One year ago

As airplanes began slamming into buildings on the morning of 11 September 2001, I was blissfully unaware of what was happening. I was driving to work, and because I was listening to a music CD (I don’t recall which one) instead of the radio, I didn’t hear any of the news coverage of the event. When I arrived at IBM, my officemate Saul informed me that the World Trade Center was under attack. By that time, both towers had already been hit, so it was clear that this was no accident.
I immediately turned on my computer and tried to look at various news sites on the Web, but of course they were all completely swamped. The biggest news story of my entire life was taking place, and I was deaf and blind, unable to follow what was happening. For the next couple of hours, my only source of news was Saul, who stayed on the phone with his wife, who was watching live TV coverage at home and relaying the details to him. It was a bizarre situation: the 21st century technology of instant 24-hour access to news via the Web, which I took for granted, failed me completely, and I ended up relying on news from a 20th century source (television), relayed via a 19th-century technology (the telephone). I suppose this was ironically appropriate on a day when high-tech security measures were defeated with knives. It was in this way that I learned that the Pentagon had also been hit, and that first one and then both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed.
At about this point, Bob appeared in the doorway of my office. On a normal day, we would have been chatting via AIM off and on as we worked, but on this particular morning we hadn’t yet communicated at all — at first because we were absorbed in trying to find out what was happening, and then because (I suspect) neither of us could figure out what to say. He informed me that live coverage of the news was now being shown on the TV monitors in the hallways throughout our complex, and the two of us walked to the nearest one, where a small crowd of our coworkers were watching in silence. It was showing replays of the second tower being hit, both towers in flames, and both towers collapsing, over and over. After hours of being blind and deaf to events, I could now see — and it was unbearable. I couldn’t watch. I retreated down the hallway to a point where I couldn’t hear the TV and stood staring out the window, not seeing the trees and cloudless blue sky outside, until Bob came to get me.
The rest of the day is a blur. I remember that Bob and I walked around the complex for a while, struggling to comprehend the enormity of what was taking place, but I don’t remember what we said. I must have eaten lunch, but where? Did I go to the cafeteria or had I brought in sandwiches to eat at my desk? Did I have lunch alone, or with Bob, or with someone else? I don’t know. I do recall that it was impossible to get any work done, and that no one else at IBM was really trying. At some point in the afternoon, my manager told us to go on home if we wanted to, and I think I must have done so. I honestly can’t recall.
What I remember clearly is that I stayed up well past midnight, surfing the Web. The news sites were no longer overloaded, and I spent hours reading their articles about the day’s events. But although I quickly reached a point where I knew everything that was public knowledge, I wasn’t satisfied. I kept searching, but I wasn’t sure for what. Gradually it dawned on me that what I wanted wasn’t more facts — I had more of those than I could digest — but analysis and commentary. How was the country, the world, my life, going to be changed by September 11? Was this the beginning of World War III? How would the American economy and culture be affected? What did it all mean?
I didn’t find answers to those questions, but by the time I finally went to bed, I had found some better places to look. Frustrated by the lack of helpful analysis on the mainstream news sites, I sought out the Reason site, which already had some insightful pieces. And a link from Reason led me to the blog of Virginia Postrel, former editor-in-chief of that magazine and my favorite of all the authors who wrote for it. Virginia had spent the day writing exactly the kind of analysis I had been searching for, peppered with links to other commentary sites and news articles that she found particularly significant. This was my first exposure to a new medium: the news blog. (I had seen blogs before, but they were online versions of personal journals.) And Virginia provided a link to Glenn Reynolds, whose blog was far more prolific and had links to dozens of other anti-idiotarian blogs. In the days and weeks after 9/11, I found myself immersed in the newly emerging phenomenon of the Blogosphere, and was eventually moved to create a blog of my own, prompting several friends and family members to do likewise.
The extent to which our economy and culture were transformed by the terrorist attack is still subject to debate. But I believe the economic effects to be significant. When the Twin Towers fell, the collapse of the Internet bubble was already well under way, and the technology sector of the economy was particularly vulnerable to the economic shock generated by 9/11. Faced with uncertainty about the future, many businesses reacted by cutting back their spending, and one area in which they did so was computer equipment, software, and services. Technology companies began announcing declining revenues, and many began to slash their own expenses — which in most cases meant layoffs. IBM wasn’t immune to this, and on May 22 the phenomenon caught up with me. I lost my job in part because of the events of September 11, and have so far been unable to find a new one.
I think we’re still struggling, as a nation, to figure out what September 11 really means. We’ve fought the the first campaign of this new war, but Afghanistan was only the beginning. Since its birth over two centuries ago, the United States has had to confront a series of great evils that threatened its existence. The first, slavery, came very close to destroying our nation because in order to vanquish it, we had to tear our country in two and fight each other. But in the end, it was eradicated and the Union survived. The second great evil, fascism, was fought outside our borders, but the struggle to defeat it raged across the globe, and transformed the world forever. The third great evil, communism, could not be confronted directly by force of arms, but in the end we defeated it in a battle fought in the hearts and minds of the world’s people, who turned their back on the communist dead-end and embraced the culture and economy of the West. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was transformed again.
Now we find ourselves confronting a fourth great evil, a poisonous hybrid of Islamic extremism and Arab nationalism. As with the first three evils, no compromise is possible. Our new foes will settle for nothing less than the destruction of Western culture and the establishment of an Islamic theocracy that rules the entire globe. We can defeat this new evil, as we defeated the previous three, but we must be honest with ourselves about what that means. This evil cannot be tamed or contained; it must be destroyed. And doing so requires the destruction of the barbaric, fanatical culture that drives it. At the end of World War II, we toppled the governments of Germany and Japan, destroyed their violent, repressive cultures, and built civilized, democratic societies in their place. So must it be with the Arab-Islamic world. One by one, the corrupt dictatorships must be defeated and their hate-filled, xenophobic societies rebuilt on the Western model. Only then can they join the civilized world of the 21st century. Afghanistan was the first, but Iraq must be next, followed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan . . .
Years from now, when I look back on 11 September 2001, I hope that I can view it as those who lived through World War II view 7 December 1941: not just as a day when the United Stated was caught unprepared and many people died, but also as the day when our nation realized it had a job to do, and began doing it, and didn’t stop until the job was done.