At a recent seminar at King’s College London (KCL), author and Central Asia expert Ahmed Rashid painted a gloomy picture of the prospect for Western success in Afghanistan. In 2008 Rashid had already made these views on the subject clear in Descent into Chaos, a catalogue of criticisms against US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001, and his growing disillusionment with his once-close friend, President Hamid Karzai.
On the morning of 9/11, I woke up to the sound of my roommate yelling from the living room of our apartment. Two planes had just hit the World Trade Center towers. I quickly absorbed the images on television, gathered my things and headed to the scene. On the way to the subway, I bumped into a couple of Columbia Journalism School classmates. While we rode the train, we tried to figure out how this could have happened. I do not recall that terrorism immediately registered on our minds. The subways were not going all the way down to Lower Manhattan so we had to walk or run dozens of blocks. Seventh Avenue was eerily quiet. Crowds huddled around vehicles to listen to news bulletins over the radio. There were reports of possible attacks on Washington, and the Pentagon. I do not recall there was a lot of panic at that moment – more confusion and disbelief.
I arrived at Columbia as green as can be, fresh out of college and wholly unprepared for a news story as transcendent as the 11 September terrorist attacks. Yet I also knew enough to realize that I simply had to be part of the coverage. Within an hour of a second plane striking the World Trade Center, I was in downtown Manhattan, interviewing rattled and soot-covered survivors as they streamed north. I spent the next week with emergency workers who had arrived from around the country to assist their New York counterparts; interviewing Pakistani immigrants in Jackson Heights, Queens who suddenly felt under suspicion; and speaking with grief-stricken relatives who came forward with toothbrushes in hopes of a DNA match that could identify the remains of their loved ones.
I stood in the hall, watching the screen in the auditorium. News channels were retailing a forlorn hope that the plane crash into the World Trade Center might have been an accident. There was talk of a pilot being blinded by the early morning sun. “Nope”, came the voice beside me. “Terrorism”. Steeled by five years living in Israel, my friend Caryn knew it instantly. Unprepared by a carefree Australian upbringing, I struggled to grasp it. These things just did not happen in the safety of western democracies, let alone on home soil for the globe’s dominant superpower.
After American Airlines Flight 11 hit the first tower, I jumped in the shower. At the time, I had no way of knowing this was a terrorist attack. It looked like a tragic accident. So I set about starting my day, which was to include a trip to Harlem to cover the mayoral primary. That all changed when my roommate screamed. I could hear her from the bathroom. A second plane had hit the second tower. She was watching the events unfold on television from our apartment on the Upper West Side, and she was sobbing.
When you are 16, you know everything. You know how to wear your makeup just-so, you know how to drive, how to sneak out of the house, how to flirt with boys and how to ace pre-calculus exams. And you know that if a plane crashes into a New York City high rise, it can only be a pilot error, an accident. Before 7:55 a.m. Central Standard Time on 11 September 2001, I had never heard the word “terrorist”. At least I had never heard it and understood that it could have any relevance in my own life.
Like so many New Yorkers who lived through 11 September 2001, my first memory of that day is the sky. Blue, beautiful, so clear you could spot the smallest of pigeons. It was a big day, that Tuesday. It was the mayoral primary: since the Class of 2002 had entered Columbia at the beginning of August, most of our stories grappled with the challenges that would face the new mayor of New York City. To the joy of many residents of Longwood, the section of the South Bronx I covered, term limits were about to boot Rudolph Giuliani out of office. The Republican was tough on crime, but this policy had a price. Aggressive policing had alienated many residents of the South Bronx.