I don’t typically post on Sundays, but I do have a 9/11 story that I want to share.
Most people don’t talk about the day before 9/11. We all remember where we were when the planes hit the towers, but how many remember what happened the day before?
Salmon Rushdie was scheduled to speak in downtown Houston that night. As a newbie writer, I was giddy with excitement about hearing him. He had recently emerged from exile after living for years in hiding. The fatwa against him for writing The Satanic Verses, allegedly blasphemous to Islam, had been lifted.
All was not well, however. By afternoon protesters had lined the streets around the building, and some had apparently not gotten the memo that the fatwa had been lifted. I heard reports that made me uneasy about going – but I had my ticket, darn it, and I was going!
Along the way that day I made jokes that now, as I reflect back, cause me to cringe. “If I get killed by Muslim extremists tonight I won’t be in to work tomorrow.” “If I get killed by Muslim extremists tonight just know that I died for my art.” I was puffed up with my own cleverness.
To get into the building, I had to walk through the protest line. I kept my head down and shuffled through as best I could, trying not to look at the signs or into the eyes of those who would want someone dead because of something they wrote. I thought we would have to go through metal detectors or some security, but we just walked in. People on my right and left all expressed some anxiety about being there that night.
Rushdie seemed the most relaxed of any of us. With humor and aplomb, he dismissed the protesters as “British Literary Critics” and regaled us with stories of writing. As the evening wore on, in the presence of his courage, I felt my own courage start to soar. If he could stand there and face us under the weight of threats against him, what could I do? The evening passed peacefully, and no one was harmed. When we left, the protesters had gone home, and I walked into the clear night without fear.
The next morning I wrote about the heady feeling of freedom that had stayed with me. I could write! Maybe I would never have Rushdie’s skill or accolades, but I could write my stories. I drove into work as though on a cloud.
An hour later, the planes struck.
I worked on the 36th floor of a 60+ story building in Houston in the energy industry. When we realized that the planes hitting the Twin Towers was not some horrible accident, we felt like sitting ducks. The Williams Tower is outside of downtown and sits alone among much shorter buildings. We didn’t know the terrorists’ plans. Granted, if they wanted to hit the energy sector they would be more effective by destroying pipelines and structures as opposed to paper pushers, but we were an easy target if they had chosen it.
We went home, like everyone, to watch the horror unfold on television. We would learn about the Pentagon and about United Flight 93. We would feel the grief of the loss of so many fellow Americans, and we would mourn for the families left behind.
Ten years later, we still see the ramifications of that day. Our first responders are sick and dying, and not getting the support they need. Our country has become rabidly anti-Muslim in a level of hysteria last seen directed at Communists (or alleged Communists) by Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. We continue to be embroiled in conflicts, one of which was manufactured as our leaders played on the sympathies of distraught Americans.
As I write this, the clock is literally just turning to the early morning of 9/11. I am in a hotel in Zurich, preparing to travel home on a plane. We stop in D.C. on the way, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I trust the Swiss to do their jobs thoroughly. America? I wish I could feel the same way, but we seem to be more concerned with attacking each other than in solving the genuine and severe problems that we face. The terrorists don’t need to attack us; we’re doing a good job of destroying each other.
I still write, and am more and more committed every day. It’s small comfort in the scheme of things, but it’s something. I try to remember not the terror as we watched the first attack on our soil, but Salmon Rushdie’s courage. It is all I can do.