The following account of my personal experience on September 11, 2001 was written in response to inquiries on my whereabouts that fateful day, from many colleagues and friends, in a variety of countries. One reason for receiving many inquiries (which necessitated a collective reply by e-mail) pertained to my participation at the International Congress of History of Science, (hereafter ICHS) held in Mexico City two months earlier. There, I exchanged "business cards" with colleagues from many countries who would invariably comment favorably on my card’s design: besides listing affiliations in both New York and Boston (with Rockefeller and Harvard Universities, respectively) the card had a high quality photographic background of Jerusalem, taken late in August 2000, the last peaceful month prior to the ongoing deterioration of the fragile peace agreement between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The photo, taken by teleconverter lens and a digital camera from the Talpiot observatory site in the West of the city, intended to capture several key sites on Mount Scopus in the east, most notably the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s (hereafter HUJ) Mount Scopus Campus in its East, where the photographer friend and I had first met in an Introductory course on History of Science, for which I served as a teaching assistant; the monastery turned hospital Augusta Victoria, named after Queen Victoria at a time Jerusalem was part of a British Mandate; and especially the architecturally impressive golden dome mosque, "Omar", the site where according to Islamic tradition, the prophet Mohamed ascended to heavens.
Due to the talent, experience, and top of the line equipment of my friend Shlomo S. one of about a dozen photos that he had taken, actually managed to line me up in straight line with the golden mosque. Due to this assembly of photographic and textual details, neatly compressed on the shining card by new digital technology, my ICHS colleagues could easily figure out my plausible connection to a fateful event that originated in Boston, ended in New York, while further revolving around Islamic beliefs, believers, and Middle Eastern geopolitics. Indeed, it is not without interest to mention that Shlomo’s father, much as Osama Bin Laden’s, the Saudi millioner and masterminder of 9/11/01, was born in Yemen, a small country in the south of the Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, the sons’ generation became expert in combining Eastern and Western traditions. The similarity, however, seems to end there, especially since Shlomo is a particularly tolerant artist and computer scientist, while Osama became an exponent of Wahabbism, an extreme and intolerant version of Islam, while further converting his remarkable knowledge of both East and West into global terror.
Yet another reason for receiving many inquiries pertained to the fact that at the ICHS in Mexico City, I was actively seeking speakers of UNESCO’s six official languages, (English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese) in order to track down reprints of a paper of mine that appeared a month earlier, in June 2001, in UNESCO’s International Social Science Journal special issue on "Science and its Cultures" As an official UNESCO publication, ISSJ was distributed in all six official languages. Having received reprints in English and French only, I was hopeful that ICHS colleagues will help me track down reprints in the other four official languages. But the only delegate from an Arab country to whom I had an opportunity to talk was Roshdi R., a well known historian from Egypt residing in Paris, and a member of ICHS’s organizing committee.
My title was inspired by Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, since his classical account of many stranded lives in the Gulag archipelago had been the first association that came to my mind while seeking a title for an account of my own experience of being stranded on 9/11/01, among millions of New Yorkers, once the bridges and tunnels leading to/from Manhattan were closed to traffic, as a precaution from further terrorist attacks on that day. Unlike the Gulag days, which resembled each other in their structural banality, 9/11/2001 was and remains a unique day in world history. It was certainly a different day from those which preceded or succeeded it, a day in which a spectacular and highly effective display of global terrorism was to change forever the lives of millions of people in New York City, and throughout the world. My metaphoric choice of title can further be said to resonate with Solzhenitsyn’s novel in terms of substance, for 9/11/01 emerged as a singular, fateful moment in a broader conflict of civilizations, not unlike the struggle between personal freedom and an all embracing totalitarian ideology of communism, underlying the Gulag’s raison d’etre. This time, however, an extreme version of Islam, the so-called Wahabbism, replaces communism in its Foucaultian "regard" or panoptic gaze, individuals as fodder for glorifying yet another ideology that puts itself above the human lives of both the targeted "infidels" and the targetting "ultra-faithful", or paradise-bound "martyrs".
Since some of the inquiries into my whereabouts arrived from both groups and recent acquaintances, I realized that a collective e-mail, though more efficient than numerous individual ones, would still require certain details, so to enable those less familiar with Boston, New York City (hereafter NYC), and my life as a weekly commuter between these two cities, to make sense of the "whereabouts" described in my initial account, an account written and sent within 72 hours (i.e. the biological range of "conception") from the actual event, on 9/14/01. (#2, below) Hence, I added a section on my "base line" Boston-NYC aerial commuting prior to 9/11/01. (#1) Finally, section #3, on thoughts for the future, was added following my attendance of a conference on "9/11/01 - Was there an intelligence failure?", held at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (hereafter KSG) on February 13, 2002, among smaller forums, most notably the March 16-17 workshop at MIT’s STS Program, which provided the final stimulus for reaching some closure in my constantly evolving writing on 9/11/01.
In this manner, an initial three page factual reply by e-mail has expanded into a dozen page or so of self ethnography, further including rational reflections, as well as emotional experiences, the latter added in response to a specific request from Gabor P., a historian of science and technology at the Hungarian Academy of Science, (hereafter HAS) who was among the colleagues I met at the ICHS in Mexico City in July 2001. Perhaps in the future, I would be tempted to write about my experience in more literary terms, perhaps a l’Andre Malraux’s "Anti-memoirs". But at the present time, my response merely reflects the angle of a "perfect bystander", of the sort popularized by Peter Drucker’s autobiography in inter-war Europe and post-WW2 America, the lone, lucky, observer who has a knack for being around just where and when major events tend to unfold, as well as for providing a mixture of both structured analysis and imaginative commentary on those events.
