Monday, May 24, 2004

911 Memoir

September 11, 2001

On that fateful morning, I was working at a computer terminal in a coastal suburb near New York City.

I remember having a strange sense that something was not right, beginning with an unusually loud bang outside. In hindsight, I was directly under the flight path of the National Guard fighter jets that had been scrambled in from Massachusetts, and the loud band was a rare overland sonic boom.

Then came an eerie quiet. Something was missing. Something important.

It was the noise pollution from aircraft --- the constant roar of jet and propeller airplanes overhead --- that are the constant of urban life in the United States.

It was as if the world had suddenly gone to sleep. Even the birds seemed much quieter than usual, sensing something was wrong.

Indeed, a toxic plume of dust hung menacingly over the area. Satellite photos showed that the heaviest concentrations had followed the coast in the opposite direction from where we were located, but there seemed a strange, acrid dust in the air nevertheless.

The boom and the lingering silence gave the distinct impression that something was wrong, but I had deadlines to meet and focused on my work at the computer terminal. I convinced myself that anticipation of an incoming Noreaster had stilled the birds and silenced the aircraft, or some other, innocent explanation must account for it. Supersonic aircraft were not normally permitted over land, and I assumed the noise was that of an engine loudly misfiring or some such other trivial urban occurrence. I had deadlines to face and could not be bothered trying to explain these things.

Then, my colleagues and I received an email from the head of our organization stating. It stated, cryptically, that something had happened in nearby New York City. "Many of us have lost friends and loved ones," the email continued.

We found a television and collectively turned on CNN. And there it was. The terrorist attack on New York City, our great city, which we had all subconsciously feared would sooner or later come. I remember thinking, "It could have been worse. It could have been nuclear."

It was immediately clear to me that this was an act of war, and that a foreign state would need to be held responsible for sponsoring the terrorist organization behind this incident. I drafted an email to my colleagues, "Your nation is at war." I wrote urging them to remember the World War II propaganda film Mrs. Miniver, still shown occasionally on American public television. The film was reportedly produced to show characters acting sensibly under the adverse conditions of war, in the hopes that viewers, then facing similar conditions, would do the same. The mayor of New York City would later also invoke the spirit of World War II in the eloquent words of Winston Churchill, and would receive a knighthood for it.

Later that day, the President, other politicians, and newscasters would being echoing that shared sentiment. The war drums had begun beating in earnest.

Nevertheless, the suspicion remained in my mind that Administration incompetence had likely lead to this travesty. Many Americans remembered the Florida debacle, and questioned both the Bush Administration's legitimacy as well as its competence to govern.

Indeed, foreign policy experts would eventual debate whether Bush's earlier decision to withdraw troops from the Middle East following the U.S.S. Cole incident had sent a message of weakness to the terrorists, emboldening them. These suspicions would confirmed later following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Interviews with captured Al Queda terrorists indeed confirmed that many believe the American public to be cowardly. They reported believed, based on their observation of Bush's weak response to the U.S.S. Cole incident, that a more vicious attack, such as happened on 911, would be sufficient to cause the U.S. to completely withdraw from the Middle East. Instead, exactly the reverse happened. The U.S. reaction, especially the degree of anger felt by the U.S. public, caught them completely off-guard.

Unfortunately, it seems the Bush Administration decided, perhaps as early as 911, to invade Iraq as well. According to respected journalist Bob Woodward, Rumsfeld remarked there were few targets for precision bombing in Afghanistan. Bush should consider attacking Iraq instead, which was a more target rich environment. According to Woodward, Colin Powell, upon hearing these remarks, at first thought Rumsfeld was joking, but realized afterwards he was not.

Whatever the merits of the invasion, it's clear there was a long-standing plan to invade Iraq within certain segments of the Bush Administration. 911 brought this group to power and gave them the excuse they needed.

Ironically, all this seems to have come about due to earlier errors the Administration made. Initially, some foreign policy experts cited the Administration's weak response to the U.S.S. Cole bombing, but subsequent investigations by the 911 commission show that information regarding the attacks was within the pipeline. Had the Administration taken the information seriously, and brought together a Principals Meeting, the attacks might have been diverted. The Panel also suggested that had some of the information been made public, the attacks also would have likely been prevented due to the documented extreme caution exhibited by the hijackers.

So the Administration was asleep at the wheel prior to 911. They then used 911 as an excuse to invade Iraq. Today, they are trying to use 911 as a campaign issue, suggesting that the Administration was adept at handling terrorism, when, in fact, the evidence suggests exactly the opposite was true, at least prior to 911.

