9/11, Serendipity, And A Small World
When you’re addressing a Rotary Club, you have only 20 minutes to serve up something worth listening to, make your points and make them quickly because the Rotarians have places to go and people to see. Above all, don’t expect them to remember any of it.
People want stories. They understand the story when there’s a human element to associate with it, but all too often the humanity gets lost as soon as the story fades unremarkably into the rogue’s gallery of tragedies and scandals that clutter daily life.
Thus the story begins.
During the summer of 1988, I spent a month working at the US Customs Investigations office, 4th floor, World Trade Center (WTC), New York. I ate lunch in the shadows of the twin towers. I stood at the base of one of the buildings and looked straight up into infinity. I stood on the south tower’s observation deck and looked out over Battery Park with its yachts moored on the Hudson River. Planes were flying beneath me. I had never been closer to understanding this concept of “forever” than when I gazed at this marvel of human engineering and guessed that it would be there long after my passing.
I was mistaken.
The problem we have with short term memories is perhaps nature’s way of helping us cope with loss. Eventually, what was in the forefront of our mind, fades to a comfortable armchair of distant memories now long cold. Misty images remain behind only to come back into sharp focus when images of buildings aflame and those lost that day resurface.
We, as a country, have spent a fair amount of time and effort trying to understand how and why the attacks happened. We have gone to even greater lengths to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Some of the changes to our way of life as a result of the relentless search for a fail safe system of security has heralded an appreciable erosion of liberties, liberties that have been with us since the beginning.
We have become apathetic in safeguarding freedoms paid for with the blood of generations past. Through complacency, we have instead become eager to comply with any new government solution for combating this faceless specter of terrorism and at almost any price. Compliance is perceived as the means to preserve the American way of life, difficult to resist, and impossible to overcome.
Hence, the battle is lost before it begins.
See It With Your Own Eyes
Understanding this notion of compliance has proved to be particularly vexing. Concerning the WTC attacks, I have juxtaposed compliance in comparison to a person’s survival response. Following the attacks, people in the WTC went about their routine tasks of turning off their computers or calling loved ones from their offices rather than evacuating. There was smoke. There were flames. The buildings rocked noticeably at the time of the plane’s impact yet people failed to immediately respond. Some waited as long as 45 minutes before attempting to evacuate.
Tragically, in two separate cases, men who had made it safely to the lobby from upper floors, returned to their offices when told to do so by a WTC security guard.
One of these involved an employee of the AON Insurance Company. Phil (whose last name I will not disclose to respect his privacy), one of the Rotarians at this meeting said that he too worked in the WTC and was present in the WTC the day of the attacks. He said that the AON employee that I mentioned in my speech was his friend and yes, he had called his father from his office where he was trapped and told his dad that he had gotten out safely only to return to his office when a security guard told him to do so. At that point when he made the phone call, he could no longer get out. His last words, “Why did I listen to him?”
Phil said that in his case he had managed to walk down the stairs, through a plaza on one of the lower levels, and got safely out. He looked up, saw the gaping hole in the side of Tower 1 where he worked and saw people beginning to jump. He decided that he was just going to walk away. It was more than he could bear. He said that the memories came flooding back when he heard me mention the attacks. I hoped that I didn’t do him a disservice by mentioning the attacks. I thanked him for telling me about his experience and that I was sorry for his loss. There was nothing else that I could say.
He simply shook my hand and walked away.
Generations that come after us might never know the liberties that we have taken for granted and paid for by others willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to defend and preserve them. Are we so willing to lose them without a struggle?
Would if we put a human face on these future generations, our progeny, who might only hear stories of the freedoms that we enjoyed, freedoms that were the bedrock of this country, freedoms so willingly surrendered for the sake of security in tales told around a campfire. I, for one, refuse to let that happen, but no one can do it alone. All must decide their own course.
Put a face on it and it becomes even more ominous. I don’t know if there will be a person like Phil who will help you understand it as he did me. You should be so lucky.
Brett Braaten is the author of Homeland Insecurity: Failed Politics, Policies, and a Nation at Risk. His book brings his no nonsense, insider’s account of the current state of national security to help you decide whether you, your family, and your country are truly safe. Brett’s career as a writer and speaker is informed by 30 years of experience as a federal agent with U.S. Customs and the Department of Homeland Security. Brett Braaten draws back the curtain on the vast federal law enforcement bureaucracy to give a rare glimpse of behind the scenes agency responses to politics and policies that impact national security, sovereignty and the economy. “As a former special agent with both the U.S. Customs Service and later Immigration and Customs Enforcement, I enjoyed a great career. In retrospect, it was job satisfaction that most of us spent time looking for as we did our jobs in a system that fostered more obstacles than solutions.” Contact Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org .Visit his website, at www.homeland-insecurity.com for his thoughts and analysis of current issues affecting national security and the well-being of American families.