Still processing after all these days (9/11 Diary)

In this article exploring the events of September 11, ZDNet Government columnist David Gewirtz examines the role of technology in the aftermath.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

This article continues our remembrance of the events of September 11, 2001. This editorial was more personal than many I'd published and explores issues from the then very recent tragedy. I talked about the role of technology, in particular mobile technology, in the crisis.

I wrote the following in early October, 2001 and posted it on the ZATZ news pages. I've gone back into the archives, found my posts from those days, and I'm re-publishing them here, raw, and un-retouched. Reading my old posts has helped me get in touch with what this anniversary means. I hope that they serve a healing purpose for you, as well.

Read the rest of the 9/11 Diary series:

I've gotta tell you, I'm still processing all this stuff. It's been about three weeks since the triple play against the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and that plane out in western Pennsylvania. I still haven't quite gotten my thoughts in order and I know few who have.

I'm writing this in PalmPower because I think it still needs discussing. But I'll warn you upfront. This editorial is raw, intense, and edgy. If you're squeamish, this one might not be for you.

To me, this is a very local story. The World Trade Center is about 50 minutes from here, just up the Turnpike. There are cars parked in the lot at the nearby Princeton Junction train station that haven't moved since September 11.

The Pentagon is about three hours south of here. Managing Editor Denise Amrich and I were in Arlington, Virginia (which happens to be where the Pentagon is located) last week, attending a seminar. You could see the Combat Air Patrols being flown above Washington. When a caravan of what looked like bomb squad vehicles blasted down Embassy Row, right in front of us, we wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into.

During one of our seminar breaks, we had lunch with the spouse of a senior White House official. Apparently, she's a regular rider of DC's Metro (their subway), and, as she tells it, her husband thought it advisable to equip her with a portable gas mask canister, which she now carries everywhere.

So, I'm still processing. It's hard to know what to think. On one hand, I firmly believe that each terrorist needs to be caught and captured, and that the severed head of each and every one should be placed on a pole on the East Lawn of the White House as a warning to all would-be extremists not to screw with us.

On the other hand, I know America's not entirely blameless. This is a country capable of interring its Japanese-American citizens during World War II and committing near genocide on its Native American population. Our motivations in the Middle East are not completely altruistic.

America has its share of morons. There's the guy who decided to attack an unfortunate Indian lady with his car because she had brown skin and so did the terrorists. There's the host of Politically Incorrect, who was really politically incorrect at the wrong time. And the White House Press Secretary who was also politically incorrect in response, saying we should watch what we say.

Yes, we need to be kind and say good things. But it's the fact that we don't have to watch what we say that's the cornerstone of what makes America great. We can have our morons, and we still keep going.

It's strange how we've seen our fellow Americans turn on their brothers after this tragedy. The moron Jerry Falwell blamed liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters for the attack, saying that God had forsaken his protection of America due to their sins. Jerry, here's the deal. Two big-honking airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center. God didn't abandon squat. There are just some big, badass evil guys in this world and using this tragedy to advance your own twisted agenda isn't cool.

Damn, if that didn't piss me off.

Now, before get your buns in a bunch, I'm not condemning organized religion here. I'm just condemning one ill-spoken guy who should have known better. In fact, one of the more amazing aspects of this country is how it tolerates diverse spiritualism.

After the seminar was over on Saturday night, September 22, one of the attendees asked Denise and I if we wanted to do something cool, go to an all-night prayer vigil on the National Mall. I have to tell you that attending a prayer vigil on a Saturday night is about the closest thing to hell I can think of. So, I chose to be the party animal you all know me to be and stay in my room, studying the seminar materials while Denise took off with this woman, who's a teacher of blind students, and another guy, an aircraft carrier officer who was also attending the seminar.

