Ten years gone

The strange thing was the calm I felt that morning.  In my sleep, I heard what I took to be thunder though it was more likely the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center.  The disk jockeys on my radio alarm clock reacted without alarm, describing it as a fire at the WTC; when the second plane hit they grew more animated but the WTC had been attacked once before, in 1993, to little effect so I went about my morning routine and then headed in to work at the PEN American Center offices on Prince and Broadway.  I lived on Elizabeth Street then so I walked due west and saw a small group of people gathered in the middle of the street at the intersection of Kenmare and Lafayette.  I joined them and looked up: then I understood.  The top half of the towers were visible and the uppermost floors were gushing fire and smoke.  My imagination got no further than to wonder how you fight a fire a hundred stories up when suddenly, in total silence, the first tower crumbled; then, soon after, the second tower went down and we all sought whatever human company we could find as we tried to conceive of this inconceivable thing.

All of downtown was cordoned off, open only to residents and rescue vehicles.  Major streets were desolate at mid-day and strangers approached each other to reveal secrets they’d long hidden but now felt compelled to share with someone, anyone, who would listen and understand them.  On walls around the city, posters appeared labelled ‘Missing’ as if the person depicted had simply wandered off one day and might soon be found.  I had not been able to see the plumes of dust that formed as the towers fell but when I went closer, through the police cordons, I saw it piled up like Christmas snow on the windowsills to the third or fourth floor.  I took a handful, saving it in a Ziploc bag as if it would prove to myself years later that this had happened.

Amid the lingering shock and heavy sadness, the next days and week in New York were marked by an unexpected openness, a new and improbable spirit of inquiry as people realized how little they knew about the region from which this had come.  Because I had lived in Cairo for three years and traveled a lot in the Middle East, people would ask me questions about things for which, previously, they had had only strident judgments.  For most, the attacks came literally out of the blue, without context or cause and without tactical purpose.  Many read parts of the Qu’ran, as if the answers would ever be found there; others were newly unashamed to ask naive questions because what they had long assumed to be to true had been so dramatically proven untrue.

Then our president announced that we had been attacked for our freedoms and this explanation, flattering but insufficient, shut the door on further inquiry and our national political energies were redirected to an unrelated war.  But, though we refused to acknowledge it, terrorism works the same way in every instance, whether it is the Philippeville massacre in Algeria in 1955 or the September 11th attacks in 2001: it is a jiujitsu move designed to force the superior power to overreact, thereby using its power against it.  It works because the political logic of revenge in such an instance is almost irresistible.

In the case of Al Qaeda, we were brought in during the second round of an ongoing war but because we had not been paying attention during the first round we thought the war began with our arrival.   But the first round had been fought in direct battle with the regimes in the Middle East in the early- to mid-1990s (which, by chance, is when I moved to Cairo) and brutally suppressed, which is why Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others were forced into exile, first in Sudan and then in Afghanistan.  Their goal remained the overthrow of the Saudi and Egyptian regimes, their enemy remained the apolitical moderates in both countries who were ‘asleep’ and needed to be radicalized, but their tactics changed.  So, the second round began with a long series of attacks on American interests — including the East Africa bombings and the attack on the USS Cole — that failed to goad the US into massive retaliation; then, September 11th and an American administration largely ignorant of how terrorism works but schooled in the belief that force was the only language their enemies understand conspired to create the nightly Al Qaeda recruitment video that was the Iraq war.  And though the war gave an entire generation of Middle East radicals an opportunity to learn and refine advanced terror tactics in the field of battle — a legacy that will stay with us much as the mujahideen did from the Soviet-Afghan war — the terrorists failed in their primary goal to radicalize sufficient numbers of the sleeping moderates in the region to wrest power from the regimes.

The miracle is that ten years on these moderates finally did awake and overthrow the Mubarak regime in Egypt, but they did it by marching peacefully in their millions through the streets for eighteen days.  This was half a revolution: the military was left in power and the struggle to dominate the new post-revolutionary order continues among civil society groups, leftists, Muslim Brothers and hardline Salafists.   But their revolution has already achieved many things and one is that it has redeemed us, despite our mistakes, and for that I am grateful.


This is the first of a two-part post.  Click here to see part two: scans of some of the contemporaneous journal entries I wrote on September 11th, 2001 as events were unfolding.






2 Responses to “Ten years gone”

  1. Eli Gelber says:

    A song I wrote for the 10th anniversary of 9/11:


  2. Lynore Banchoff says:

    I appreciate the way in which you took the personal and shifted toward the global. The reference to jiujitsu is clear and enlightening. Also your interpretation of the events of 9/11 being “round two” is an important one and often overlooked by those who tend to be simplistic and not in touch with the evolution process of history –including terrorism.

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