Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Nineeleven, a new chapter

Combing through my hard drive today, I stumbled onto this little essay that I wrote in September 2002, in preparation for the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. I was just a 30-year-old lad, working as an English editor for the communications department in Kiev, Ukraine. I've copied and pasted the essay below, in its unedited entirety. Very interesting to read now in light of the reported death of Osama bin Laden.

nineeleven (c) Keith MacKenzie, Sept. 4, 2002

Anyone will tell you that September 11th ranks right up there with the JFK assassination as one of the prime “Where were you that day?” moments. It’s no different for me – only that my story doesn’t entail hearing about it on the phone from a friend and then running madly to the TV to suddenly witness that horrible scene of impending doom; the second airplane slamming into the second tower and a beautiful, surreal ball of flame spewing out like in the latest Die Hard or Rambo flick.

I missed all this because I was on an airplane at the time the world changed.

That summer, I had secured myself an internship position as an information assistant with the United Nations Development Programme in Kiev, Ukraine. I had spent the night in Budapest on September 10th on a flight stopover from Toronto, woke up on the 11th when it was only dawn in New York City and still nighttime on the West Coast. Mildly hungover after a long beer session and an intense conversation on the Palestinian question with an Israeli backpacker and a Swiss Red Cross worker in a spartan Hungarian restaurant near our hostel, I put my bags together and headed off to the airport to catch my plane which left at 2:05 PM Budapest time – which would be 8:05 AM in New York City.

I spent nearly two hours in the air, talking with two Ukrainian women who sat next to me – of course, while we were up there in the “friendly” skies, we had no idea what was happening on Earth down below. We touched down at about 4:40 PM Ukraine time – which would be 9:40 AM in New York. Even when I set foot on Ukrainian soil for the first time, the world to me was surreal only because I was in a new country with a new language and a new job.

Flight 11 out of Boston hit the south tower at 8:45 AM New York time. Flight 175 out of Boston as well hit the north tower at 9:03 AM New York time. You can do the math. I was up there, in the skies, when the world suddenly went through a violent personality transplant.

A representative from the UN picked me up at the airport and took me straight to our office building in downtown Kiev – later, he told me that at that time all he had heard was that a “terrible plane accident” had happened in New York City, and then he had to head out to the airport to meet me. When we arrived at the office, we went to the Information Department where I’d be working, and there were at least twenty Ukrainians all standing around a television – some with looks of horror on their faces, some looking stoic, many simply not believing what they were seeing. On the TV, there was the familiar New York City as seen from the other side of the water, with great unfamiliar plumes of smoke and concrete and “TERROR IN AMERICA” emblazoned across the bottom of the screen – this was BBC reporting.

Now, I was already reeling from the fact that I was in Ukraine, in the old Soviet Union – who thought my day would have become even more surreal? But indeed. The first thing I ever said to my new boss was something along the lines of “What the heck is going on?” And seeing as this was a time where no one was sure was going on, she told me fantastic tales of how eleven airplanes had been hijacked and planes were crashing all over America, into the White House, the Pentagon, the Twin Towers of course, and Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of people had died, she said - fifty thousand in the Twin Towers alone. The war had begun.

My immediate reaction? Nothing, really – how do you react to something like that? It’s not something that you know how to react to, because something like this has never happened before to us younger folks. Our grandparents had Pearl Harbour. Our parents had, I suppose, JFK, RFK, Vietnam, what have you. And now our generation has its own special day. But although we were an envious generation, feeling as if our generation had been forgotten, squeezed in between the baby boomers and the children of the baby boomers, we did not expect such a date to be so rudely thrust upon us.

It was as if some fellow said, “Fine, you want something to remember your generation by? Well, HERE!” and suddenly smacking us across the face, and delivering a sharp Tyson uppercut that we’d be reeling from for years to come.

Later that evening, I found myself in a dark hotel room on the 18th floor, alone in a strange country. My head was still buzzing from the adrenaline. What to do? Aha – I’ll turn on the television and see what the heck’s going on there in New York. Perhaps there’ll be a channel in English and I’ll learn some more about it. I saw endless takes of that second airplane going into the second tower, of the towers collapsing, of New Yorkers walking around like zombies who had just woken up, covered in concrete dust, many covered in blood, sweat and tears. But none of these channels were in English – I saw the same thing in many different languages; Ukrainian, Russian, German, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian, Hebrew, French, Italian, Arabic even.

This was all straight out of a movie – a young Canadian lad, twenty nine years of age, sitting on a wooden chair in front of a television on the eighteenth floor of an old Soviet hotel in Eastern Europe, far away from any of his friends and family. And I realized I was hungry and thirsty, so I went down to the hotel bar for some food and drink. I’m not a smoker, but that day, I bought a pack of Marlboros and started puffing away, watching the television in the bar, consuming beer after beer, eating food, smoking, and making stunted conversation in Russian with three Ukrainian businessmen next to me, one of whom turned out to be the manager of the Dynamo Kiev soccer team - the equivalent of meeting the GM of the local NHL team in a bar hours before a big game. How much more surreal could it get?

One of them pulled out a US$100 bill and pretended to tear it between his fingers, as a statement about what was going on. I wonder to this day whether he meant that the U.S. dollar was now worthless, or more that this was a statement against the U.S. system. It was earlier that evening when I tried to change my U.S. dollars into the local currency, only to be turned away five or six times before finally agreeing to an exchange rate much lower than the norm – of course, this was because of September 11th.

My own impressions? They didn’t sink in until a few days later – I found myself having more faith in the world rather than less faith in the world. Sure, the world had suddenly become a lot scarier for a few days, with no one knowing exactly what was going to happen. But my faith was that we had learned something - we had learned how to get better, not to get even. When there was very little military response from the United States or any of the other countries during the first few weeks afterwards, this is what went through my mind. Perhaps we’ve learned from our past mistakes during WW2, Vietnam and other mad wars, and not to take retaliation for such deeds.

But now, I find my faith has dropped far lower than it ever has before. As a 30 year old, I see my future as a Canadian more or less secure, but I see the world’s future being decided by a bunch of elderly cronies bent on forcing their ideologies on others – who of Arafat, Sharon, Bush or bin Laden are under sixty years of age? Who of them will be alive when I’m in my mature years? I only hope that I don’t find myself or my future children in the midst of a another terrible war, but this reality seems far starker than it did before September 11th.


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