After 9/11 Life Goes On
A look back at September 11, ten years later
“When we read history we read about great lives. We learn about people who have been ready to give their all. We never expect to live in a moment when the people around us, when we ourselves are ready to give our all.”
– Pastor Gordon MacDonald
At the time we were convinced that it had changed everything. That our lives, that life as we had always known it, would never be the same.
Gordon MacDonald of Concord traveled to New York soon after the tragic events on September 11. The pastor and author says, “The country lost its innocence that day.” (Note: You can read an excerpt from MacDonald’s journal at the end of this story)
WMUR reporter Jean Makin agrees, “We witnessed a mass scale tragedy. It made us aware that life, innocent lives, could be taken away. It made us more aware of our need for security but it also brought us together. For a few years, and to some extent even today, September 11 drove us to a higher level of community and patriotism.”
Colonel Richard Martell, Joint Chief of Staff of the New Hampshire National Guard, remembers the day clearly. “We never actually had to do a recall. All of the Guard members just came in. By 1:00 we were fueled and ready to go as needed. We did a combat flight over New York that night.””Since that day, he says, they have been deployed overseas several times and Pease Air National Guard Base has run 27/7.
Gordon MacDonald and his wife Gail joined the Salvation Army as volunteers for eight days after 9/11. Surrounded by toxic fumes, death and destruction, it was a frightening place but his time there conveyed a message of hope that is universal and eternal.
“Being at Ground Zero offered me one of the most insightful moments of my entire life,” he says. “There in one small place, I took in a vivid picture of evil in all of its banality and its complexity. Yet in the midst of the horror, I also saw the overwhelming force of goodness in the unity and sacrifice of the responders from all over North America who, despite their grief and exhaustion, came prepared to risk everything – even their own lives – to rescue comrades, reclaim order from chaos and restore a bit of human dignity.”
One of the firefighters working at Ground Zero was retired Portsmouth Fire Captain Vassilios Pamboukes, who spent three days volunteering with other firefighters. He says, “The sheer scale of it was overwhelming. It is hard to understand how a small group could create such calamity for so many people. People with hopes and dreams. People who were just trying to go to work and earn a living for their families …”I think it hardened us as a nation. I wish we could go back to before 9/11.”
Dennis Delay, an economist at New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, says the economic effect of September 11 is hard to measure. “The technology and Internet bubble had recently burst and the country was already entering a recession. The University of Southern California-based Center for Risk and Economic Analysis released a study last year suggesting the long term negative impact on gross national product was only .5 to 1 percent,” he says. “At the time economists were anticipating a peace dividend from the end of the Cold War. Funds could be freed up to fight poverty, improve education and support small business for job creation. It didn’t happen and we cannot easily calculate opportunities lost when funds were shifted to Homeland Security and the military. It is also difficult to gauge the cost of increased regulations to foreign trade and immigration.”
Talk to law enforcement and first responders throughout New Hampshire and they will tell you that much was learned in the aftermath of 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) along with several of its agencies was founded. Law enforcement agencies at all levels, federal, state and local, were reorganized, re-equipped and given strict directives to work together.
Immediately following September 11, the country reached out and embraced its police and firefighters. Firefighter and police costumes flew off the shelves that Halloween. Walking down the street it was common for people to stop police officers or firefighters, shake their hands and say thank you. While that day-to-day appreciation has subsided, Manchester Police Chief David Mara notes that there have been many positive changes to law enforcement.
“There is a real spirit of cooperation across local, state and federal agencies,” says Mara. “Whether it is the FBI, DEA, the Marshalls, State Police or local fire and police, that sense of cooperation has not been lost and carries forward. Whether on a taskforce or special initiative, communications are open and we are all more effective.” Within and beyond law enforcement, Chief Mara says, “September 11 put us all on the same page as Americans.”
Chief Christopher LeClaire of the Portsmouth Fire Department agrees, “Communications are vastly improved and there is a great esprit de corp. Regardless of the emergency we can and do work effectively with other fire departments and agencies across the state and beyond.” He adds, “The five-alarm fire in Hampton Beach in February 2010 is an excellent example. Crews from all the surrounding towns plus Laconia and Franklin were rapidly called out and worked together in storm-force winds to put out the fire.”