Prior to September 11, 2001 my life revolved around my weekly aerial commuting on the Boston - New York shuttle, usually leaving Logan Airport on Mondays with the 6:20 a.m. flight and returning from Laguardia on Thursday evenings. The aerial shuttle has been essential for allowing me to balance my research in New York with a family based in Boston. Thanks to the shuttle, which takes only one hour of flight, leaves on the hour from 6am to 9pm, and is decently priced for university affiliates, I was able to spend a majority of days in NYC, as required by the terms of my fellowship, and a majority of nights with my family in Boston. Yet, another interesting feature of my weekly commute was my opportunity to pass through Harlem, famous as the cultural center of the African-American community, especially during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. More recently, Harlem became so gentrified, that former President Clinton located his office there, actually only two blocks from the 125th Street train Station, which turned out to be my best connection from Laguardia, via the Triborough bridge, to the Metro-North Hudson Line train. This train, which initiates in NYC’s Grand Central terminal every half an hour, stops in Harlem 10 minutes later, while reaching 40 minutes later Tarrytown, the station for nearby Rockefeller Archive Center (hereafter RAC). There, I have been investigating the Rockefeller Foundation’s investments in British, French, and American science, especially in molecular biology, for quite some time, while aiming to complete a book on these subjects by mid-2003.
Since RAC is situated 20 miles (about 50 minutes) outside NYC, in the midst of the Rockefeller family estate in Pocantico Hills, North Tarrytown, (recently renamed Sleepy Hollow); or at some distance from the train station, which sits on the river; its van picks up the researchers at the train station around 9 a.m. and drops them there for the returning train to NYC, around 5 p.m. Some researchers rent a car and live in the area but I have always been train bound, coming from and returning to NYC every day. RAC’s building used to be the residence of the second wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr., prior to its conversion into an archival center in the mid-1970s. As befits a former mansion of the Rockefeller family, RAC has impressive rooms, especially the former dinning and living room, a spiral staircase, a phone room which houses the original desk of JDR, Sr. at Standard Oil Co., and a huge veranda, which the austere owners and their later day successors failed to convert into a swimming pool. One bathroom still retains its antique gold fixtures, though due to more modest maintainance standards, it merely looks like "dilapidated gold". Security was upgraded about two years ago when a formerly manned gate was turned electronic, so if arriving by means other than RAC’s own van, one has to announce one’s name to the office prior to entering. The landscaping around the grounds is nicely done, with the hilly surroundings looking lovely, especially during the spring and fall seasons. The site’s main and possibly only drawback, is the lack of a shuttle to its umbrella institution, the Rockefeller University in mid-town Manhattan. In addition to its location and structure, RAC is a researcher’s paradise, not only because of its unique and well preserved archival collections, (most notably of the Rockefeller Philanthropies, among other philanthropic foundations), but because of its advanced system of cross-references, a large group of very knowledgeable and helpful archivists, and a varied program of fellowships.
The Hudson Line train ride is a blend of picturesque sights and industrial decay, since it stretches along the Hudson river, which greatly varies in width at different spots from almost Missisippi-like width to relatively narrow. I often thought of myself as a later day Tom Sawyer, gazing with amazement at the majestic river. I remain particularly fascinated by the majestic looks of the very large spanning Tapan Zee Bridge, near Tarrytown. Indeed, I would always search for a window seat, so I could watch the river and invariably gasp at the majestic Tapan Zee Bridge, as the train approaches my destination in Tarrytown. At the other side of my day, the Grand Central new terminal was almost "home" at 5:40 pm when I would habitually arrive, fighting my way through zillions of people returning to the suburbs from their day in the City, to reach its round Information Center, where I would usually meet friends. My staying over night at the Rockefeller University (hereafter RU) Guest facility, Abby Hall, at 66th Street and York Avenue, within a short distance from the theatre district and Lincoln Center for the Arts, also helps my cultural explorations.
By flying weekly, I have been accumulating good mileage, just qualifying by September 10, when I last checked my status as a frequent flyer, for a free trip to four selected European airports. I recall scheming in my mind whether to choose Zurich or Istanbul, two of the four qualifying airports, for my next trip to Europe. Unlike the train portion of my commute, which is merely modern, its aerial part was postmodern, with busy people always seeking to gain time and compress space by using the aerial shuttle, or speedily traversing the airport’s gates, while being entrapped into a variety of high tech devices meant to ensure top comfort, privacy, but also complete insularity. For example, checking in at the gate was unusually fast; since commuters have no luggage, and seat assignment is for "any" seat. Thus, it was not unusual for me, among other commuters with a flair for catching planes in the last moment, to arrive at the gate around 610 a.m. expecting to board a 620 or 630 a.m. shuttle, while further taking time to select newspapers and magazines from a large pool (larger in NYC than in Boston...), freely available to keep the busy aerial commuters well informed. After presenting one’s electronic ticket and driver license for identification, besides nodding "no" to the routine question as to whether one was carrying something for a stranger, the only plausible talk pertained to checking one’s status as a frequent flyer. The passengers were "working", whether on their slim laptops, wireless cell phones, electronic organizers, "palms", while being oblivious to anything and anyone around them.
