Soundtrack in my head: Alicia Keys, “Fallin’”
A cold rain has been falling all day here in southern Wisconsin. The Ironman triathlon is running through my neighborhood, and I’ve seen some runners covering themselves in plastic to protect against raindrops that chill to the bone. A great day for quiet reflection.
I wouldn’t normally join the cacophony of voices remembering and reflecting on September 11th—the media, the government and various politicians are saying plenty about that fateful day and the implications thereof. But I think most of them are missing the point.
I have vivid memories of that day. I still lived in Chicago at that time, and September 11, 2001 was to be perhaps the busiest, craziest day of my tenure with the Environmental Fund of Illinois. We’d spent months preparing for September 12, 2001. Yes, September 12th. That was the day that we and fourteen other not-for-profits would go public with an affiliation agreement we’d signed with Earth Share and would be publicly debuting our new name, Earth Share of Illinois. So I came in at the uncharacteristically early time of 7:30 a.m., preparing final arrangements for an event we would have, and getting ready to send dozens of faxes to media outlets.
Around 8 a.m., I got a call from one of my board members telling me he’d have to cancel a committee meeting that was scheduled for later that morning. He worked for Ameritech, and he said that things had suddenly gotten busy for him “because there’s an emergency and the whole country is on alert.” I said “What?” He replied, “Turn on the radio.” That’s when I found out about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon being hit. Upon hearing this, I felt like I was momentarily in free-fall.
At that moment, we did not know if there were more attacks coming or not. I knew that staying in downtown Chicago would have been considered risky, but part of me was still focused on preparing for September 12th. I sat there for a few minutes wondering whether I should stay or go. Our office had huge windows facing both the Dirksen Federal Building and the INS office, and I knew we’d be very vulnerable if something happened to those buildings. But I went ahead and had a conference call with another board member.
After the call, I was still on the fence about staying at the office and I suddenly had this feeling that if I went to the bathroom, I’d get a clearer idea. I did that, and on my way back to the office, I ran into a woman my age who owned the framing gallery across the hall from my office and she said, “Go home, Steve. Go home. It’s getting too creepy here.”
That was my cue. I started to write a note to my co-worker, but then she arrived. She explained that she’d been watching what was going on TV, and then added “Um, I noticed that we’re near a federal building…” I interrupted her and said, “Don’t even think about it. We’re going home.”
I boarded the Blue Line subway going northwest and the subway was quite crowded. It was basically like evening rush hour—maybe a little more so—but at 9:45 a.m. People were amazingly calm about the whole thing—many were talking and a few people even cracked jokes about the events. There was one guy talking loudly on his cellphone saying, “Oh yeah, tens of thousands dead. I’m headed out to O’Hare now, if they don’t clip me first.” When I got off at Western, a number of us noticed a guy in his mid-20’s sitting against the fence and looking ill. I walked up to him and said “Are you all right, my friend?” He replied, “I can’t breathe!” and rocked back and forth. I got the attention of a CTA attendant. We asked the guy if he was suffering an asthma attack. He said no, and I realized he was probably suffering a panic attack. He talked about the incidents at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and was freaked out that people were laughing and talking on the CTA train and just had to leave the train.
From the station, I drove my car home, with the intention of participating in an Earth Share conference call. But when I dialed the conference call number, I couldn’t get through. Then later, my board president called, and after discussion with another board member, we decided to cancel the local event we were planning for the next day.
September 12, 2001 was a day we’d been planning for months. At one point, Earth Share had my colleagues fly in from other states for a media training with Susan Anderson, a former television new reporter (anchor? I don’t remember if she was actually an anchorperson) at Chicago’s CBS affiliate. And now our plans were crumbling like the Twin Towers, trumped by other people who had been planning for months for September 11th. I finally got Earth Share’s executive director on the phone—needless to say, he was not at all happy.
A month later, we would hear about anthrax turning up in the U.S. It was an interesting time for me because since I represented 20 different environmental groups in the Combined Federal Campaign workplace-giving program, my job involved traveling to the sorting rooms of numerous post offices in the Chicago area to promote these organizations. I wasn’t worried about anthrax because no discoveries of that had been made in the Midwest, but it was interesting. At one facility, the manager came out and made some announcements—one of which was that masks to protect against anthrax were available to any employee that wanted them, and at a few facilities I went to, I saw one or two employees wearing those masks.
But in the days immediately after September 11th, it was not clear how the government and media would respond to those tragic events. People did not necessarily beat the drums of war right away. I remember reading a New Yorker’s blog about volunteering near Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 and his girlfriend had a sign taped to her saying “Free hugs.” I saw pictures of people in New York standing in a circle with signs saying, “Our mourning is not a call to arms.” An acquaintance from the Company of Friends—a networking organization of readers of Fast Company magazine—organized a discussion the Friday after 9/11 about the significance of what happened that fateful day and how we should respond. I think we knew at that time that it was pretty much inevitable that we would declare war on someone and engage in military action, but we weren’t sure how or where. We hoped that our government would respond to this event by reflecting on its foreign policy and on why people would feel so motivated to commit such terrorist attacks, but alas, that wasn’t meant to be.
Five years later, I still don’t think our government and the majority of Republicans and Democrats understand the significance of what happened on 9/11/01.
The terrorist attacks demonstrated for the first time that 50 people holding a significant grudge could cause significant disruption in even the most powerful nation in the world. Because of that, traditional notions of military power and military strength have flown out the window. Yet we are still charging on, trying to fight a 21st century war with 19th and 20th century means. I remember the scene from “The Last Samurai” where Tom Cruise and a large group of samurai warriors charge the Japanese army with their swords only to be cut down by machine gun fire. That’s us, puffing out our chests and charging, but getting nowhere. I don’t think we even know how badly we are losing what we call “The War on Terrorism.”
Being the most powerful country in the world, it is relatively easy for the U.S. to defeat a foreign army, but one cannot defeat grudge and anger—those feelings can survive any military defeat and the fall of any government. It is that grudge and anger that feeds terrorism. We are being taught that lesson in the war in Iraq, which I believe will go down in history as the single greatest strategic blunder ever by the United States—a Vietnam-style quagmire mixed with oil creating a huge mess, not only with our foreign relationships, but also with our domestic well being. With every bomb we drop and every person we kill, we plant the seeds for future terrorist attacks. Only a tiny percentage of those seeds will sprout, but nevertheless, the reality is that we are preparing the ground for future terrorist attacks. If someone wanted to ensure that more terrorist attacks would occur on our soil in the future, they would do pretty much what our current government is doing right now.
Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers to threats by terrorists. I think we can reduce the chances by engaging in more diplomacy and to stop being the lone cowboy on the world stage, and following the old adage of keeping friends close but enemies closer. This will not eliminate the threat of terrorism. But I think I’m on solid ground by saying that as a first step, we should stop pouring gasoline on the fire. I repeat: STOP POURING GASOLINE ON THE FIRE.
I think that through 9/11, we are being shown that war as we know it is an obsolete tool, and it is folly trying to shape the future with bombs and machine guns is folly. We have a choice of learning this lesson either the easier way or the hard way. Right now, it looks like we’re learning it the hard way.