SO FAR AWAY
By Joe Brancatelli
September 11, 2008 -- I type the date September 11 and all I can think about now is Carole King and "So Far Away."
One more song about moving along the highway can't say much of anything that's new. I sure hope the road don't come to own me. There are so many dreams I have yet to find.
For a lot of us, I think, 9/11 has come to own us. There are no dreams left to find on the road. We tick off the anniversaries, each year so far away from that horrific day, and feel empty and removed from our lives on the road now and our lives on the road then.
But the road, I think, will soon belong to people who only know 9/11 as history. They will have dreams to find. They will have songs about moving along the highway that will say something new. That is as it should be.
I have nothing new, only what has gone before. I've reviewed what I've written in each column closest to September 11 since 9/11 has become a touchstone. Here are the "best" of those thoughts from so far away…
I'm not sure how Rudy Giuliani can run for President as the candidate who's tough on and smart about terrorism. He became mayor of New York shortly after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and did nothing to protect the Twin Towers. Five years later, he was the guy who demanded the city's emergency control center be moved into the World Trade Center. Naturally, it was destroyed when the Twin Towers were attacked again.
It's hard to know what to make of this week's hearings about the future of our military involvement in Iraq. But when Senator John Warner asked General Petraeus if what he's doing "will make America safer," Petraeus answered, "I don't know." That can't be good news, regardless of whose spin you want to believe and what you think about the war.
I hate the term "homeland security." Fascists and tin-pot dictators in funny costumes talk about the "homeland." It sounds un-American and paranoid and it makes me cringe.
It is five years now. Sometimes it feels like five seconds. Sometimes it feels like 500 years. Either way, I think I know just one thing for sure about 9/11: None of us have really come to terms with this thing that we have reduced to a numeric acronym.
September 11 has become the "don't ask, don't tell" of business travel. If you don't bring up 9/11, then neither will I. We'll just live our lives on the road and make believe 9/11 was another time, another life, another planet.
Why did I end September 11, 2005, walking a mile and a half north from Ground Zero and standing in front of the old Asch Building? That's the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911. More than 150 people died when fire swept through a sweatshop. In a desperate attempt to escape, some of the immigrant women jumped from windows to their death. The building eventually became part of New York University. All that's left to mark the tragedy is a plaque on an exterior wall. I walked by that plaque almost every day when I was in college. I'm not sure I ever read it.
Why did I walk down Broadway, just to check that all the office buildings I once worked in were still there? I knew they were there. They've always been there. Yet every time I go to Ground Zero I end up walking down Broadway and looking at the building where pieces of my life used to be.
If the terrorists hit us again at our airports and airplanes, how are we going to explain to the victims and their families that we never did get around to screening all the cargo that is carried aboard commercial jets or that we didn't feel like spending the money to train a large enough core of screeners and sky marshals?
How do we feel about the Bush Doctrine of Preemption now that Vladimir Putin says Russia will strike at terrorism wherever they decide it is? How are we going to feel if they decide those purported Chechen separatists who thought nothing of killing children were training in Iran or Syria--or Turkey?
If we're going to invade countries and "liberate" them from the dictators we once supported, can we at least create a branch of national service called the Civil Army? It would be a force of civil servants, architects, electricians, plumbers and construction workers. They'd come in behind the armed forces and rebuild the countries we occupy. It's called winning the peace, which is a hell of a lot harder than winning wars.
I started planting vegetables in my flower gardens after 9/11. I dunno, somehow growing food helps a little.
I can't remember what life on the road was like on September 10.
I live on the Hudson River about 50 miles north of Manhattan and one of the planes that smashed into the World Trade Center flew low over my house as the hijackers dead reckoned their way down the river. I keep thinking there was something I could have done, a call I could have made, if only I was home...
There's no way out of this crisis if responsible Arab leaders and moderate Muslim clerics don't fight back against the thugs who wrap themselves in the Koran and claim to be killing for Allah.
Anyone who tells you that we can have a totally safe and secure air-transport system is either a liar or a fool. Even the full force of our national will and our entire national treasure cannot guarantee that no plane will ever crash again and no terrorist will ever strike again. Machines break. People make mistakes. One single warped human being can bring down a plane or a building. If you're looking for an airline guaranteed never to crash and never to be at risk of terrorism, then I suggest you book Eastern or PeoplExpress or Vanguard. Only airlines that never fly are guaranteed safe.
Airline bosses and some petulant frequent flyers are fond of saying that we shouldn't be frisking little old ladies and rooting through diaper bags. My 80-year-old grandma isn't a security risk, they say. A mom toting three kids isn't a terrorist, they say. Well, they are wrong. If terrorists come at the airline system again, it won't be through the metaphoric front door. They will be dressed like your sainted grandmother. They will use someone who looks like a mom with two toddlers and toy bags in tow. The next time will be different. They'll be dressed like Mrs. Doubtfire. Or an airline crew. Or frequent flyers with airport-club memberships and elite status.
In a free society, safety and security is essentially reactive. The bad guys or the stupid people do troubling things, then we react and rush to fix them. We don't run to meet trouble because, in a free society, we think the best of people, not the worst. Now that we know there are people in the world who will hijack planes, fly them into buildings and short the market to make a profit, we'll react--eventually. That is how we learn. It is painful. It is not efficient. As we have learned since September 11, 2001, it is slow, costly, onerous and beset with errors. But that is how we learn.
Finally, I have said these two things in every column about 9/11. And I will say them again today:
September 11 should be a national holiday of remembrance. By law, everything but essential services should be closed. No 9/11 sales, no 9/11 getaway holidays. Just a day of national reflection.
Three thousand people were murdered in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington on 9/11. They were all innocent. We should never forget that.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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This column is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.