The 55 minute flights between Boston and New York remained mostly uneventful. Only once I came across an incident of "air rage". (a new nosological category, invented by the ever trendy profession of psychology for frequent flyers, a category not available when Pinel first developed a classificatory system of mental problems around the time of the French Revolution). At one of the Thursday evening flights from Laguardia Airport to Boston, a professionally dressed passenger suddenly grabbed my laptop and gave it to two women whose place in the boarding queue , he thought, I was seeking to bypass. I took him to task for touching my property, (this being the only argument he and those around him might quickly understand) while firmly demanding the return of my laptop. Stunned by my firm performance, (born in the leo zodiac, sporting a natural curly mane, and always conscious of the leo’s "noblesse oblige" outlook, I like to be known as a natural to many jungles, academic or otherwise) this air raged and/or ground deranged passenger returned my laptop while disappearing fast into the plane, when I suggested that he reserve such behavior for his family. Fortunately, boarding on later occasions was regulated by numbered tickets, given upon arrival to the gate. No one tried to intervene, as if the mini-event in the public space could be totally ignored in favor of ongoing entrapment in the passengers’ private world, well insulated by numerous electronic devices. This indifference contrasted with my experience at Rome’s Airport Fiomicino, also in the summer of 2001, when a delay on board of the train connecting the Airport with the town transformed the European passengers into new friends, despite various linguistic barriers that would not have existed among the Laguardia crowd.
In retrospect, various aspects of my experience as an aerial commuter help explain why neither on September 11, nor during a "dry run" a week earlier, nobody at Logan Airport in Boston, whether ground airline personnel, airport security, passengers, or crew, noticed anything unusual with regard to the ten terrorists that boarded the two targeted flights for L.A. A day earlier, on Monday, September 10, nobody noticed when I boarded the wrong plane. Though my mistake meant a small delay in landing, in retrospect, it also meant that I was allowed to board a different flight than the one I was cleared for. A major reason facilitating the 9/11/01 multiple airplane hijacking, pertained to the dominance of commercial considerations, even though aviation always involves safety risks. The high turnover of airline personnel, and the competitive pressure to process passengers speedily, means that no one has time or memory for noticing suspicious clues; e.g. paying with cash for one way tickets at non-discounted prices, using the same credit card for five unrelated adults; or even showing up on the police’s list against which passengers are checked before boarding. (nine of the 19 hijackers showed up on that list but they were subjected to a repetitive hand luggage search only).
Though serious intelligence failures in intercepting the plot was a major factor, the prevalence of lax security at Logan contributed to the audacity of attempting such a plot, in the first place. At Massport, the authority overseeing Logan Airport in Boston, the driver of a former governor, with a political agenada of his own, had long been in charge of airport security, while denying that anything went wrong; it took several months to get rid of him and related political protégés without expertise in aviation security. This is one reason why my anger at what happened came to focus in particular on the lack of security at Logan, the airport which enabled the greatest number of hijackers to board.
Second, a general lack of communication between people in the airport makes it very difficult to notice suspicious behavior. Even when someone is noticing, as in the case of a "dry run" a week earlier, when a passenger on the Boston-Los Angeles line did report that five suspicious passengers were constantly discussing the airplane’s performance, neither the airline, nor the police, were interested in pursuing the lead. The condition of extreme laxity on 9/11/2001 contrasts sharply with the state of alert that prevailed around 01/01/2000, when several terrorist attacks intending to disrupt the New Millenium festivities were both anticipated and foiled due to alert custom personnel on the Canada-US border in the Northwest.
The news of two airplanes intentionally crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) reached me about two miles from what came to be known as "ground zero", while I was attending a morning meeting at the Ford Foundation Headquarters, (hereafter FF) a historical landmark building on 43rd Street and 2nd Avenue in mid-Manhattan. My FF colleague, Alan D., whom I met there in connection to planning a conference on the changing role of philanthropic foundations in an era of globalization, insisted that I must become acquainted with FF’s famous cafeteria. Since after the meeting I would have had to travel to Tarrytown, a one hour train ride, meeting over breakfast at 8:30 a.m. was the best use of our time. Since I arrived a bit early, around 8:05 a.m., I used the extra time to call home, in order to have a document I had forgotten in Boston, faxed to me at FF. Thus, an hour later when it became much more difficult to establish phone contact, my family in Boston already knew of my location at FF, on the 43rd Street, or well beyond the outer boundaries of "ground zero", on the 14th Street.
We learned of the first plane hitting the North Tower upon returning to Alan D.’s office from the meeting in the top floor cafeteria. One of his office mates received a call from a friend living in Battersy Park, close to the WTC, who literally saw the plane crashing into the Tower’s 86th floor, and came to tell us about it. My new acquaintance, Michael R., a Sidney Poitier look alike, proved to be very well informed; besides having a friend living in close vicinity to the WTC, he also had a cousin working in the Pentagon, who reported shortly after, on another plane crashing into the Pentagon, as well as on the move of President George W. Bush, to Air Force 1, the presidential plane designed to function as a flying "White House". Being impressed with such resourcefulness, as well as willingness to share with us his findings on the phone and on the net, I decided to avoid the TV on the 5th floor. By contrast, my host Alan D. disappeared for the rest of the day into the TV room, eventually leaving around 230 pm, after he had coordinated with his wife the pick up of their two kids from school. However, I remained at FF, since he informed me that the bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan Island to Greater New York were closed, which also meant that I could neither take the Hudson line commuter train to Tarrytown, nor the inter-city Amtrak train to Boston.