Over the past 10 years security has been redefined and changed many times. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed to improve security at air- and seaports, rail and bus terminals. Mark Brewer, director of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, knows the challenges. “Threats are constantly changing and evolving. We need to anticipate and change while balancing security with an individual’s right to privacy,” he says there have been countless improvements and modifications to procedures, training and equipment. New scanners and pat-down procedures are the latest innovations, though perhaps also the least popular. TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis remarks, “We understand that many people are concerned by these changes but intelligence has told us that we need to find new ways to screen for nonmetallic devices. We are always respectful of passengers and transportation security is better than it has ever been.”
Pre-9/11 you could go to Canada without a passport. On the return trip your only concern was remembering the customs limit for Canadian ale or whiskey. That’s all changed. Post-9/11, Customs, Immigration and the Department of Agriculture’s Border Inspection were merged into Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP officers’ responsibilities have expanded and broadened. Keith Fleming, area port director for Portsmouth and Manchester, notes, “Our officers are highly trained across a wide range of missions. We guard the nation’s borders from multiple threats including smuggling, radiological threats and illegal immigration. We combine technology and advanced observation techniques to do our job effectively and efficiently.”
Both TSA and CBP are part of the Homeland Security Department. Creation of this cabinet-level department in 2002 combined new and existing agencies in the largest government reorganization in American history. The department’s more than 200,000 employees are charged with protecting the United States from and responding to terrorist attacks, man-made accidents and natural disasters. A key role is fostering cooperation and collaboration across all safety and security agencies.
New Hampshire Homeland Security Director Chris Pope says, “Our partnerships across the state are essential. The last few years have been particularly busy with floods and ice storms. It doesn’t matter the color of your uniform, blue, red, camouflage or suit and tie, we check our egos at the door and all work together.” The National Guard’s Colonel Martell agrees that the collaboration gets better and better: “We continue to break down any and all barriers for the greater goal of keeping New Hampshire safe.”
“It’s all about leadership,” says Pope. “Governor Lynch has set the tone for the state. His message is very clear. The only way we can operate successfully is to work across all departments and agencies.”
Not just within law enforcement. Media figures like WMUR anchor Jennifer Vaughn help satisfy an ever-growing need for immediate communications and information during a crisis. She notes, “Law enforcement now works much more openly with us. Communications are more immediate and the barriers have come down.”
Both September 11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought particular concern to parents and educators. Many worried about the impact that war and constant discussions of terrorism might have on children. Roberta Hollinger was teaching kindergarten at New London Elementary School on September 11. She remembers, “Only a few weeks into the school year, I was having a wonderful morning with those sweet, smiling children. My principal came to my classroom, pulled me aside and told me that our country was under siege. I was horrified and in disbelief.”
She followed her immediate instinct. “I scooped up the kids and gathered them around me, all of us close, together, on the floor. With my mind racing, I read story after story,” she says. “These babies were in my care. It was my job to keep them safe. All the while, I knew that one of my own babies was down the hall, another over in the middle school and my two oldest were at college, an airplane ride away. Who was going to keep them safe?”
The need to keep children safe led to new emergency protocols and training across all New Hampshire school districts, says Kearsarge School District Superintendent Jerry Frew. “Everyone’s awareness has heightened since 9/11. There are new security precautions at all of our schools and a rapid alert system has been implemented. We have all of our evacuation plans in place and run drills annually.”
Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Andrea Leblanc from Lee is concerned that we may be raising a generation of fearful children. Andrea believes, “We need to give our children the tools to create a good life. We need to help them understand and care about other people. We should encourage our children to be curious, to reach out and be eager to learn.”
Andrea does not need a 10-year anniversary to remember September 11. Her husband, UNH professor Robert LeBlanc, was on United Flight 175 when it hit the World Trade Tower. Andrea is often asked to share her story, and she’s careful to keep the focus not on what happened back then, but how we should respond to those events.”
