Wars. The Versailles Treaty humiliated and marginalised Germany. The Marshall Plan in Europe and similar practices in Japan created shining examples of what respect and generosity can do to former enemies.
Five years ago the direction of the world changed. My hope is that it can change again.