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The Attack of September 11

15 September 2001

It is now four days since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and we are still in a state of shock and disbelief. Last night as we watched the coverage on France 2 I was thumbing through the French dictionary Larousse. I came across the entry for New York and found a fine photograph of the New York skyline seen from the Jersey shore to the south, featuring the twin towers. It is still hard to come to grips with the fact that this view is not possible anymore. Indeed, it reminds me of the aftermath of Steve’s death: it did not seem possible that I would never see him again.

I was in my office, struggling with Windoze and a program I am trying to write to get data off a CCD camera, when my colleague Luca came in heading to his computer and informing me that the World Trade Center had been bombed. Shortly thereafter, he said that « la tour s’est écroulée. » I thought I understood this to mean that the tower had fallen down, but I wasn’t sure, and this seemed so improbable that I assumed I must have misunderstood and I tried to connect to the New York Times’ website. No luck, the cross-Atlantic traffic must have been impossibly high. So I tried the Times of London, and managed to get only ads at the top of the page. French sites were hardly better, but Luca got some news from an Italian site. Apparently, Italy is not as involved in the internet yet, so the traffic on Italian sites is low. I then got a picture from Yahoo showing one of the towers burning. Burning, not fallen. I must have misunderstood. Unfortunately, I hadn’t.

Soon thereafter I had to leave for Brennan’s back-to-school session. When I got to Lycée Kléber and saw Linda, she informed me that a fourth plane had gone down near Pittsburgh. She was speaking with the parents of a friend of Brennan’s, who gave us both their condolences and shared their horror at the attacks. After hearing from the principal and then Brennan’s teachers, all of went which quite well and on which I’ll comment later, we returned home still numb and watched the coverage on French television. Solid information on who was behind the attacks was not available, but it smelled of Osama bin Laden. After awhile, I couldn’t stand watching because there wasn’t any new information being presented. I had seen several times the video footage of the second plane crashing into the second tower, and also the shots of the towers tumbling down some time later. From the video is appears that with the heat of the fires, the structural steel of the impacted floors began to soften. Once one floor gave way, the floors above came crashing down the 10 feet or so, causing a large impact on the floor immediately below, causing it to fail. Whether the terrorists anticipated this kind of reaction I can’t say. They could hardly have been more successful.

Although I slept fine that night, Linda was up for a couple of hours after seeing visions of the kamikaze plane in her sleep. It was my turn the following night, as it must have been for you. We have received kind message of support and sympathy from the other tenants in the apartment building, from my secretary and colleagues, from my friend Lars Poverud in Oslo, and from friends in Paris. We have contacted via e-mail our friends in New Jersey, who assure us that Westfield took on a surreal aspect in the aftermath, and that seven people from the town were missing. As of now we don’t think we know anyone who was killed in the attacks, but the list that I was able to download this morning from the New York Times site is still very incomplete. We have heard many stories of people who “should” have been on one flight or the other, or should have been in the Towers, but changed plans at the last moment.

Friday at noon all of Europe observed 3 minutes of silence. The air-raid sirens in Strasbourg tolled and things went quiet. Many students had congregated in the Place de la Cathédrale in Strasbourg, where a photographer from the local newspaper snapped a picture of a friend who is in his next-to-last year of lycée; it appeared on the cover of the paper the next day. My department secretary placed a note of condolence in my box; neighbors in our apartment building whom I have yet to meet left a note of sympathy in our mailbox. As we waited with the Pines for their bus to Frankfurt yesterday, a shopkeeper brought a small present out to our American boys. This attack has shaken everyone here and we all struggle to understand what it means for America and the West.

What Does it Mean?

At first it seemed a repeat of the bombing of the towers from several years back. I have forgotten the measures taken in the aftermath of that attack, but I assume that security was tightened a bit, for awhile, and that within six months things were back to normal. My immediate thoughts about this attack was that it would be similar. Bush would ask for and get beefed up funding for the military, security measures in airports would be enhanced for a period of six months or so, and the CIA and FBI would have to be re-energized and reformed. Republicans would blame the sad state of our preparation on the 8 years of a Democratic administration, and money would flow from domestic programs to the military, including to the Star Wars program despite its just being demonstrated to be useless (even if it could be made to work).

Soon, however, this attack seemed very different, frighteningly different. This time the towers came down. This time the tools of the trade were knives, not bombs and massive amounts of traceable chemicals. This time the flights were routine. This time the attack was widespread, coordinated, and largely successful. This time no one knows how much further devastation was planned, nor how much havoc remains to be wreaked on targets we can only guess at. This time it means war.

But on whom? Suicide bombers are a hard lot to combat. A sect of Islam promises the kamikaze sainthood on successfully completing his act of murder and destruction against the evil enemy. We are the targets of a jihad. How firmly the concept of jihad is implanted in Islam, I don’t know. Some Muslims interviewed on television have certainly expressed their outrage at the attacks and have stated quite clearly that they are against Islam. On the other hand, television footage we have seen here shows lots of celebration among the Palestinians and other Muslims. Some people have wondered whether this was stock footage, but it appears to be authentic. We saw Yasir Arafat interviewed soon after the attacks, his chin quivering as he condemned these attacks. It is not clear to me how the attacks will further his cause, as he attempts to play the role of the bona fide leader of a new country. His credibility, however, is not particularly high, and he has demonstrated a sincere ability to say whatever was necessary at the time.

So, how to target the leaders of the terror, who conveniently promise their sheep eternal salvation to do their dirty work? Is bin Laden, as some report, a creature of our own devising to do the dirty work of harassing the Soviets in Afghanistan? Is he using all the skills and training the CIA gave him, or has he shown himself quite capable of inventing above and beyond the lessons he was taught? Afghanistan was too much for the Soviets to handle; will we be willing to inflict heavy losses on Afghan civilians to get at bin Laden? Will we rid the country of the Taliban in the process? And will we go after Saddam Hussein while we’re at it? Is this war going to proceed to completion? And how could that be possible? It may be uncomfortable to be an American of Middle Eastern descent for some time. Let’s hope we don’t sacrifice human rights in the war to make the world safe for human rights and commerce. Let us recall that loyal Americans of Japanese descent were unjustly deprived of liberty and property in the time of stress after Pearl Harbor, and let us make the effort to distinguish friends from enemies in the Arab world as we respond to this attack on our safety and way of life. To forget our sense of fairness would be already to concede a victory to the terrorists.

This page was last modified on Sun, Sep 16, 2001.