“Bob was an open, kind and generous man,” she says. “Most of all, he was intensely curious. He was curious about people, places and life. He was so excited when students refused to let their fears and insecurities get the best of them and instead went out and explored the world. He thought all Americans should be out there meeting other people and exploring other countries and cultures.””
Time has allowed her to reflect upon the tragedy and to consider how her husband would have wanted people to react to it. “We don’t have a choice in the emotions that rise up and in us after such a horrific event,” she says. “Those emotions, the utter despair, sadness and anger, we don’t choose that, it happens. But we do have a choice about what we do with the anger and sadness. We can choose to respond with violence or we can choose nonviolent solutions.”
Andrea was happy to find and join September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Founded by the families of those killed on September 11, their mission has been to turn their grief into action for peace. Andrea says, “It has been distressing to watch the past 10 years. There has been too much human suffering, fear and disregard of civil liberties, all in the name of 9/11. Our goal is to help people understand that there are alternatives to violence in the pursuit of justice.”
And she thinks it’s an achievable goal, one that her husband worked for in his life. “I believe that all people want the same things,” she says. “We want to be happy and useful. We want respect, to love and be loved and take care of ourselves and our families. It may sound simplistic but it all comes down to kindness. When faced with a difficult decision, we just need to ask ourselves what would be the kind thing and do it.”
Traveling on business on September 11, 2001, Susan Nye was on the thirty-something floor of a high rise hotel in Tokyo when she first learned of the terrorist attacks. Not long after, she left the corporate world and returned to her childhood vacation hometown of New London to write, cook and be close to family. You can find her work in several New England magazines and on her blog at www.susannye.wordpress.com.
“Until the Fires Stopped Burning”
“In my new book, “Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses” (Columbia University Press), I survey in my concluding chapter the many 9/11 survivor and family groups. I found that at best most such groups are politically centrist and cautious; others have been avowedly pro-war abroad and assertively in support of domestic policies that compromise our freedoms in the false name of fighting terrorism.
Only “September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows” has consistently and courageously maintained its commitment to nonviolence, tolerance, and peace. I personally find it very impressive the way PT seeks to promote dialogue on alternatives to war while “educating and raising the consciousness of the public on issues of war, peace, and the underlying causes of terrorism” and supporting and offering fellowship to anyone seeking “nonviolent responses to all forms of terrorism, both individual and institutional.” At the same time, PT calls attention to threats to civil liberties in the United States, acknowledging the fellowship of all peoples affected by violence and war, and encouraging a “multilateral, collaborative effort to bring those responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks to justice in accordance with the principles of international law.” Such wisdom should embraced by all Americans.
– Charles Strozier
More about “Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses” by Charles B. Strozier:
Charles B. Strozier’s college lost sixty-eight alumni in the tragedy of 9/11, and the many courses he has taught on terrorism and related topics since have attracted dozens of survivors and family members.
A practicing psychoanalyst in Manhattan, Strozier has also accepted many seared by the disaster into his care. In some ways, the grief he has encountered has felt familiar; in other ways, unprecedented. Compelled to investigate its unique character further, he launched a fascinating study into the conscious and unconscious meaning of the event, both for those who were physically close to the attack and for those who witnessed it beyond the immediate space of Ground Zero.
Based on the testimony of survivors, bystanders, spectators, and victim’s friends and families, “Until the Fires Stopped Burning” brings much-needed clarity to the conscious and unconscious meaning of 9/11 and its relationship to historical disaster, apocalyptic experience, unnatural death and the psychological endurance of trauma. Strozier interprets and contextualizes the memories of witnesses and compares their encounter with 9/11 to the devastation of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Katrina, and other events Kai Erikson has called a “new species of trouble” in the world.
Organizing his study around “zones of sadness” in New York, Strozier powerfully evokes the multiple places in which his respondents confronted 9/11 while remaining sensitive to the personal, social, and cultural differences of these experiences. Most important, he distinguishes between 9/11 as an apocalyptic event (which he affirms it is not-rather, it is a monumental event), and 9/11 as an apocalyptic experience, which is crucial to understanding the act’s affect on American life and a still-evolving culture of fear in the world.