Since it was difficult to get connection by either regular phone or cellular, I spent my time photocopying documents and books of interest that I found on the shelves. After all, the reason I was stuck in the FF building, in the first place, pertained to planning a conference on philanthropic foundations, so having to spend extra time in an office full of FF treasures, such as "antique" books and recent book reviews for "LAFF", (FF’s alumni Newsletter entitled "Life after Ford Foundation" or LAFF), was actually an unexpected advantage. Not only was I able to avoid exposure to repetitive news and images of disaster, but I could do something useful for our future workshop. My arduous photocopying was interrupted only when the FF President, Susan B., came to shake hands with the staff and treated me as if I was one of them. It was reassuring to be so included, especially since her decision to leave FF’s building open for the night for those who could not return to their homes outside Manhattan, made the FF a better place to be stuck in than, for example, the nearby buildings of the United Nations and the Israeli Embassy, which were hastily evacuated.
The news announcing the collapse of both WTC Towers had a surreal character, especially once it became clear that those hard hits were no accidents. There was no escape from confronting this enormous calamity which combined loss of life on an unprecedented scale with matching physical destruction. Perhaps even more overwhelming was the fact that the WTC was an architectural symbol of NYC’s skyline, itself a mark of American prosperity and centrality to the world economy. I had never visited the Twin Towers, but saw them from the air every week when my Boston-New York jet gracefully circled around them prior to landing at Laguardia Airport, sometimes more than once, while offering a magnificent view of lower Manhattan island and its surroundings. I simply could not imagine that such an unforgettable view, part of my treasured visual memory, not only vanished but was replaced by a huge rubble, nicknamed "ground zero", or a metaphor for total, sudden, destruction. Much as the sudden plane crashes into the WTC towers were soon likened by the media to the surprise attack by the Japanese planes (and subs) on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; the WTC site was likened to "ground zero", the name of the New Mexico site where an atomic bomb was first exploded in July 1945. As a scholar of collective memory, I could not fail to be impressed with this dual usage of key historical, as well as symbolic, moments from the past, in order to make sense of a totally different crisis in the present.
By 5 pm, when most FF workers had already left, and the security guards began collecting the names of those who planned to stay in the FF building overnight, I finally had to decide whether to keep an appointment I had made a week earlier, to interview the 95 year old widow of Fritz Lipmann, a Nobel Laureate from Rockefeller University, whose biochemical work I was investigating as part of one of my research fellowships at RAC. Since RAC was missing his records from the 1930s, a decade he spent in Copenhagen, my projected interview with his widow was motivated by the need to find more on his activities during that key decade. But I was also intrigued by her location, on the 17th Street, or only three blocks from the edge of "ground zero" on the 14th Street.
The pre-arranged interview thus gave me a good reason to move closer to "ground zero", though my decision to move closer to it was also informed by a dormant instinct of expecting to be near areas where first-aid might be needed. I developed such an instinct during my days as a member of the Israeli Defense Forces’ (herafter IDF) Medical Corps’ Country-wide Instruction Unit. Among many adventures that the Unit was famous for, there was the unforgettable experience of being asked to prepare for defense in case of enemy use of non-conventional warfare, (mainly chemical) only 12 days before a major war. The excitement generated by such an assignment, was later matched by my writing on the Unit’s experience, which was to provide me with my first ever royalties, received a few weeks prior to my 20th birthday. Though I have since received royalties for a variety of publications, none matched the joy of that first writing experience.
But years later, in another continent, it was not obvious as to how my once highly valued but rusty skills could be used; those skills included certification to act as first aid personnel during both war and peace, as regulated by the Geneva convention, as well as knowledge of strategic planning of paramedical response to both conventional and non-conventional warfare. After circling the police guarded streets leading to Bellevue Hospital in the hope that people like me might be recruited, I realized that there was no action, to speak of, for the simple reason that there were almost no survivors, and hence no probability that I might somehow be needed. The best I could do was to resume my more recent vocation as a rescuer of memories and meet my 95 year old interviewee.
Walking from the 43rd to the 17th street toward lower Manhattan, on 3rd Avenue, I was struck by the deserted streets, despite the evening rush hour. There were very few pedestrians, fewer cars, and no buses in sight; only the shrieking of an occasional ambulance served as a stark reminder of the rarity of survivors. Fortunately, my interviewee, Freda H. also agreed that there was no reason to cancel our projected meeting. Her son had visited her at noon, so she wished to do something useful, once she confirmed that all were alive and well in her family. She told me that her son used to work in WTC but was relocated to a mid-town office about two years ago. Many people have similar stories, as if everyone once worked in WTC but was lucky enough to relocate elsewhere prior to 9/11.
