9/11: Far and Near

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I was in South Korea when 9/11 happened. It was my friend’s birthday, and we were at the bar celebrating, wondering when our two American friends were going to show up. South Korea is a full 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST), the time zone that NYC falls into. So, it was around 10pm, we were drinking really crappy Hite beers, and then Charysse and Peter walk in and we say “Where have you been?”

And they say “A couple of planes just crashed into the World Trade Centre!”

And we were all like “What?! Seriously?” So we watched a bit of what was on the small TV attached to the wall of the bar, in awe and really just  amazed at the crashes, and carried on drinking and partying. We had absolutely no clue at that point what was going on.

And then we went home around 1am and turned on CNN.

For the next 24hours, every hour, CNN came up with different tag lines to the event, all versions of each other, never able to decide on a clear winner: America Under Attack, America at War, War on America, Attack on America….you get the picture.

Since it was unclear who was yet responsible, North Korea was in the running as a suspect. And since South Korea and North Korea were, and are, still technically at war, there was widespread panic and security measures. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea was on knife’s edge, both sides preparing to respond from an attack from the other–and remember, North Korea has nuclear weapons. South Korea’s military were all on high alert. Seoul, which is a massive city and the capital of South Korea and very close to the DMZ, was in a panic. There are several US military bases in South Korea, and they were all on lockdown to start, then on a 9pm curfew, but also always on high alert. We were all literally expecting the attacks to continue on the Korean peninsula.

However, it didn’t stop many of us from going out and partying the next weekend in Pusan. Things were better in the clubs, because the rowdy and obnoxious US soldiers weren’t there due to the curfew. We were naively happy about it. New York City and the attacks were literally on the other side of the world. We were freaked out, but when it was clear that North Korea was not responsible, the panic subsided, curfews were lifted and life went on as normal. The only international news we got was CNN, and it was so engulfed in the attacks and in support of Bush that the bias was a turnoff. There was a desire for balanced reporting, and remember, George W. Bush was not popular before the attacks. I saw this as Bush’s big chance to regain power and popularity off the backs of a crisis, and it annoyed me.

None of this is to say that I had no sympathy for the lives lost, or believed it was all OK. It wasn’t. My sister lives in Boston, where one of the flights originated from, and she was supposed to be travelling on September 12…it very easily could have been her in that plane on the 11th if her meeting had been scheduled just one day earlier. She lost colleagues in the attacks. New colleagues arrived in South Korea later that year, and one was from NYC, and he had lost friends too. It’s just that as with anything that happens on the other side of the world, and that did not directly impact my everyday life aside from the first couple days post-attack, life went on as normal.

Also, when things happen in a place you’ve never been or never seen, except on TV, well, it is that much easier to not relate. Think of the global, faraway tragedies you watch unfold in the news….how often is more thought given after the report is over, or the channel changed, if you are unable to relate?

I was in NYC for the first time ever this past August. On my second day I rented a bike and rode over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, following the Hudson River Greenway along the water. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I stopped near Battery Park. It was a busy lunch hour. Workers sought the sun for their lunchtime, and tourists lounged on patios and benches and grass. Looking at my map I realized how close I was to the 9/11 memorial, and I contemplated a visit. Looking in that direction, I only saw swarms of people near and around the area of the memorial, and decided against it. I could see that I would not have the solitude and space for reflection that I want when visiting places like that.

I looked up at the One World Trade Center tower. I looked back down at the people.

In that moment I realized how terrifying it must have been. To be scurrying to work in this neighbourhood, grabbing your morning coffee, riding your bike, jogging, doing your job as a city worker, a cabbie, a cop, to hear and see planes crashing and the buildings fall and the fire and the smoke and the terror. Standing there among those people, I realized just how absolutely horrific that day had been. The other side of the world and the TV reports came together inside of me, and all I could see and hear and feel was the terror.



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