Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ten years ago - 9-11

Ten years ago .... That day, I awoke late, off to the 42nd floor of the Conde Nast Building from across the twin towers, in an apartment rented in NewPort, New Jersey. I was sleep deprived all the time in those days. Trying to tackle that second draft of a doctoral dissertation sometime between midnight and 7 or 9 am in the morning when work started again at Skadden, Arps. By the time I got outside my apartment building, evacuations in the buildings around me had already begun... I was late, it was after 9am.

I went straight into the subway station and had the choice of taking either train on most mornings (one went straight into the world trade center, the other to the 33rd street station). This morning I was told that I could not take the one heading into the world trade center. I saw shock on most faces around me, heads shaking, folks trying to figure out what was going on. I had no coffee in me yet (and I ran on it in those days)... but I quickly came to, perked up at the sounds of 'terrorism'. Thinking this was normal New York paranoia, I scoffed and started to ask questions... until screaming started and more bodies streamed into the subway, fearing that the roads outside were not safe. "Another plane", something serious was going on and people needed help. We were not safe. Planes had been flying into buildings. I could not make out if there were misdirected small aircraft (to my mind, these often crashed) that had accidentally fallen or exactly what was going on. As I pieced together the actual threat... I wanted to get on a train and get into work before I could not move anywhere. This was the last train that left that station to 33rd station. Once I got on it, the subways all shut down and nothing could go into, or come out of Manhattan.

When I got up above, complete pandemonium greeted me... people were running in streams through the streets, and lining up at phone booths. I began to cry... and flashed back to a childhood in which bombs went off all around and we huddled into bomb shelters in the backyards at home and at my Aunt's house in Jammu (in the midst of the India/Pakistan war over Kashmir). There was no way to make any sense of this... then or now. When I got to our building on 42nd street, an evacuation was already under way, but I went straight up to my floor anyway. I thought it was the safest place. Having understood better the threat and knowing that the two tallest buildings in the world had been slaughtered taking with them all they contained and all that surrounded them, I thought statistically, it was unlikely we would be hit... my assistant and others around us, were glued to news channels and tried to piece together all that went on. Soon we came to hear two more planes were headed for and crashed short of targets in DC. Brenda, my assistant, also a photographer, took the photos from our perch... while we all filed into a partner's office directly overlooking the tragic undoing/crumbling of the towers as each one slowly fell in a pile of smoke.

All air traffic had now been stopped everywhere. All flights canceled... no chances would be taken now till security could be assured. All planes were a danger. The second set of planes should never have taken off. But like me, authorities were having difficulty facing an invisible enemy. It was attacking without notice (allegedly, as it appears the CIA had some knowledge but like the SEC with Madoff and other cases, did not act on information). Suddenly there were some helicopters and jets flying outside our windows and we frightened that another one was coming for our building. We rushed to the windows to know the truth (prepared for anything on a morning capable of unimaginable atrocity). Fighter jets circled to ensure our safety and helicopters surveyed the city to assess damage and understand the state of the things.

I phoned my children who were at our home just outside Boston(having been sent home from school) with my mother who was minding them. Friends called from all around the world to check in and make sure I was okay. What became more apparent in these conversations was that there was a targeted attack with particular goals, the first two those towers. But others unfolding before our eyes.

That day, I grew more and more afraid for my children, because of the terrible realization that there was a Boston/New York connection here. These planes were the ones I was taking most every week back and forth between these two cities while I worked at Skadden. I remember Brenda and I looked at each other, and she indicated I could easily have been on one of those planes coming in from Boston. What was even scarier Osama Bin Laden's family apparently lived in and around Boston, and rumors of possible poisoning of water around Boston were circulating. My children were scared and I was not with them. Not a good situation. I stayed with a colleague that evening in Manhattan, we did not sleep. We were glued to the TV for news and went out to greet restaurant owners and others in the middle of the night... it seemed no one could sleep and everyone needed community. The stench from the explosions, the tragedy, the brutal attack/act filled the air, and worry, pain and sadness was palpable in all the spaces between.

At some point that night, I made a decision to leave, and not return to work until I was ready. I simply needed to leave. I thought it was not good for me to stay in this place, and that I must be with my children. So at noon when the subway opened up, I got on, and did not look back. I knew that roads heading out of NYC would be clogged. But I made my way back to Newport, NJ, and to the nearest rent a car and drove without stopping till I got home to our place (few people knew actually existed) surrounded by 8 acres of woods. And there, I felt safe and able to breathe again. And my children and I, and my mom talked and cried, and worried and pained together about this catastrophe. Knowing full well from our time in Kashmir, that these things, these terrible, irreconcilable things happen, across all borders, boundaries, breaching all of our understanding of security and trust. Kashmiri Pandits, and all real Kashmiris (Muslim and Hindu) had been violated by and dealing with these same mercenary forces of terrorism coming over and disrupting life and killing the Hindus (I lost 3 family members to this same hatred in Srinagar) and now it had made its way here to the U.S., a place we thought so removed from this violence, taxing imagination. How, when, why did this conspiracy start? Fundamental to human history and action are cycles. What cycle(s) of action and reaction did this shock belong?

I also understood in tearful frustration that no law firm, no lawyer, no law can stop this from happening. And if there was anything that began my quest to try to understand and learn why, how and what our regulating and enforcing systems of rules are about, it was the fact that I originated in the cradle of such violence in Kashmir. And here I was on the precipice of completing my doctorate but no closer to understanding how I could do something about it. The damage was done and being done all around me and I along with the world stood helpless against it.

I realized that in that most vulnerable moment, when all has been lost, we can only recreate and rebuild by regrouping into each other, into family and into community, with love and care, nothing else. One brick at a time, one namaste at a time, one handshake at a time, one hug at a time, the tears must be shed, and shed, so that changes can occur in each one of us, in our families and in our communities to help us deal with the shock of this horror. The ripples of that love and care will not only transcend and honor those lost, and the losses we bear, but also forge the foundations of a new transformative trust capable of rebuilding the systems needed to change the nature of humanity so that such hatred (an unnecessary crutch for our insecurities) is amputated from the wholeness of our being.

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