Upon reaching the 23rd floor, I could see from a balcony facing the WTC in a straight line, the enormous smoke rising from "ground zero". My interviewee further recalled seeing one of the Towers being hit, while having her morning coffee; as she put it, "a moment ago the towers were there and now no more". As someone who had been living in NYC for half a century, she added that the skyline will now look more like it did prior to 1970, when the WTC towers had not yet been built. Her remark was a reminder of how fast a major disaster can convert present into past, at least at the level of the skyline’s shape, though the new skyline will never be like that of the 1970s. The sudden, catastrophic absence of its most famous symbols, remains a scar in the collective memory of millions of people inside and outside NYC, eventually memorialized, six months later, by high blue beams amidst white shorter poles.
Our conversation lasted three hours, while moving back and forth from our present in recently hit NYC to her life before WW2, especially her luck in twice escaping from Europe to America in the 1930s, eventually arriving in NYC in June 1939 or only three months prior to the outbreak of WW2. My interviewee had been a member of the artistic circles in Berlin, who wrote her own autobiography, in addition to biographical segments on her scientist husband. She was thus particularly intrigued by "Copenhagen", a play on a fateful meeting in 1941, in Copenhagen, between two Nobel Laureates, N. Bohr and his former student W. Heisenberg, as well as Mrs N. Bohr, during which a discussion of the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb, and its ethical implications, led to an estrangement between the two physicists. The play served as an excellent common ground for discussion between us, especially since the fact that a meeting of the sort she herself participated in numerous times, in both Europe and America, even in Copenhagen itself where she lived during the 1930s, has become the topic of a successful play, truly amused Ms. Hall.
Though I saw the play three times, once in NYC (where it received two Tony awards) and twice in London, where it has been successfully running since 1999, I was particularly intrigued by a different and shorter interpretation of these events, written by my, colleague and friend Mara B. a historian of physics who also contributed to Commemorative Practices in Sciences. Both plays presented great opportunities for transforming science into culture, an undertaking greatly encouraged by the British Society for History of Science (hereafter BSHS) at its July 2000 meeting in London. I responded to BSHS’s call on several occasions during 2000, while "staging" Mara’s play "Copenhagen-Another Round" at scientific meetings in Genova, Paris, Annecy, Boston, and Jerusalem, with an international cast of colleagues. (Needless to say, whenever possible, I choose to play the villain) I hope that many more historians of science will jump into the fray of writing science related plays, a genre which has become increasingly popular in the aftermath of "Copenhagen"s spectacular success in 2000. On April 22, 2002 my NYC friends and I will attend the City University of New York (hereafter CUNY) production of Schroedinger’s Girlfriend. I even caught myself the "bug" of "science and theatre", planning to write a play on the poetics of multiple migration from Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, to NYC, as experienced by a well known DNA biochemist. A preliminary sketch was even presented at the Boston Colloquium in Philosophy and History of Science (hereafter BCPHS) on November 6, 2001, under the watchful eye of NSF-STS Program Director Bruce S.
As we parted, Ms. Hall advised me to seek an uptown bus on 1st Avenue since she noticed that the 3rd avenue remained silent. As befitting her European background, she vacillated between inviting me to stay over (as people would have done in Europe when buses are hard to find) and treating me as the stranger I had remained despite sharing so much historical baggage, simply because our meeting took place in the capital of anonymity, as well as under a regime of social interaction in which encounters need not be the object of memory. She was pleased to hear that I planned to stay overnight at RU’s Guest House, and that even if I won’t find a bus, I considered myself perfectly capable to walk from the 17th to RU on the 66th street. My projected walk was not that bad, especially when compared with the longer marches of those crossing the bridges leading from Manhattan to other boroughs. Around 930 pm, I found an uptown bus, which further required no fare. Within half an hour or so, I reached the 66th Street, further crossing a few medical buildings which made me feel safer, on my way to RU’s 24 hour guard station, where I retrieved the keys to my room.
Following a round of phone calls to reconnect with family and friends in Boston and NYC, I finally turned on the TV, to update myself on the shocking details of the day’s four plane crashes. Alternating between the networks, in a hope of avoiding their tendency to broadcast highly repetitive news, I saw the masses of people exiting Manhattan Island by foot on various bridges. This impressive exodus reminded me that I had no idea how to leave NYC by foot; after all, my main identity was that of an aerial commuter. I also wanted to watch how the disaster was perceived in other countries, especially those in which I lived for a considerable time, i.e. Canada, France, Israel, and UK. But lack of access to coverage from other countries drove home the point that globalization, which meant access to coverage from many countries in both Europe and the Middle East, was slow to reach the US, notwithstanding CNN.
Next day, Wednesday, September 12, I would have normally had to speak on my progress before the staff at RAC. At 7 a.m. I received a call from RAC’s senior archivist, informing me that RAC will reopen, but while riding a bus to the Grand Central terminal (as a concession to the state of alert, I avoided the subway) for the 8:17 Hudson line train, I received another call from RAC’s van operator, telling me that RAC would remain closed. Even though it was located 20 miles out of NYC, RAC closed because it was part of Rockefeller University, which closed in response to Mayor Giuliani’s call to reduce the number of people in Manhattan at a time bridges and highways were still closed to traffic. Hence, I returned to FF to retrieve a bag of documents that I had left there the other day, when the lack of transportation prevented me from taking with me my impressive photocopying crop. The building was closed but the guard let me retrieve my papers, after I signed in. Returning by foot to RU, 25 streets uptown, on the 1st Avenue, which was closed to traffic in front of the evacuated UN Building, I passed the 59th Street Food emporium, which reminded me that I should buy some food since RU remained closed. It was very awkward to watch all that multitude of upscale food sitting still, as very few people went shopping. The main thrill though came from finding a local newspaper, since the New York Times had sold out, all over 1st Avenue.
