Saturday, September 10, 2011

Reflections on the Anniversary of 9/11

Like many others, I've been thinking a lot about 9/11 as the tenth anniversary approaches. It was a strange time in my life. The Jewish High Holidays were approaching -- Rosh Hashanah fell on September 18th that year. The software company I worked for was developing a new product and had most of the staff (including me) working from home. I thought I'd share my experiences from that time, much of which has some Jewish context.

September 8
It was the beginning of Selichot, an introspective period leading up to Rosh Hashanah. A local synagogue had a speaker and refreshments before the traditional first night Selichot service. He was a local rabbi who was born and raised in Israel, who spoke about the violence in Israel a year after the outbreak of the second Intifada. During the refreshment period, I was talking to my rabbi, and I made a comment to the effect that the number of people who die in violence in Israel is probably not greater than in the United States. I was thinking about things like drunk driving and crimes of violence.

September 11
I was working at home, as I had been for a few months. There were no Do-Not-Call laws in effect at that time, and I was getting dozens of telemarketing calls all day long, so I got out of the habit of answering the phone. When I checked the caller ID around 9AM, I saw that my rabbi had called. I called him back, but there was no answer.

Later in the morning, I was reimaging my computer, something I had to do a few times a day as part of the work I was doing. It was a process that took about 15-20 minutes, and I would leave the process running unattended while I got a snack and watched the news. When I turned on the TV, CNN was talking about a plane crashing into the Pentagon. They made a comment to the effect that this was probably connected to the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. This was the first I had heard about it. I thought about the call from my rabbi, and wondered if he had called me because of my comment on Saturday comparing the violence in Israel to violence in the United States. When I asked him later, he had no recollection of calling me. "But it was a crazy morning," he added.

I watched for a few minutes, and I needed to talk to someone. This was long before Facebook and Twitter and text messaging. Of course, Usenet bulletin boards and online chat rooms and Instant Messenger had been around for many years, but people didn't spend all day compulsively broadcasting every thought into those forums, especially not during school or working hours. I called my office and talked to Ron in tech support, who was listening to the story on KYW, a local news radio station. He asked me if I had a portable TV, if I could bring it in at lunchtime (I lived only a few miles from the office). I said I would.

I was still watching CNN when the South Tower collapsed. I called Ron again and told him, "one of the towers collapsed, but there's so much smoke, I can't tell how much of it collapsed." The idea that the entire tower was gone was beyond my ability to conceive, and the smoke so completely obscured most of where the tower used to be that I thought perhaps only the upper floors were gone. Apparently I'm not the only one who was in denial -- NBC was apparently also reporting that "a section of the building" had fallen away.

When the North Tower fell and the smoke cleared, I slowly realized that both towers had completely collapsed. The World Trade Center no longer existed, a feature of the New York skyline that had existed as long as I could remember was simply no longer there. I called Ron again. "The second tower collapsed," I told him. "They're both gone. They're all gone." He told me I didn't need to bring in the TV during lunch, because there wasn't anything to see any more. I was a bit disappointed -- I wanted to be with other people at that time. But I continued to watch the news, flipping channels, following stories about the Pentagon, Flight 93, the other missing plane, speculation about who might be responsible. The most interesting piece of it was a lengthy bit of unedited footage taken by a man who was walking around a few blocks from the former WTC. The moment that really stood out for me was a Rudy Giuliani press conference, when a reporter pressed him for the number of dead at a time when nobody could reasonably be expected to even estimate it, and he harshly replied, "Too many." Good answer.

I was lucky, and didn't have any friends or family who lived or worked in New York. My brother and his wife worked for a company that had an office on the upper floors of one of the towers. They were shaken; many of their colleagues died.

I had an elderly, bed-ridden great-uncle who lived in DC, cared for by his wife. It took me a while to get in touch with my aunt because of phone line overloads, but they were fine. My aunt told me that she had gone out that morning to get medication for my uncle before this all started. After getting the medication, she waited at the bus stop for a bus that never arrived. She thought about taking a cab home, but there weren't any of those either. She was getting worried because she didn't want to leave my uncle alone that long. Finally a kindly woman saw her waiting and pulled up, explained to her that the city was under attack and the buses were not running. She offered my aunt a ride home, and my aunt greatfully accepted. While they were driving home, the woman commented that her boss didn't give her permission to go home, but she went anyway because, "I'm not going to die for those damned Jews." My aunt said nothing, because she needed the ride home.

In the days following 9/11, there was some chatter online that if people had gone to Selichot (the extended daily morning services in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah), then they would have been late for work and would have been spared from this tragedy. Others disagreed, noting that there were several Orthodox minyans (prayer groups) within the Towers, so even the most observant people wouldn't have to be outside the Towers to attend Selichot. It was all rather interesting speculation, until rumors started circulating that the attack was part of a Jewish conspiracy and that Jews were warned to take off from work that day. Of course, the list of the dead makes it quite clear that this is nonsense, but nobody ever let the facts stand in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

After September 11
And then the world changed. Baseball games were cancelled. Just about any large public event was cancelled. We had tickets for a John Mellencamp concert at the Tweeter Center in Camden on September 16, and we weren't sure it was going to happen. It turned out to be one of the first public events in the area after 9/11. Security was tight, with extensive pat-downs and bag inspections. It was an open air forum, and every time a plane passed overhead, the crowd became tense and quiet. Occasionally between songs, the crowd burst into chants of "USA! USA!" As we were leaving, I heard someone in the crowd complain that Mellencamp didn't sing G-d Bless America. And I cringed at the thought that this is what our society has come to, that John Mellencamp, whose music speaks lovingly of heartland America, is considered to be insufficiently patriotic for not singing G-d Bless America.

And then the flags began to appear everywhere. On homes. On cars. In the hands of a man parading around the 200 level at Veterans Stadium at every game. My rabbi said that he put little flags all around the edge of his lawn, because everyone else in the neighborhood was doing it and he didn't want the neighbors to think that Jews were unpatriotic.

One of the members of our synagogue talked about the problems his family business was facing. They were Orthodox Jewish refugees from Iran who fled Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalist revolution in the 1970s, but their Arab appearance and Arabic-sounding family name drove customers away. They put a large American flag in the door, but it didn't help. The business survived for a while because their stock was largely consignment, but they finally went out of business last year.

I received a lot of emails from people asking me how G-d could allow 9/11 to happen. I cannot presume to know the Will of the Creator, but I can tell you how I tried to understand these horrible events. First: it is important to remember that G-d did not cause 9/11. G-d gave mankind free will, which is what makes our actions meaningful (otherwise, we would be mere machines that act according to programming), but some people use that free will to choose evil. 9/11 was caused by people who, contrary to G-d's commandments, chose a path of destruction.

Why, then, did G-d allow so many people to die? I choose instead to focus on the number of people who survived. More than 50,000 people worked in the WTC in September 2001. As I was watching the coverage, I expected the death toll to be 10,000-20,000. In the end, about 2,600 people in the building died, about half of one percent of the people who worked in those buildings. The buildings remained standing long enough for most of the people on the floors below the crash site to evacuate. Of those who were actually in the building at the time of the crash, it is estimated that 99% of those in the building below the crash site survived.1 That is a horrible loss of life, but it is so much less than it could have been, so much less than anyone expected while the events were unfolding. I choose to see the hand of G-d in the remarkable survival rate, not in the awful death toll.

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1. Elevators were disaster within disaster "The elevators were a tragic exception to an otherwise successful evacuation that resulted in the survival of 99% of the people who worked below the floors where the jets crashed."

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