September 17, 2001
I woke up and heard the news on the radio. Still half asleep, I heard something about an explosion at the World Trade Center. Turning the television on, I saw two gaping, smoking holes in World Trade One — a building that was an old hangout of mine, a place where I used to meet with clients and friends.
Then the horrible, moment-by-moment time unfolded with the buildings’ collapses. The day began with disbelief and quickly moved to profound grief.
My heart goes out with a deep, deep ache to all of those people in our community who lost loved ones on 9/11. My heart goes out to a whole country of friends who are in a state of shock, near numbness. They are obsessively asking and asking again how this could happen.
Now, there are many out there who are trying to cope with a deep fear of what will come next, coupled with a fear that they will never not be afraid again. They worry that the sun won’t ever shine brightly again, that the green of the trees will never again lift their spirits, that a walk will never again comfort their souls.
I have lived through massive destruction caused by natural tragedies, earthquakes and fires in particular. In a sense, those tragedies are easier to cope with because there is no one, really, to blame. But when we are assaulted by other human beings with malevolent intent, with planning, with a desire to do us harm — we feel lost, the ground no longer feels solid under our feet, and even the air we breathe becomes something we distrust.
What has struck me most as I have spoken with my friends and loved ones all around the United States is how this experience has generated feelings for us that are shared by people all over the world. In some ways, people I know in other parts of the country are having a more difficult time then us here because they feel even more powerless.
It is a trauma beyond description, and one that has affected our immediate community, our country and much of the Western World. The object of terrorists is to cause terror. Their goal is to cause us to feel fear and powerlessness in the face of that fear. Their intent is to destabilize our sense of security.
It grieves me to say this, but this time the bad guys won.
As I talk to people there are two questions that are ever present. The first is, “How could this happen?” And the second is, “How could anyone do something this evil?”
We have been blessed in this country in that we have been sheltered from so much of the evil that does exist in the world today.
As I said to my friend, WTBQ’s Jerry Boss, most people in this country are, for the first time in their lives, coming eyeball to eyeball with people who really hate us. And a lot of us are having a hard time accepting that. Jerry is a retired state cop and is no stranger to the belief that there are people out there with truly evil intent.
No doubt, the perpetrators of this act had political motivations and a hatred of things the United States has done in the Middle East. Our unyielding support of Israel, the current American military presence in the Arabian Peninsula and the sanctions against Iraq, just to name a few.
But what makes these acts truly terrifying is that the primary motivation of these fundamentalist Muslims is that they believe that they are fighting a holy war against all non-Muslims. This hatred extends to a hatred of all things Western, and in particular there’s a real hatred of the United States — for what they see as our indomitable power, for what they see as our decadence, for what they perceive as a country of evil, decadent infidels. They think we are evil.
Many people want to believe that these acts were committed by crazed individuals. We would like to believe that these awful acts could only have been committed by crazy people.
If only that were true. These acts were committed by a vast network of very sane people. People with very conscious intent. Patient people who have the ability to develop and implement a plan of extraordinary difficulty and detail, and to wait to strike until an opportune moment presents itself.
No, these are not crazy people. These are people who, if you met them on the street, would seem as normal as your next-door neighbor. And that fact makes it all that much more terrifying.
One of the most important books I have ever read is by the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. The title of the book is Eichmann in Jerusalem, or a Report on the Banality of Evil.
For those of you who don’t know who Adolf Eichmann was, he was the man Hitler had design and implement the genocide of Europe’s Jews. After the war, he escaped to Argentina. Sometime in the early ‘60s, the Israelis tracked him down and took him to Israel, where he was tried and ultimately hung for his war crimes. Arendt then wrote her book about this guy who had committed unspeakably terrible acts, but was also a family man, well liked by his friends and a seemingly all-around normal guy. The point of the book is that the greatest danger we face is that we expect monsters to look like monsters — but they don’t always. They really can and do look just like the man or woman next door.