As I began to read the first written accounts of the 19 hijackers, I was particularly struck by the biography of Mohamed Atta of Cairo, (or one of only three hijackers not originating in Saudi Arabia) especially since it resembled an imaginary interlocutor which I devised for an eighth grade project, concluding two years of studying Arabic. (on top of the official Hebrew, English as a second language, with French and Romanian as a familial legacy) My project revolved around writing a letter in Arabic to an imaginary middle school interlocutor, since at that time, Israel had not concluded peace, as yet, with any of the Arab countries. Since I was always fascinated by Egyptian history, as the "other", against which Moses created monotheism as a major innovation in world religions (I first saw de Mille’s magnificent film in the 8th grade), I addressed my letter to an Egyptian middle school student named Mohamed. The imagined interlocutor in my project letter, for which I proudly received the top grade of 10, much as M. Atta, had nice parents and siblings, while also planning to study science or engineering. For a moment, I wondered whether M. Atta could have been my imaginary pen pal, but since I have never had the chance to visit Egypt, perhaps renowned writer Vivian Gornick might be better able to comment on the baffling familiarity of knowing someone whose biography resembles a notorious hijacker’s. After all, her book In search of Ali Mahmood details her search for a real, rather than an imaginary, Egyptian interlocutor.
Having bought the newspaper, a French baguette, and an improvised Mediteranean breakfast of feta cheese, olives, and tomatoes, I continued my way on the 1st Avenue until I saw signs asking for blood type O. (or "universal donor" type; both plus and minus Rh were mentioned) So, I went instead to the central blood bank on 67th street, after consulting with Jay E., a biomedical scientist whose paper on the molecular biology of acute myocardic infarction, the cause of death for my father, at a conference held in Woods Hole’s Marine Biological Laboratory (hereafter MBL) three weeks earlier, greatly impressed me as a biomedical advance that might have saved my father’s life, had it been available in the mid-1980s. He was on duty at nearby Cornell-Columbia Medical Center, and I sought his opinion as to whether I should go to RU’s own collection center instead. Indeed, the blood bank had exceeded its collecting capacity for the day, sp those with blood type O were given red tickets to come back on another day. I felt privileged to be type O, especially since other volunteers were not even asked to return.
Finally, it dawned on me that since I had no more places to go to, nor could I do so even if I had where to go since the closure of bridges continued, I could consider myself as being stranded on the empty streets of mid-town NYC, suddenly having all of NYC to myself. This unexpected intimacy with NYC was strange since for a long time I have been slow to grasp that NYC is "the place to be". For example, during my two years as an exchange graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, I never "made it" to NYC, even though it took only 1.5 hour by train. To some extent, NYC’s magnetic pull on one of my friends at U. Penn can be said to be indirectly responsible for my marrying another U. Penn graduate student, Alan F.; we met at a wine and cheese student party, to which I went alone, because in the last moment, my projected companion, could not resist yet another weekend among her NYC friends. Ironically, the first time I finally made it to NYC was in order to get a Canadian visa, once I decided to relocate my Ph.D. to the University of Montreal. Indeed, my first extended stay in NYC came at the end of my first year as a doctoral student in Montreal, when I came to participate in a conference at the New York Academy of Sciences. (hereafter NYAS). Though throughout the years I came to NYC on several occasions, most notably as a RAC researcher, I have never been there more than a week, each time.
This previous modest familiarity was seriously upgraded in the spring of 2001, when two, longer term fellowships at RAC gave me a better chance for a "close encounter" with NYC. Like others coming from smaller countries or cities, I experienced NYC as a magic place that enabled one to experience personal freedom, largely, though not entirely, through its bliss of anonymity—a much sought after experience by those coming from less anonymous environments, where people tend to be close to each other, perhaps even too close, thus threatening the aimless student I had been, with the frightening prospects of social conformity. By contrast, the enormity and anonymity of NYC ensured one’s freedom for a personalized life and lifestyle. But on that Wednesday, September 12, I had to come to terms with the fact that instead of being a speaker or the centerpiece of a staff gathering at RAC, I had no choice but to remain in a street empty NYC. This essentially meant RU’s golden cage, confined to its guest house and library where I finally found a copy of the New York Times. Later I was gratified to learn that my improvised activities were actually in line with the official advice distributed on TV by disaster specialists, namely "to keep informed, contact one’s immediate network of family and friends, and return to one’s work routine".
Luckily, I had a cellular phone, one of the star telecommunication technologies during the 9/11/01 disaster, which was instrumental in letting many people contact their close ones, including some who later perished in the collapsing Towers or crashing airplanes. Thus, I was able to contact my immediate family in Boston, (hubby Alan and sister Aviva L.) and even hear the sweet voice of my 15 year old daughter, Estee, who told me that Belmont High School let its students watch TV coverage of the disaster , under teacher supervision. However, her friend’s mother knew one of the three Belmont residents who were on the AA11 to LA but crashed into the North Tower. I also reached by phone my nephew Edan, a sophomore at Hofstra University on Long Island, NY, who reported that two of their students had job interviews at WTC on 9/11/01; one of them slept late and hence survived. He did not hesitate to draw for me the morale of the story, adding that a member of their Board of Trustees was also missing at WTC, and that he and his student friends saw it all from their classrooms and dorms.
