Sep 11

The two towers

In this morning’s post, I overlooked a couple of aspects of 11 September 2001 that are worth mentioning.
Ruth and Ben did not have a good day at school. Their teachers had done what probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but was actually the worst possible choice: they abandoned their lesson plans, turned on the TV, and had the kids watch news coverage all day. This meant that the students were forced to watch airplanes ram into buildings and explode, buildings burn and collapse, and people die by the thousands . . . over and over. All day long. Whether they wanted to or not.
So when Ben and Ruth got home, they were understandably upset about the day’s events, but they did not want to talk about it or dwell on it in any way. What they needed was something to take their minds off the horrible things they had seen. Well, Tuesday night is movie night at our house, so I looked through my backlog of Movies To Show The Kids Sometime for something light and humorous. I settled on Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, which I had been promising to show them for months.
If you’ve never seen this movie, it’s required viewing for any self-respecting D&D player. It’s very loosely based on the case of James Dallas Egbert III, an emotionally disturbed teenager who faked his own disappearance in 1979, tried to commit suicide and failed, was found, and eventually did kill himself in 1980. The news media, looking for a sensational angle and encouraged by the detective trying to find Egbert, seized on the fact that he played D&D. They attempted to portray the game as a dangerous cult that drove innocent teenagers insane, and blamed it for Egbert’s disappearance. Rona Jaffe wrote a novel called Mazes & Monsters that was essentially a fictionalized version of the press’s Egbert story, with a great deal of further exaggeration and distortion. In 1982, the novel was turned into a cheesy TV-movie that took even more liberties with the story. Among D&D players, the film is considered hysterically funny for its lame plot, low-budget production values, and ludicrously inaccurate portrayal of the game. Since Ben and Ruth were experienced D&D players by that time, I figured they would have fun laughing at it.
In the film, Robbie (played by a very young Tom Hanks) gradually loses his grip on reality and begins to believe that he is his D&D character. This leads him to drop out of college and go to New York City, where he wanders the streets in a delusional fog until his fellow players track him down. They do this by studying the written materials he left behind, including an elaborate map of a fantasy realm. The crucial clue is a prominent site on the map, which is labeled “The Two Towers.” Robbie’s friends first dismiss this as a Tolkien reference, but eventually realize that it actually refers to . . .
At this point I realized what an idiot I was. “The Two Towers” refers to the World Trade Center, and that’s where the climax of the film takes place. In an effort to distract my children from a disaster at the World Trade Center, I had chosen to show them a movie that actually was filmed there. Like their teachers, I had done what seemed like a good idea at the time, but was actually the worst possible choice.
I stopped the videotape, explained the nature of my error, and apologized to Ruth and Ben. They assured me that it didn’t matter, and they wanted to see the ending anyway. So we finished the movie. And they did find it highly amusing, but not quite as amusing as the boneheaded mistake their father had made.
The next day, September 12, was a Wednesday, which meant that it was time for the weekly Guys’ Lunch at the Prime Outlets food court, just across I-40 from Raleigh-Durham International Airport. This mall is just a mile or two from the airport and directly under a major flight path, so you cannot stand in the parking lot for more than a couple of minutes without seeing airplanes pass overhead — usually airliners flying so low you can practically count the rivets and the engine noise rattles your bones. But not on that particular Wednesday, because RDU (along with every other airport in the country) was shut down by federal order. It was eerie to stand in that parking lot under an empty sky, hearing only the whoosh of cars passing on the interstate. The scene inside was even eerier, because the food court was half empty. That food court is normally packed at lunchtime on weekdays — but a lot of those people work at the airport, and none of them were eating there on September 12. They had all been told to stay home.
As it happens, today is also a Wednesday, so I drove out to Prime Outlets for another Guys’ Lunch. As I passed through Holly Springs on my way to the highway, I saw flags everywhere: on mailboxes, on front porches, flying from passing cars, even on the construction equipment I passed where the road is being widened. And as I exited from the interstate and turned onto Airport Boulevard, right in front of me was a big, beautiful American Airlines jumbo jet flying low across the roadway, emblazoned from nose to tail with red, white, and blue stripes. As strange as this may sound, the shriek of jet engines was music to my ears.

Sep 11

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.

Sep 10

Not worth a thousand words

My opinion of the news media was not very positive prior to last year’s terrorist attack, and it hasn’t improved in the months since then. One of the reasons is the consistently arrogant and condescending tone that journalists adopt when addressing their audience. Their attitude seems to be that we are ignorant and simpleminded children, and that journalists, who are the only ones who know The Truth, have to spoon-feed us information, using pretty pictures and words of one syllable.
For an example of what I mean, look at this article on the CNN website. The actual text of the article is fine, but the pictures are insulting. The article has a total of three illustrations, not one of which conveys any meaningful information. Yet someone at CNN believed that these works of art would somehow help us comprehend the article, or they would not have spent time creating them.
There was a time when news articles were accompanied by illustrations that were directly related to the topic at hand. Photographs of the actual subject of the article were best, but artists’ renderings of the subject, if they were skillfully done and didn’t take liberties with the truth, were also good. And graphs that interpreted statistical data or illustrated trends were helpful as well. But somewhere along the line, it became customary to include pictures with every article, whether they were actually helpful or not — and if no relevant or useful illustrations were available, then artists would create something eye-catching, even if made no actual sense.
Such as a photograph of a computer screen entirely filled with zeros and ones. If you had never seen a real computer before, you might find that sort of thing plausible. But this is 2002, and we all use computers every day. We know that they don’t display screens full of zeros and ones, because that would be useless. So what is the point of the picture? Does CNN really think we’re that ignorant and naive?
Apparently so.