Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Six Degrees of 9/11

No one under the age of 15 can forget where they were when they heard the news of September 11, 2001 (like our politicians will ever let us forget). I’d just moved to DC and was about to drive down to Atlanta to move some stuff that day. My wife had taken the car to run some errands first and was running late. I had a 10-hour drive ahead of me and was getting irritated.

She came home, harried. “Bill, I think you’re going to have to cancel your trip.”


“Terrorists have flown a plane into the Pentagon. The Twin Towers, too.”

“Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later,” I said, dismissively, ready to go. And then … “Wait! What?!”

You know the rest—the shock, confusion, the dismay. Even though we lived in DC and the anthrax letters soon followed, I wasn’t one for the fear—or the duct tape. I mean, this wasn’t Tel Aviv or Kashmir or Sri Lanka where you can walk into a café and get blown to bits. I figured al Qaeda had tapped themselves out on that one, and we weren’t going to get attacked again any time soon. How could I live in fear of something that most likely wasn’t going to happen?

But that view was easy for me. I didn’t live in New York, barely lived in DC at the time. I didn’t have any friends or family who died or were injured. For me, 9/11’s like any other tragedy—Darfur, Afghanistan, Georgia—I’ve seen on TV—sad but hardly affected me personally. I am so far removed from the tragedy, I can only feel sympathy for the victims but hardly feel any loss myself. It remained an abstraction.

That changed a bit for me in the spring of 2004. I was about to go on tour for the first book and was trawling the internet for old acquaintances—college, high school, work, whatever—just to say, “Hey, I’m coming to your town.” As anyone on Facebook or Myspace knows, once you start thinking up old names, others can’t stop popping into your head. Soon, you’re looking up your cousin’s third-grade teacher’s baby-sitting niece.

That’s when I typed in Melissa Doi. She and I had work-studied together at N.U.’s student union building my freshman year. We weren’t great friends or anything, just co-workers—bantered during work hours, stopped and chatted for a minute if we bumped into each other outside of work. Nothing special. Her name just popped into my head for the first time in ages. It still threw me for a loop when I discovered she had died in the Twin Towers.

As I said, we weren’t friends. I couldn’t even tell you the last time I’d thought of her before that moment. The most I can say is I always thought she was cool. So, it wasn’t like I grieved or felt particularly sad. I just felt … weird. Like 9/11 wasn’t anything I was personally connected to, but then suddenly, that tragic day had a face. Melissa’s.

It soon had a voice, too. During the Zacharias Moussaoui (the original “20th hijacker”) trial, the prosecutors played the 911 tapes of Melissa’s calling in. The media picked it up, and for two days straight, I heard her croaking, “I’m about to die, aren’t I?”

The media always play that stuff to shock and horrify. I usually ignore it, but when you knew the person on the tape, it just kind of freaks you out. And it made me feel … I don’t know. I mean, what can be more private than your last moments on this Earth? And she was terrified—and who wouldn’t be, going to work on the 83rd floor on a perfectly ordinary day to realize that you’re trapped in a fiery tomb about to be murdered – and you could hear it in her voice. I just didn’t feel that I had the right to hear it at all. Something like that, something so raw and fragile and heart-rending, should be heard—if it must be heard at all—by close family and friends only. Not some guy who barely knew her decades ago and definitely not by complete strangers. And it shouldn’t be played for shock in the courtroom or ratings on TV. By the end of the Moussaoui trial, I was outraged for ever having heard Melissa Doi’s last words.

I think what upset me most was that none of the September 11 victims’ deaths were their own. It was, indeed, a public tragedy. But it was also 3,000 private ones. And the victims have no say in how the public uses them. Pundits, politicians, chicken hawks, and doves all invoke the name of the 9/11 victims to push their agendas, viewpoints, laws, and wars. But it’s not as though we can ask the victims themselves.

They’ve been being used for seven years now, and we’ll never know if any of them are cool with that. How many of them were actually pacifists? How many would never have wanted the wars we’re fighting or the freedoms we’re eroding? How many would’ve been cool with all of it?

It doesn’t matter. Because the victims of 9/11 are simply abstractions for our public figures to use however they please. Their deaths are to justify whatever agenda strikes politicians’ fancy. After seven years, their power has definitely waned. September 11 no longer engenders the passion and terror it once had. But some still fear and politicians continue to run on it. But death, no matter how public, is a private affair. One’s death should not be used to further another’s ends. I don’t know. Personally, I still don’t feel all that connected to what happened seven years ago. In many ways, I refuse to. However, for me, whenever politicians do utter those words (which is why I try never to listen to Giuliani), “September 11” now has a face.

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