The few colleagues and friends that I knew in NYC remained consumed by checking on their own relations and significant others. For example, my best friend Hannah S. told me that the Director of the Port Authority, Neil L., who perished in the crash, was a close friend of her brother. She also knew a co-worker whose son went to WTC for a job interview on 9/11/01. Because she works for a public organization, NYC’s Board of Jewish Education, Hannah knew many people who lost someone; moreover, many came to her house to seek comfort since her grace and generosity, delightful disposition, and training in psychology, including psychodrama, were widely valued. Even before she confirmed that her house was mobbed, I knew that many others had stronger claims on her attention. Yet, another close friend from my time at U. Penn, Aram S., whose son Joel, a sophomore at New York University, (hereafter NYU) was an occasional companion for my experimental theatre going in the Village, was worried about NYU’s proximity to "ground zero". A French couple, Loudovic T. and his wife Anne-Marie, visiting RAC from Rouen, with whom I was supposed to have dinner that evening, could not be located since I left their number in my office at RAC. I did not know my other NYC friends long enough or well enough to contemplate meeting them at such a time. Being stranded totally alone was very frustrating, not only because of technicalities such as knowing very few people or having no mobility, but because the unusual disaster occurred in a social world dominated by a cult of privacy which has made people both unable and unwilling to easily relate to each other, let alone to a relative stranger who might be better suited to help under unusual circumstances.
This is why I refrained from joining the only communal activity that came to my attention, namely a march for peace announced for 5pm on 5th avenue. Besides this general reason, I also had a more specific reason, since a few weeks earlier, I attended the public hearing into Sloan Kettering Memorial (hereafter SKM) cancer hospital’s proposal to build a new research tower. (held in RU’s Caspari Auditorium, just next to my room in RU’s Guest House) As someone who lost her mother to cancer as a child, I listened with disbelief to passionate objections before the zoning Board, in the name of arguments such as parking, or projected congestion in a local park of a residential area where each unit is valued at a couple of millions of $. It seemed to me that the "community" around 66th Street was somewhat removed from reality. It was further infuriating that the most eloquent speakers took the "community position" against the research tower, while turning away from me at RU’s gate, once they learned of my refusal to support their position. Sadly, the pro-research position was often represented by arrogant scientists and physicians, who took it for granted that no one could possibly contest their priorities. An 80 year old feisty resident, Miriam H. best expressed my views, when she stated that even though physicians and scientists were career minded jerks, they were still the only ones who might save lives, and "before you can have quality of life, you must have life".
I was so moved by the public hearing, which began at 7 p.m. and continued past midnight, with two dozen individuals speaking very eloquently for both the pro and con positions, as a display of democracy in action, that I contemplated writing an ethnography, even promising a copy to the journalist spouse of a colleague at RAC, Maria S. from Spain. But shortly after the public hearing, I became busy with preparing my talk at RAC, rescheduled from 9/12 to 9/25, and later published in Nature Reviews-Molecular Cell Biology, (hereafter NR-MCB) January 2002. Eventually, the 9/11 calamity made everything else obsolete, counting among the losses it entailed my projected ethnography of the public hearing on rezoning for the SKM research tower.
On Thursday morning, 9/13/01, RU and the transportation system reopened, so I took the Lexington subway line from 68th Street to Grand Central terminal to connect to the Hudson Line commuter train. I spent a good part of the day replying to e-mails, but it soon became obvious that a brief reply confirming my well being, just won’t do. This is when I first began drafting a more detailed, collective response by e-mail. Toward the end of the day, upon accidentally hearing from RAC’s Director that the university might close again on Friday because of President Bush’s projected visit to "ground zero", I was so determined to avoid another experience of being stranded, that I decided on the spot to change my plans and clear out of NYC, as soon as possible. So, upon meeting my friend Hannah at the end of the day, near the Grand Central terminal, we both agreed that if Manhattan will close again to traffic during Bush’s visit on Friday, it is best that I return to Boston immediately, rather than visiting with her, as previously planned.
Hannah was my best roommate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (hereafter HUJ) and we owe our long term friendship to HUJ’s Housing Office authorities, which brought us together as part of HUJ’s policy to mix local and foreign students. Though Hannah is a sabra, or Israeli born, her family left for New York to seek medical help for her mother’s rare lung disease when she was about 10 year old; so, she was classified as a foreign student, when she returned years later, as an English speaking graduate student. Since Hannah left for New York at the same age that I arrived to Israel, we used to say that our lives exemplify the "law of the conservation of energy" or rather the law of the conservation of energetic girls. As a science student, I knew not only this law but also the unwritten rule that a foreign roommate was a source of problems, since they did not speak Hebrew and tended to study light subjects which allowed a lot of time of socializing and tourism. Having already used a request for "exemption from foreign students" on a previous year, I reached a compromise with the housing office in my senior year, which meant that my roommate could be a foreign student, but only a graduate student. This is how I got to meet Hannah. Hopefully, one day when we become rich and famous, I will repay my debt to the housing office with a hefty donation for student residences that create long lasting friendships.