That said, in this case, the people who did us harm do look different from many of us. Among my greatest fears is that we, ourselves, will fall into the kind of hatred that led the perpetrators of this atrocity to do what they did. Already throughout the United States, Arabic Muslims and even Arabic-looking people have been assaulted. When you unite ignorance with hate, bad things happen. Very bad things.
There are hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world today. We have many in our country, and many right here in our community. It’s important to know that the Koran does not allow for the kind of perversion that has just been committed.
It’s also important to know that these acts were committed by a group of Muslims that is tiny compared to the entire Muslim population. Simply: these are people who have perverted their own religion to fit the needs of their hate.
Over the years, I have known many Muslims, and they are folks no different from you or me. Most of them are, like us, immigrants to this country. Many are recent immigrants at that, and like all new immigrants they tend to have an even greater appreciation for the freedom and tolerance that this country offers. Let us not betray them, our neighbors. I am asking you to be proactive here. If you hear others talk about a Muslim in ways that are threatening, intervene and explain that hating a whole group of people for the acts of a few is dangerous.
So far, I am enormously proud that there have been no reports of such attacks in our community. Another thing we need to do, even while working through our grief, is to understand how this hatred against the United States forms. There are places in the world today with great poverty, where the very concept of democracy is unknown. These places are fertile soil for the nurturance of hatred of those — like those of us in the United States — who are perceived as having more. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to these places and provide help and resources to these countries.
Meanwhile, here at home, please pay attention to your neighbors. Many of them face huge losses and haven’t yet begun to figure out how to cope. Each of us has the capacity, often beyond what we think we have, to help a friend in need.
A normal human response to a trauma like this is a profound sense of powerlessness.
For me, the way out of that was to come over here to WTBQ for a few hours a day to help with this station’s wall-to-wall coverage of the news.
My being in the newsroom allowed me to feel as though I was doing something useful. It made me feel less powerless about the situation.
The story of how this station came together last week is illustrative of just how very well our community can adapt and move quickly to do what needs to be done. Within an hour of the attack, WTBQ basically reorganized. Here, as everywhere, we were suddenly confronted with a new and different reality that demanded that we change our usual ways of operating.
The station changed its normal programming from music and talk to providing ‘round-the-clock news, and the station managers did it without missing a beat. Our advertisers and sponsors supported what had to be done and allowed us to suspend playing their advertisements. They understood that this was only appropriate for a radio station whose mission is our community.
I want to express my appreciation, and also commend the staff here at WTBQ for sticking to it, hour after hour, providing national and international news — and most importantly, news about our community here in the Hudson Valley. In the newsroom, I’d like to thank Chris Cordani, Allison Dunne, Frank Lowell and Frank Truett. They did an extraordinary and, to me, heroic job last week.
There is another person who may have had the most difficult job, spending hour after hour on the other side of a glass wall from the newsroom at the controls, switching seamlessly from discussions here to different local and national news feeds. You rarely hear his voice but you received the benefits of his hard work — he’s my engineer and the man at the controls all week, Rich Ball. Thank you, Rich.
We now have three dominant generations in this country, each marked by pivotal and terrible historic moment. For my parents, it was December 7, 1941, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor that brought us into World War II. For my generation, it was November 22, 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And now, for my daughter’s generation, it’s September 11, 2001. My kid lost something last week, something important, as I suspect so many young people throughout our community and our country did. She lost her innocence.
It will just take time for all of us, the whole country, to heal. But we are resilient. So many people have said to me that the world will never be the same.
But the truth is that it will be. The sun still rises and shines on us. The blue of the sky can still comfort us. We need this time to grieve and come to grips with what has happened. But time will begin to heal these wounds, and we will realize that we can still smell and enjoy a rose. We will discover that somehow, almost magically, life feels normal again.
This will happen. I suggest not rushing to try to get to a state of normality, but rather allowing this process to pass in the time that will be natural and unique to you. The most important thing is to keep talking about your experience, to get it out. Lean on a neighbor or allow a neighbor to lean on you.
And hopefully, we will carry some of what is new to us now into the next period of normalcy. Hopefully, we’ll maintain the desire to help others in need, to nurture and sustain our new realization that we are all really interconnected. What affects one, affects us