Sunday, May 1, 2011

We Have Not Forgotten

The news of Osama Bin Laden's death by the hands of American forces in Pakistan has brought great relief and joy to everybody I know. The sense of triumph over evil is palpable. Our generation's Pearl Harbor has now closed a chapter in our nation's history similar to the death of Adolf Hitler at the end of World War II. This surprising news was unexpectedly emotional for me. I didn't realize how deeply I felt about the massacre of 9/11 still to this day. People always ask about where you are at a critical point in our country's narrative. Where were you when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor? What were you doing when you heard President Kennedy was assassinated? For Americans of my generation, the question will always be where were we when we heard about the destruction of the World Trade Center.

I was driving to work during anesthesia residency that September morning. It was around 6:00 AM when I heard on the news on the car radio. Initially it sounded pretty innocuous. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I thought, maybe a small private plane had gotten lost and flew into the side of those enormous buildings. After all, this would not be the first time a plane had crashed into a skyscraper in Manhattan; it happened to the Empire State Building in the 1930's. By the time I got to the hospital and saw the TV images, I was struck dumb by the enormous hole that now gaped on the side of the building.

I had no time to continue watching TV so I went ahead with my usual routine to prepare my patients before Morning Report. By the time Morning Report was about to start, reports came in that a second plane had crashed into the other WTC tower. That's when eveybody knew, without a doubt, that the events unfolding in front of our eyes were not accidents. Morning Report started as usual. Can't let world calamity interrupt our commitment to patient care. All during report, word continued to trickle in about the emerging disaster occurring on the East Coast. The Pentagon had been struck. Possibly more planes in the air were being hijacked and used as guided missiles. By the time Morning Report ended, the unthinkable happened. Somebody ran in to report that the WTC had collapsed.

No way, I thought. Those enormous buildings made of millions of tons of steel and concrete can't possibly collapse. I had been to the top of the WTC during a vacation trip years before. The height is breathtaking. How could they possibly fall? In Steven Spielberg's movie A.I., he depicted the WTC still standing three thousand years in the future even after the end of the world. It  just seems unimaginable. But the TV images left no doubt. Other images that were pouring in included extremely disturbing images of jumpers from the top of those thousand foot towers, people running in terror through the streets of lower Manhattan, and of course the lack of any leadership at the very top of American government as the President, Vice President, and practically the entire Congress went into hiding.

Several patients decided to cancel their surgeries that day. Several staff members were too emotional to continue to work and needed to go home. Some people had friends or family in New York. The entire day just felt numb and otherworldly. Most of us continued to work gamely, even though we all knew what our country was suffering through. I stayed up much too late the night of 9/11 just watching images from Ground Zero. All the twisted metalwork and concrete structures strewn about the WTC site was surreal. The reports trickled in day after day. The pictures of those terrorists who hijacked and killed the plane crews and subsequently everybody around them were repeated over and over.

Suddenly national security was the defining force in American life. There was the creation of the TSA and the beginning of the invasive body searches at the airport on even the children and elderly. We could no longer park at the curb at airport terminals to wait for our family to emerge from baggage pickup. We could not walk to the airport gates with our family or friends to wish them farewell before they got on the airplane. It suddenly became unwise to wear shoes with tie up laces to the airport because it could hold up the line while you tie and untie them to take your shoes off during security checks. We could no longer carry our own shampoo, medicine, and even water to the airport because the TSA would toss them into the waste basket all in the name of national security. Air travel has become such a hassle that we decided to drive to Texas last Thanksgiving instead of flying even though it took two days each way and left us exhausted afterwards. It was well worth it instead of subjecting ourselves to the vagaries of TSA security.

Trillions of dollars were spent on security in this country, and beyond. Of course because of Osama Bin Laden we got into protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. All those trillions could have been used to shore up Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, transportation, research, etc... But thanks to Bin Laden that money has simply disappeared and will never be seen again.

Hopefully with Bin Laden's demise our great country, the beacon of hope and liberty for the world, can return to its roots. The security apparatuses that have been erected can be slowly dismantled so that Americans can rediscover the freedom that used to embody our country. It may take years, if not decades, but I hold great hope that my children will never suffer through what our generation has just experienced. God bless America.

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