The local evening news that night broadcast images of dust-covered commuter trains bringing dust-covered New Yorkers home for the night. Commercial breaks were replaced with reruns of the fiery deaths of thousands of people and satellite photographs of an ashen haze moving along the coast. A sense of unease pervaded the land.

The next day, some foreign national co-workers approached me about signing a petition. "Many people have died," the petition read, "but many more can be saved" by not going to war. I knew that this was fallacy.

Ignoring such a provocation was a recipe for disaster: it would invite further attacks from the terrorists, perhaps with tens of thousands or millions of casualties the next time around. These nihilistic barbarians spoke only of death for non-believers, and the power vacuum they would create, if allowed to succeed in their monstrous plans, would condemn the world to another dark ages.

Watching C-SPAN the following day confirmed my worst suspicions. C-SPAN showed a number of foreign newscasts. The Chinese government English-language broadcaster was the only one to carry the petition, claiming that Americans were circulating it. (My experience was that it was most actively pushed by foreign nationals here in the U.S.). More suspiciously, the Chinese broadcaster carried the petition as its top international news story, while all other major outlets, most of them far more respected, failed to carry the story at all.

America, a land of immigrants, has traditionally been one of the most hospitable people on Earth. As a result, American industry derives enormous economics benefits from highly skilled foreign nationals here in the United States --- especially from China --- resulting in a higher standard of living for all Americans.

Nevertheless, there had been mainstream media reports prior to 911 that some Chinese nationals here in the U.S. were supposedly kept under tight control by their home government, and had been organized, often unwittingly, into "cells" to enable a rapid response in the event of an emergency. Had these "cells" been activated following 911 in an unsuccessful attempt to generate an anti-war movement?

These "cells", of course, often consist no more of social email lists maintained by a contact person known to the government or higher-ranking contact person. These lists normally broadcast emails related to social or charitable activities, allowing the unwitting "cell" members to familiarize themselves with each other. Hopefully, at an opportune time, these can then be catalyzed into action by the cell leader on cue from the foreign government.

It was claimed following 911 that entire world felt sympathetic. This was only partially true. I had an opportunity to observe overseas reactions during a trip abroad a few weeks after 911, and it was clear that decades-old anti-Americanism was still firmly in place, much exacerbated the more because of the Bush Administration's unusually unilateralist stance taken immediately after they came into office. I describe my experiences in an earlier article here.

Before we condemn this foreign government too harshly, however, we must remember that we derive enormous benefits from the presence of foreign national guest workers here in the U.S. The U.S. Pentagon has tried to do the same thing with Americans here in the U.S. (and perhaps overseas), ostensibly for defense. As I describe in the aforementioned article, however, there is evidence exists of darker, political intentions. I chronicle the DOD's efforts to organize unwitting Americans into so-called "intelligence fusion cells" in an earlier post. These are very similar to what this foreign government was rumored to have: email contact lists maintained by a DOD government operative.

Members of the DOD "cell" are familiarized with each other through chartable or other social activities organized through the email list, so that the cell may spring into action in the event of an emergency. Some of these cells are more or less overt, involving first responders specifically brought together to train how to handle a terrorist attack. Other cells are more clandestine, with the participants not told they are to be part of a U.S. government-sponsored intelligence cell. For more information, see my prior post on this, and darker DOD activities (here).

Ultimately, the problem with the foreign national's circulation of the petition was not that they had been unwitting organized into cells, or that some foreign news broadcasts suggested the petition was being orchestrated from abroad.

The problem was that a petition campaign by non-nationals was illegal. Visa holders (as these were) are not allowed to engage in political activities. And organizing a petition orchestrated by another country immediately following a national emergency certainly constitutes political activity.

Perhaps the petition drive organizers soon awoke to political reality, realizing that only a firm response would protect civilization from further attacks. Or, perhaps, the organized political activity by non-nationals came to the attention of U.S. authorities. In any event, the petition campaign soon died.

The fiery rain of ash that released the souls of thousands of men and women from their bodily cages and turned vital infrastructure into a cloud of toxic haze made 911 a truly frightening time for Americans and the world. Intrigue by overseas nationals and governments, as well as likely political intrigue here at home, further contributed to the sense of unease.

Americans assumed that their leaders would conscientiously carry out a vigorous new foreign policy, designed to protect America's vital interests. Recent events have cast doubt on whether this actually happened, or whether what was implemented was recklessly designed chiefly to enrich further an already privileged few.