As the reality of the Twin Towers’ collapse was made clear by repeated showings of the video, the magnitude of the tragedy began to sink in. This was my home town! These were my neighbors and friends. I just knew that somebody close to me must have been in those towers, must be in the rubble that was left of the towers.
Then it struck me! Rolf, a good friend from college days, had asked me what he and his family ought to do with a week in New York. I told him, “Whatever you do, make sure that you visit the observation deck of the World Trade Center and catch the view of New York.” September 11 was right in the middle of the week he was supposed to be visiting New York. I was distraught with concern but could do absolutely nothing about it. I had no way of contacting him from the Netherlands in the pre-cellphone age.
I took a little comfort when I remembered my advice, “On the day that you visit the downtown, get to the Statue of Liberty ferry first thing in the morning. That is the only way you might get the chance to climb all the way to the top of the statue. Then, when you get back to Manhattan, walk to the New York Stock Exchange and arrange for a tour later in the day. That way you’ll get to the observation deck of the World Trade Center in early afternoon, when the view is the best.” I realized that if he had followed my advice, he would be looking at the tragedy from Liberty Island, not crushed under the rubble! But I had no way of knowing where he was (I found out later that he was OK, but I didn’t know that for a couple of weeks).
My thoughts went back to the summer of 1999, when I did the same itinerary with my family. We got to the World Trade Center in the early afternoon. My wife decided to shop for a coat in Century 21 (she had been up the towers many times in the past), a discount designer store right next to the WTC, while the kids and I went up to the top of the South Tower, where you could go up on the roof and get an unobstructed view of the city far below. I would find out later that one of the towers had collapsed right on top of the store my wife had been in and destroyed it. We could all have been in there when it happened.
All that week in Holland I spent every available moment watching the updates on CNN. The next afternoon I went for a long walk to clear my head. I crossed a bridge over a set of locks on the nearby canal, watching as a houseboat was lowered to the next level. I then set off through fields of grazing cattle, dodging speedy Dutch bikers on a lovely asphalt path about four feet wide. The landscape was perfectly flat, broken only by occasional trees, the canal and a couple of ponds. It was hard to reconcile that prosperous and peaceful atmosphere with the turmoil still churning inside me. I found I had trouble meeting the eyes of those walking or biking the other way. I really didn’t want to meet anyone, or talk to anyone.
After a couple of miles I entered a small, peaceful town. I walked along the main street with cars and an occasional truck moving by. There was the typical Dutch country church, a small grassy square with tall trees, and neat, well-kept houses with little gardens along the sidewalk. Everything looked so tranquil and serene, it was a strong contrast to the news of a wider world. But it seemed like a great place to find some peace on a shattered day.
At the other end of town I walked past a small school with a grassy playground along the sidewalk. In the playground were about 60 small, blond schoolchildren, aged perhaps 5-9, with three or four adult chaperons. There was a chain-link fence about three feet high and a short hedge between me and the children. Once again a peaceful scene, this time of happy childs’ play.
A horrible thought suddenly struck me. What if I were a terrorist? What if I had brought a gun with me, hidden in my clothing? There was no security station on the way into town. Who could have stopped me? I shuddered that such thoughts would even enter my mind. It also dawned on me that no matter how many police, well-trained security teams, checkpoints or hardened defenses you put together you can’t prevent all acts of evil from occurring. What protected these children from me was not local security but my own inner conviction to do the right thing. Who in his or her right mind could do such a thing?
As the week went on I couldn’t get the images of September 11 out of my mind. I was born and raised in New York City. The Twin Towers were so much a part of the city that my mind and my heart kept telling me this was only TV, this was like the movies, this wasn’t really happening. But a few days later, on my return to the United States, we passed New York City at about 30,000 feet and the smoke was still rising from the southern tip of Manhattan Island. It had truly happened. New York City without the twin towers just didn’t seem the same.
All I could think of was that this deed had been done by crazy people. No one in their right mind would highjack a plane and then fly it into a building. Or would they? Eventually it was determined that the Al Qaeda organization of Osama bin Laden, supported by the Taliban government of Afghanistan, was responsible for the attacks. Who were these crazy people? It wasn’t long before I discovered that Osama bin Laden was far from crazy. And not only that, thousands, perhaps millions, of Muslims around the world seemed to feel that the attacks were somehow justified. . .