On September eleventh, 2001 I was in the airport lounge in Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. As usual I had a book and a computer and was on a layover between some press appointments and the Virus Bulletin Conference, where I would be speaking for the first time.
There is already nothing that makes you more acutely aware of how AMERICAN you actually are than travel outside of the USA. Despite the continuing globalization of human culture, there is still perspective to be gained, on both what is unique about us, and what is universal.
Airports are noisy places, not just mechanically noisy from the aircraft and traffic, but people noisy. All of a sudden the airport went as quiet as a grave. I pulled my eyes up from the computer screen and saw something on a television there in the lounge that I will never forget. Everyone else was looking, too.
It was CNN (most airport lounges have TV’s tuned to news or business stations) and the caption at the bottom said AMERICA UNDER ATTACK! You all remember what the picture was.
I called my wife, Margaret, back in California–she was already awake and watching, and we tried to reason out what to do. “Where are you flying to, today?”, she asked. I replied that I was flying to Helsinki Finland for a couple of days of press, then on to Prague for the conference. “Oh, just go–” she said “It’s too cold for terrorists, there”
I am not making light of this, I was terrified to get on an airplane. Nobody inside the USA had to make such a choice, the airports were all shut down, but in the rest of the world, everyone held their breath, then soldiered on. In our most tragic moments, often something funny or touching will happen.
I had worked in the WTC a number of times, speaking at Priscilla Tate’s Technology Manager’s Forum. These events were held at a restaurant called WINDOWS ON THE WORLD, on the 109th floor of World Trade Center #1. One of my friends was an IT manager on the 87th floor. I knew a lot of other people in that neighborhood.
The flight to Finland was quiet. I neither read nor listened to an iPod, but just stared straight ahead, worried about my home, about my country, about the world in general. I didn’t sleep much that night, and the next day I took my first interview with Tero Lehto, an excellent IT reporter from Finland. Then I flew on to Prague.
This had been a very busy year for me, and I was scheduled to be back and forth to Euroupe right up until the end of the year. My company just decided to keep me there until late October. This was the first time I ever spent more than a month outside the USA.
Up until 2001, the defining moment in my generation had been the assassination of President Kennedy. The two events share some attributes, including shock, sorrow and sadness. This event, however is still bringing us echoes in the news of every day.
When I finally did get back to the states, my event at the WTC had been cancelled. For some reason I had to stop in New York anyway. And it was grim. 9/11 froze time for months, making midtown Manhattan quiet and more heavily policed than any time in history. I ate alone in a restaurant on Times Square and the only cars you could see outside were police cars, not even a single yellow cab.
People’s reactions varied a lot. Some were ready to expect an all out attack on US soil, many called for immediate revenge. I am not sure if our response was the most effective or the most appropriate. I am glad that it wasn’t any worse. It can’t be repeated the same way, because things have changed. But even though the world has continued, and the USA has continued, we all still remember where we were that day.
Every country in human history has it’s tragedies. Terrorism is well known in Europe and South America and Africa and Asia. This is not an isolated incident and we do not live in an isolated world. We are warier than we used to be.
I pray for the souls lost on that day, and for peace in all the world. I flew yesterday to come home from a trip here in California, and as I passed through the TSA screening I was reminded just how much our lives have changed. My friend Rick Porter (who worked in WTC 1) was not in the tower that morning, he is still among the living. Priscilla Tate has moved her excellent forum to another location and it is still going strong. Air travel has become somewhat more burdensome all over the world.
Huntington Beach, California