Around midnight, Denise got back and insisted I see this thing. As I said, it was not exactly my idea of a good time, but I acquiesced. Although my religious affiliation is limited to being a devout capitalist, I'm glad I went along. The event was called the Prayer Vigil for the Earth and took place right underneath the Washington Monument. Arranged in a circle, there was a Native American tipi, a Tibetan Stupa, an African altar, a Hindu Yantra, and a Jewish Sukkah. Also, there were Wat Thai Buddhist Monks in prayer, a Yantra of Light, Shinji Shumeikai Jyorei, a Japanese healing drum and chanting, a Mayan staff, a Muslim call to prayer, a gospel hour, the World Peace Flame, and a memorial healing grove, dedicated to the victims of the recent tragedy and all victims throughout history.

This is part of what makes America so amazing and this is probably at the core of what offends our terrorist enemies. Here, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, down the road from the White House, the seat of our nation's power, was an interfaith prayer vigil with all sorts of strange and wonderful people saying all sorts of strange and wonderful things. Here's a country that had been attacked viciously a mere eleven days earlier, a city with armed troops on many corners, and in the middle of it all, under one of our most cherished symbols, a diverse group of spiritualists could get together on the National Mall and have their say.

Next: Technology in the crisis »

« Previous: Under the Washington Monument

Read the rest of the 9/11 Diary series:

I'm still processing.

Will the terrorists take out more airplanes? Are we at risk for satchel nukes? Will somebody dump Anthrax down a subway? How will we go on?

Right around the time I was born (I'm 40, born in 1961), nuclear missiles showed up in Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we were arguably a very short fuse away from total nuclear desolation. Throughout the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, and even the early 90s, we were 20 minutes away from mutually assured destruction.

And yet, we got disco, Happy Days, the microprocessor, a few moon launches, and cell phones. Even if you live under a constant cloud of impending doom, you've got to live.

Back in 1989, as I was driving home from the Apple Multimedia Lab in San Francisco, we got hit with a massive earthquake. A portion of the Bay Bridge dropped into the bay. The upper section of Highway 17 pancaked onto a lower level. All the furniture in my house toppled and I found my cat cowering inside a chair.

Earthquakes happen and still life goes on.

I'm still processing, but I think I'm onto something here. If we can live through the cold war, if we can live through earthquakes, we can live through terrorist threats.

We Americans are a wacky breed. But it's our very wackiness that makes this all possible.

And as for whether we brought this on ourselves, let me explain to you my thinking.

I was born an American. These folks are attacking Americans (although, stupidly, they're also killing off citizens of our allies, those few countries who might be able to help keep us calm). Since I was born an American, that's the side I'm on. For good or bad. The bad guys, by definition, are bad guys because they're attacking my side. And that's why they need to be exterminated.

Well, that's not the complete truth. I think they need to be exterminated because they, truly and honestly, committed crimes against humanity.

I'm still processing.

It's been a tough few weeks economically as well. Business is down all over. For a while, it was hard to even think about business in the light (or, perhaps more appropriately, darkness) of this disaster. But commerce is what drives our strength.

Still think it's petty to be thinking about business when talking about this crime? How do you think we, as Americans, could afford to donate the hundreds of millions of dollars we did, in a matter of weeks, to the disaster effort? How do you think it was possible for companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Apple to each donate tens of millions of dollars to the relief effort?

And how do you think it was possible to fund the development of the portable electronic devices that gave us such an inside view?

You know, now that I think about it, I've got to say, proudly, that technology acquitted itself pretty amazingly well in this disaster. There was the mobile technology that helped us get some of our only information from inside the doomed airplanes. Then, there were all the Internet sites that kept us informed -- and gave us different views of the disaster. And even more, there were the Internet sites that helped people find out about their loved ones.

Turns out, technology was on the side of angels this time.

I'm still processing. I think it's going to take quite some time. But I'm convinced we'll pull through and lead great lives. You know why?

Because that's what we do.

See also:

During our 9/11 retrospective coverage, I invite you to post your thoughts and remembrances, but I also request you remain respectful and polite. This isn't just a story of politics. This is a story of real people, their families, and their loss. Courtesy is demanded at a time like this. Thanks!

Editorial standards