A veteran New Yorker, Hannah knew how to zigzag across streets blocked by police, so to crosstown from Grand Central in the East to Penn Station in the West. She deposited me there just in time for the 7 p.m. fast train to Boston. To my relief, I was able to get a seat on the Acela Express (a new train which no longer changes engines in New Haven...), eventually reaching Boston around 11p.m. Upon getting off at the Back Bay Station, where Alan came to pick me up, we passed by Copley Plaza, where earlier that day a massive police search was conducted at the Westin Hotel. The hotel was mainly known to me as the site of the 2001 meeting of the American Historical Association (hereafter AHA). During the convention, in January 2001, neither I, nor my visitor colleague from Bologna University, Giuliana G., would have anticipated that Westin, much as Days Inn near Harvard’s stadium, Park Inn near Boston College, and the Milner Hotel in downtown Boston, would acquire notoriety as the terrorists’ residences of choice the night before the crash.
On Friday morning more phone calls arrived inquiring about my whereabouts that week in NYC, almost all from far away, and ironically, from places such as Jerusalem, while inverting the direction of concern for safety that has prevailed for so long. One of my first steps was to claim refunds for a bunch of airline tickets that I had accumulated but which I do not plan to use until the numerous security breaches at Boston’s Logan Airport are fixed. Logan’s negligence made me feel as if I had unknowingly been part of some Russian roullette scheme. The new Acela express train, though not quite a TGV (French high speed trains) has become my favorite way of traveling to NYC.
The world inside and outside the US has definitely changed since September 11th. For me, it brought to an end months of aerial commuting, as I remain determined to avoid Logan Airport, the site of so much Massport corruption, and the taking off point of origin for the largest number of hijackers. Furthermore, I am not keen to fly above "ground zero" instead of circling above the Twin Towers. The sense of freedom and adventure, previously associated with flying is gone for the time being. Airports have improved their security but air travel is no longer fun. So far, I have been able to avoid flying, not only because NYC is by now well accessible by Acela, (which deserves its own place under the sun as a fabulous high tech train) but also because two major conventions, 4S and AAAS were held in Boston. Skipping HSS in Denver was not too bad, especially since a year earlier I skipped the annual meeting in Vancouver, for reasons unrelated to global terrorism. Flying in July 2001 to ICHS in Mexico City, and to a conference on private foundations in Amalfi, Italy via London, Rome, Naples, and Geneva, (the latter two by train) still remains a respectable record for my travel in 2001. Hopefully, I will resume flying late in May 2002 when I am scheduled to give lectures in Scandinavia, but cannot contemplate flying from either Boston or NYC. Perhaps, Montreal, which saved my skin once before, when I had to escape from Philadelphia, will be my new solution?!
In the aftermath of 9/11, preventing such spectacular disasters from repeating themselves became the centerpiece of any conversation, indeed of national policy. Two aspects of such prevention became prominent, namely, 1) increasing security in airports and on planes; and 2) dealing with the root causes of the 9/11, especially the so-called "civilizations clash" between Western democracy, symbolized by the US as the only remaining Super-Power; and the Islamic theocracy, symbolized by Taliban, Al Queda, and their sponsors in many countries, especially Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both US allies who have since cut off their relationships with the Taliban, and are presumed to be cooperating in the capturing of Al Queda operatives.
My own initial response, which to my delight was also shared by my favorite TV critical journalists, Ted Kopel & Bill Maher, focused on the need to supply airplanes with double cockpit-doors of the sort used in El Al planes to good effect for more than two decades. This relatively simple measure, (such doors prevent entry from the cabine to the cockpit) ensure that even if a plane is hijacked, still, it cannot be turned into a flying missile by commandeering the pilots. To this day, this crucial solution has not been widely adopted, as the airlines, which were hard hit by the sharp decline in air travel, do not wish to install such special doors. The key solution prevailing so far was to enhance the surveillance in airports, by increasing the number of security personnel, and upgrading the standards of those who check the security of hand luggage. There is a whole new industry on increased airport security but as several incidents have since indicated, loopholes still abound. Nevertheless, by comparison with the very lax system prevailing prior to 9/11, when the level of security available in airports was mainly determined by considerations of airline profits and Massport patronage, the current situation is a great improvement.
The more challenging aspect of prevention involves #2, namely how to defuse the resentment felt by a disoriented class of young Muslims educated in the West, yet unable to find suitable positions in their countries of origin because the autocratic regimes in power, either do not allow dissent, as in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, or use theocracy as a staple of their autocratic rule, as in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
My potential contribution to the 2nd dimenion is to develop an operational framework for an international technoscience corps, to be deployed in countries undergoing rapid change, in order to smooth the globalization process, as well as fill the cultural vacuum between the only two forms of leadership that are available in such countries, namely the autocratic and the theocratic. Modelled on success stories, such as "doctors without borders", an international technoscience corps, to be named "technoscientists for global advancement" could provide a new future for the new generation in developing countries. I hope to have an opportunity to implement the two following ideas, as part of such an international initiative.
Comments and suggestions, including your own thoughts on issues raised by 9/11/01, are very welcome, and may be sent to the above e-mails. I expect to activate my new web site around the Ides of March, so to include this account as part of its 9/11/01 link.