English: World Trade Center, New York, aerial ...

English: World Trade Center, New York, aerial view March 2001. Français : Le World Trade Center à New York. Vue aérienne datant de mars 2001. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


            “I’ll tell you what, I’m glad I’m not one of those poor bastards in New York.”

            That was how my September 11th began a dozen years ago today.  Not the day itself, but the experience the world has come to know simply as 9/11, the most infamous day in the modern history of the Western World and a day that was about to change our lives, our entire civilization, forever.

            It was a Tuesday morning and I was working at the downtown smoke shop I’d been managing since the previous spring.  I’d killed the store’s stereo earlier (it barely worked anyway) when the shop’s owner, a grossly overweight convicted drug dealer who took pride in his ex-con status (a tasty morsel I had not yet discovered, but that’s a story for another time) had come in, working himself up into one of his regular temper tantrums and strutting like he was Ottawa’s version of Tony Soprano.  One of my regular customers had come in to purchase his daily package of coffin nails and over the course of our typical early morning conversation he spoke the aforementioned sentence.  My first thought was that somehow a Cessna or other similarly small aircraft had somehow flown into one of the massive towers’ and was probably smeared across its side like a bug on a giant windshield.  The shop’s owner said that was a sight he wanted to see (if there was anything other than screaming that the Neanderthal was addicted to, it was human suffering) so I hooked the shop’s ancient computer up to the phone jack to see what news the Internet had to offer.  My first clue that something big was happening was that the first site I tried had crashed from enormous traffic.  So had the second.  Unable to immediately satisfy his appetite for bloodshed and tragedy, the owner grew bored and left.  As soon as his car pulled out of the parking lot, I turned the radio on hungry for news.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The radio was tuned to 106.9 The Bear, and it was no more than a minute or two after I hit the stereo’s power button that a shaken voice broke into the music and announced a second plane had crashed into the opposite tower.  Ottawa’s self-proclaimed best rock station was an all-news one for the rest of the day.

            Once news broke that a second passenger jet had crashed into the World trade Center, there was little doubt this was some kind of an attack, but short of that, no one knew anything.  My stereo cut in and out, the rising sun messing with it’s reception, and most of the web sites I tried desperate for information were down or my dinosaur of a computer was taking forever to log on because of the traffic.  It turned out that was just as well, whatever was passing for news that day was little more than speculation and rumour.  Most of the information I gathered was from Ebay, where I spoke with sellers and buyers alike for most of the day, swapping what little info we had, offering support and even condolences when necessary.  I didn’t have a lot of customers that Tuesday, but what few I did have shared a nugget or two of info as well, most of it cheap gossip.  All of Manhattan was covered by clouds of ash and smoke, both Towers had collapsed, the death toll was a quarter of a million people, the Pentagon was on fire, the White House was under attack; it would be days before anything resembling actual information was available.  But by that afternoon, downtown Ottawa was completely empty, most of its businesses had closed up shop because of the absolute absence of customers (unless you counted the police patrolling the streets or the fully armed Marines stationed in front of the American embassy).  I didn’t see the infamous pictures of the jet liners slamming into those impossibly high towers until I got home, and I have to admit, to this day I still flinch whenever I see them.  The pictures of people hurling themselves off the Center’s roofs to escape the inferno’s hungry flames, choosing suicide over being burned to death, cost me some sleep as well.  But the one image that disturbed me the most, that troubled me to the centre of my being, was of the first responders after the Towers finally failed and collapsed.  My father was a firefighter for thirty years and the images of exhausted New York firefighters walking out of the toxic cloud the Towers had vomited up as they died, covered in ghostly ash, their faces wet with tears as the horrible knowledge that hundreds of their friends and brothers had been buried alive set in, those images will haunt me for the rest of my days on this Earth.

            I had a history teacher tell me once that the entire planet was now a village, and in some way or another, we’re all now connected; the infamous six degrees of separation.  If I hadn’t learned that lesson before, I learned it that week.  I talked away a number of afternoons in the shop with a gentleman from Phoenix who’d been in Ottawa on business.  With all commercial air traffic grounded following the attacks, he found himself literally trapped here and many of the lines of communication we take for granted were swamped, cutting him off from his family and isolating him even more.  I was more than happy to offer him a free cigar or two and be his sounding board.  It was all I could really do.  The week before 9/11, I’d sold a specialty Zippo lighter to a Port Authority worker in Florida on Ebay.  Following the attacks, he and I briefly became digital pen pals; he was working 24-hour shifts and he didn’t have any family.  He confided in me that for those few days, even though I was thousands of miles away, I was the only one he had to talk to.  Then Prime Minister Jean Chretien declared the following Friday an official day of mourning in Canada, and that afternoon thousands of people descended on Parliament Hill to honour New York’s fallen, singing the American national anthem at the height of the ceremonies.  Shortly after the mid-day vigil concluded, an American couple who’d been touring Canada in their RV came into the shop looking for relief from the persistent summer sun.  They, like my friend from Phoenix, were trapped in a friendly yet foreign land while their own wounded country grieved.  The only thing that made it bearable, they said, was the support and generosity they’d been given by their Canadian hosts and the scene on Parliament Hill that day moved them to tears.  In that moment, I have never been so proud to be Canadian (a sentiment that was tarnished a few weeks later when our esteemed Prime Minister dismissed the idea of a monument built in memory of the 26 Canadians who died in the attacks, saying “these things happen”).

            My mother often told me she remembered where she was and what she was doing the exact second she heard President John F Kennedy had been assassinated.  She used to tell me she heard the same thing from her mother about Pearl Harbour.  Every generation has it’s “where were you moment,” a pivotal event that hijacks the world’s attention and redirects history, usually with violent, tragic consequences.  A moment that almost always signals the dawn of a new chapter in human history.  September 11th was ours.  It changed the world forever and virtually every human being alive then or since has been touched by it.  It resulted in two conventional wars in distant lands (wars that the West is still mired in), the largest global manhunt in history that came to an end nearly a full decade later when Navy Seal Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and a War on Terror that has seen the West shake hands with tyrants and get in bed with butchers in an attempt to defeat an enemy it can’t always see let alone name.  Invasive inspections at airports across the globe, NSA spying, unmanned assassination drones, the Patriot Act, rendition and waterboarding, slowly disappearing freedoms and liberties, friendly borders that now take twice as long to cross, unconstitutional pat down laws, increasingly militarized police forces, all of these happened literally overnight because of those planes and the evil men who turned them into weapons of mass murder.  9/11 cast a veil of fear and paranoia over the entire planet, one that has sunk into almost every detail of our daily lives.  The world went a little insane that wretched day (or a little more depending on your point of view), and we all discovered an ugly new bogey-man hiding in our closets.  It’s little wonder then, that we all remember that day, where we were and what we were doing, with brutal, vicious clarity.  After all, it’s tough to forget the moment you witnessed the birth of a new, dark chapter in human history.

Shayne Kempton

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