Click here for Charles Strozier’s blog “9/11 After Ten Years.”
Excerpt from Gordan MacDonald’s Journal
Introduction: During the week of 18 September, 2001, my wife, Gail, and I spent most of our days and nights at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center disaster. At the end of each day I felt compelled to reflect on our experiences in my journal. The following are the diary portions of those reflections which I’ve made available to personal friends and others who expressed an interest. Please note that these writings were done “on the fly” and are not seriously edited either for spelling or syntax. They represent real-time thinking and experience.
18 September 2001
On Sunday evening I flew to Hartford from Atlanta (plane was 2 hours late) and met Gail at 1am. After a few hours sleep we drove into Suffern, NY, the training headquarters for the Salvation Army. At 11 that morning they had a service for about 200 officers and cadets who are involved in one way or another in the NYC disaster.
The Salvation Army is the only group that introduces you as a couple. It’s never “we’re glad to have Gordon MacDonald with us this morning…and Gordon is pastor…., etc.” They always say, “We’re glad to have Gordon and Gail MacDonald with us; they are pastors of…” The Army, from the very beginning, has respected the notion of women in ministry and leadership and the genius of couples working together as teams on a partnership basis.
So, literally within minutes, I decided that this was not a moment for me to preach but that Gail should join me in dialoguing the thoughts on Elijah’s wilderness experience that I’d prepared. I whispered to her that I would “preach” the sermon to her and she should respond with ideas, insights and questions of her own. The result was a presentation that was twice what I could have done alone. She was just terrific. And to think that this was a woman who, twenty-five years ago, would have been terrified of getting up to do a spontaneous talk.
We started by reminding people of the familiar instruction given by flight attendants:”If you have a child with you, put your airbag on first and then do what has to be done to the child.” That seemed a useful way to remind these dear folks of the importance of tending after the soul and the body as they help others.
After the meeting, we drove with Capt Mark Tillsley and Col Damon Rader (brother of the General of the Army) into NYC. Our first view of Manhattan came as we passed over the George Washington Bridge. The WTC was missing. And for those of us who pride ourselves in being fulltime or part time New Yorkers and who know what it’s like to get up each morning and look to see if the Towers are visible or in the clouds, it is the first of many shocks.
We drove down the West Side Highway which is like a war logistics zone. They have done a remarkable job of organizing it already: lanes for certain kinds of trucks and lanes for supplies, etc. People line the highway wherever they are allowed with signs of encouragement and cheers and bottles of water and food for anyone involved with the effort at the WTC. We passed through checkpoint after checkpoint with our special credentials. The Salvation Army’s insignia is pure gold.
We parked our car at Chambers and Broadway and walked into the WTC area, visited a few of the SA canteens and then, suddenly, we came around a corner and there was Ground Zero, as they are calling it. You are standing at the edge of an area that is, at the very least, six square blocks in size, and “nothing remains….” (to quote Shelly’s poem) “and the lone and level sands stretch far away.” In this case, it is rubble, just twisted rubble. 110 floors of two buildings have collapsed and their entire volume of rubble is less than two stories high. It is like a gigantic European plaza with open sky. But each building surrounding the plaza is lifeless, every window (and often the façade) gone.
Then you notice the workmen-several thousand of them-mostly cops, firemen: like ants crawling over the rubble, bucket brigades with a hundred or more men and women in line. When I asked why such a primitive form of rubbish removal, I was told that it was only way to get at bodies.
We joined a small team of SA people at a forward-line canteen. We were just feet away from the entrance to the crater where men poured in and out. At first I was mesmerized by the unbroken line of men (and a few women) going into the pit: like soldiers headed to the front in a war. Each was carrying some kind of tool: a shovel, a pickax, electronic equipment. But the line just kept moving.
And another line, just as fascinating, but far more disturbing. Men coming out: exhausted, filthy, hardly able to walk.