“Hey, qu’est-ce qui se passe?”
With the 11th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks on NYC a couple of days away, I thought I’d share a personal anecdote from that historic event.
(Take note that I make special efforts to distinguish the Sep 11, 2001, event from earlier September 11 events. Yes, other things happened on that date, most notably the American-backed coup of the democratically-elected government of Chile, an event I made certain to mention here and here.)
In 2001, I had just accepted a job with a private company in the Washington, DC, area, essentially consulting to the NIH on matters relating to diabetes research. By Sep 11th, I had already acquired an apartment in Washington, but hadn’t made my final move. I was in Toronto, in my parents’ place, when my mother woke me to say that planes had hit the World Trade Center.
Watching the story unfold on TV, I kept muttering to myself, “Please don’t spread to DC, please don’t spread to DC…” and then came the reports that “there’s smoke coming from the Pentagon!”
I sighed. Aw hell. Now my mother was going to freak out more. No, the magnitude of the tragedy I was witnessing was not lost to me. But the personal element was that I was about to move my fragile self to the centre of what many people at the time thought was going to be a genuine hot war.
I was naturally concerned for the growing xenophobia in the US at the time, especially against we brown dudes. Don’t know if many of you recall, but reports of random attacks on brown-skinned people increased dramatically after 9/11, as idiots assaulted anyone they thought was Muslim. So I went onto many internet discussion boards, trying to gauge the mood of the DC streets. This was before Facebook, Twitter and other immediate sources of public sentiment. Back then, you still had to work to learn of people’s likely attitudes. I was assured by many commenters that DC was, unlike other urban centres, very welcoming of foreigners, even in the wake of 9/11.
Then came the grounding of all the flights. I managed to get onto the very first plane back to Washington, about a week after the attacks. The Toronto airport was utterly abandoned. At this point, I had to go through the full security check and interview in order to get my US work visa. The US officials were dry and decidedly unfriendly, and I was a tad concerned that my visa application would be denied, given the highly unusual and stressful conditions of the time.
My girlfriend had given me a copy of the WWE Cookbook. Yes, it’s true. And it was in my carry-on luggage. Upon seeing it, the official’s eyes lit up. “Dude,” he said, “Did you see Summerslam?!” And we launched into a discussion of professional wrestling. All was well.
Upon moving to DC, things remained tense. It’s hard to describe to people now, especially those who didn’t live through it. But to many people, it was a given that a dirty nuclear bomb was going to dropped on Washington any day. Around the same time, the anthrax attacks started. Some months later, the area would be further traumatized by the Beltway Sniper, an event which I would capitalize on, in an article for the Ottawa Citizen.
The anthrax attacks were so successful in triggering fear, that my doorman refused to accept anymore packages, for fear that they would be contaminated! There was a region-wide run on Cipro, the primary antibiotic treatment for anthrax; you couldn’t find the stuff anywhere! (Ironic, since my fridge is presently filled with the stuff –don’t ask.) Every third person I met was looking to buy an NBC gas mask, in case of radiation, chemical or biological attack, but all sources were sold out! Everyone had his passport renewed and his gas tank filled, in case of a need for a quick getaway.
Ever the entrepreneur, I saw the opportunity to re-brand myself as a bioterrorism expert, under the assumption that I was as close as you were going to get. And it paid off, even resulting in a guest lecture on bioterrorism in the Political Science department of the University of Florida.
Yes, the fear was palpable at the time.
It’s easy to mock this overreaction now. But you have to understand: the continental United States had never before been attacked with this magnitude. The nation was at DEFCON 3 status, for the first time since 1973 (as a result of the Yom Kippur War). The government was in essence telling us that nuclear war was a real possibility. It’s actually a wonder that DC and NYC residents remained as calm as we did.
Within a month, the USA and its allies began their attacks on Afghanistan. I was at the Pentagon when it all began.
Back then, cell phones were not the ubiquitous tools they are today, and almost none had cameras built in! As a so-called “early adopter”, I was equipped with all sorts of toys. Among them, was my Visor, a PDA. My particular Visor had three supremely high-tech add-ons. The first was a telephone modem which I could use to physically connect to a telephone line to check my e-mail (high technology for 2001!) The second was a device I could use to make cellular phone calls; this was the precursor to the modern smartphone. And the third was the “eyemodule“, a device that turned my PDA into a camera. This was all rare and exotic spy technology at the time.
This is all relevant because the Pentagon had a strict “no photographs allowed” rule, even near the 9/11 crash site. But using my Eyemodule, I snapped several photos, including these:
Now, some of the tourists with transistor radios (’cause that’s what people had back then) started exclaiming, “We’re bombing Afghanistan!” Just then, soldiers came out to lead us away from the building.
I, however, was taken aside and told, “Come with us, sir.” Bewildered, I followed as the soldier led me into the Pentagon itself toward a security checkpoint.
I asked, “What’s this about?”
“The meeting, sir,” he said. It then became clear to me that the NIH ID card I had about my neck closely resembled some type of Department of Defence ID. Ordinarily, I would have gone with it. Hey, invited to a Pentagon meeting? I’m in! But I figured that that was not the day I should be messing with the US military.
“Uh, I think you got the wrong guy,” I said, indicating the big “NIH” on my ID. He was mortified, of course, and let me go on my way.
Next stop, I figured, had to be the White House. After all, I was in the middle of a momentous historic moment and happened to be in the heart of the beast. How could I not go to the home of the Dark Prince himself to see what was what?
When I got to the White House, the scene was a zoo of media. I couldn’t get close to the fence because every media outlet in town had their cameras set up, trying to get a shot of what the President was saying on the lawn. I assumed that the lawn bits were being broadcast live to the world.
The only place to comfortably stand was actually back on the grass of Lafayette Park, where all the loser media had been forced to retreat. And guess who I encountered there? You guessed it, French CBC!
So I sauntered up to their cameramen with my best shit-eating grin and said, “Hey, qu’est-ce qui se passe?” And was promptly ignored.
I have no clever or pithy way to end this anecdote, maybe except to say I truly miss my two years in Washington. So much history, so much contemporary, living relevance is a hard thing to give up. When I accepted the job, the Western world was at peace. By the time I left, we were in two wars, had endured a serial killer and random biological warfare attacks. I guess if you apply some bad epidemiology, it was all my fault.