On "Nothing Will Ever Be the Same"

It's a September 11 cliche, but Americans have learned how many ways it's true. Here's a personal tale of that day's lessons

By Bob Arnold

On Mar. 10, 2002, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Middletown, N.Y., held a service commemorating the six-month anniversary of September 11. One of the speakers was Bob Arnold, the editor of BusinessWeek Online. With Americans more concerned about terrorism than ever, and with talk of a U.S. war on Iraq mounting daily, his remarks seem as relevant now as they did six months ago.

Last Sept. 16, we met here to seek sanctuary from the pain that a handful of hijackers had inflicted on an entire country. Strangers rose to speak movingly of how the collapse of the World Trade Center had forced them to refocus on basic values -- family, health, community, and safety.

By then, the phrase "nothing will ever be the same" had already become a cliche. Most of us probably didn't realize, however, what those words really meant: that we had embarked on a journey from which there is no exit. Tomorrow is the six-month anniversary of an attack that remains as fresh in our memory as the day it happened -- and that has altered our perceptions in numerous ways. Today, I want to reflect on the meanings of nine-eleven.

The clearest lesson, of course, is that we are not alone. In the space of minutes, the world shrank. The idea that an ocean matters, that an airport belongs to us just because it's located on our shores, that a society that's a century behind ours is irrelevant to us -- suddenly, these became naive misconceptions. The implications are both bad and good.


  The most unpleasant implication is the one we're most familiar with: That we're more vulnerable than we thought to people who would harm us. The evidence exists not only in the token signs of security we see in New York's theaters, office buildings, and hotels. We all recall the descriptions of the President and Vice-President running for cover on September 11. We remember Washington's intermittent warnings since then that another incident might be imminent. And we've heard the stunning news that, last fall, government officials halfway expected some midget nuclear device to be set off in lower Manhattan.

On my commuter bus that fateful morning, the passengers sensed this new reality only seconds after our driver shouted for us to look at the wounded Trade Center. It was just before 9 a.m., as we rounded a bend outside the Lincoln Tunnel and gazed at the smoking Twin Towers for what turned out to be the last time.

And yet, I'm not sure that most of this has fully registered with the vast majority of Americans. Certainly, it didn't change our routine that morning. We rode our bus through the tunnel -- once itself a target of terrorists -- as docile as sardines heading for the packing plant. Only when the erroneous rumor spread that 10 planes were hijacked, not four, did we reflect on the fact that we were smack in the middle of the world's most populous bulls-eye.


  Not until the Towers fell -- maybe two miles from my office -- did anyone realize how serious the threat was. We know now. Yet today, the evening crowds in Times Square are as large as ever -- plump targets for evildoers. And many people view the type of vigilance that makes sense in these times as an inconvenience as much as a necessity. Either that, or impossible to achieve.

The overwhelming lesson of nine-eleven, from the standpoint of our own safety, is that it would be a mistake for us to give in to human nature and slip back into old habits A billboard recently on the New Jersey Turnpike said it all. Going north, the sign showed the furled image of an American flag. Going south, the message consisted of two words: "Goliath lost." That's all -- "Goliath lost."

The southbound billboard was really just a chest-thumping ad for the Mini, about the smallest car on the road. Yet it was also possible to imagine it as a warning that if the Twin Towers can go down and the Pentagon can be breached, the U.S. isn't the fortress we imagined.


  Another implication of the idea that we aren't alone is a lot more comforting. I was surprised by the initial, worldwide outpouring of outrage and sorrow in the wake of nine-eleven. I wouldn't have guessed that so many people from other countries cared that much about Americans -- or, in particular, New Yorkers.

But now, I think I understand. Our friends abroad were offering sympathy not for the victims as Americans but as human beings. The heartening possibility is that lurking out there somewhere is a potent counterforce to evil that transcends nationalities and, that marshalled effectively, can isolate netherworld characters such as those who conceived the nine-eleven attacks.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking. But could it be that after numerous wars over the past century and millions of pointless deaths, the millions who survive have had their fill of killers -- and are starting to understand that one way to stop them in the future will be to isolate them?


  That won't happen, of course, until we confront an idea that makes most Americans squirm. The point is summed up in belief Number Six of the 10 that are printed in the billfold card we sometimes have out in the parish house, the one entitled: "What do Unitarian Universalists Believe?" Number Six reads: "We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice -- and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life."

That's a noble statement -- and, I think, one that's really hard for many Americans to accept, because what it says is that the average person in Pakistan, or India, or Somalia, or Afghanistan is just as important as the average American and has the same right to a useful and productive existence.

While we have no problem accepting that on a case-by-case basis -- we've probably all worked as equals with people from disadvantaged countries -- we Americans have a difficult time believing that a few dozen or hundred or thousand civilian Afghans who are blown away by an errant bomb are as valuable, however you define the concept, as U.S. soldiers who die fighting the Taliban or as a Wall Street Journal reporter who stumbles into a nest of vipers.


  Yet if we subscribe to UU belief Number Six, we accept the idea that "we" and "they" are of equal importance. Which means acknowledging that if we kill innocent people in Afghanistan because of their proximity to a collection of extraordinarily brazen criminals, it's no less a tragedy than when innocent Americans die on U.S. soil at the hands of the same criminals. Belief Number Six. A salesperson who could peddle that has a great future in Corporate America.

People from the Middle East -- and from many developing countries -- are acutely aware of how hard it is for us to accept this ideal, as I was reminded a few days after nine-eleven. I was on the bus to Manhattan again, when a Muslim family embarked -- a husband and wife in full dress with three small children. The husband sat next to me, peeked at the story I was editing on my laptop -- and spontaneously began educating me about the Middle East in a slightly louder voice than necessary.

Possibly, that was because the two gentlemen in front of us were wearing yarmulkas. This Muslim lives in Damascus, where his occupation seems to be studying the Koran, whose teachings he described in detail before making a point that by then was obvious -- America's lopsided support for Israel, as he viewed the situation, had alienated the rest of the Middle East.


  Finally, I asked him where he was from originally -- and he said the Bronx. So I asked where he had first learned about his new religion, and he said Teaneck High -- the same school my kids attend. I asked, which teacher? And lapsing into a different vernacular, he said: "Hey man, you know Teaneck High?"

We had found a tiny piece of common ground, and the ice that until then had locked each of us in separate ways of thinking began to melt. The point is that one of the lessons of nine-eleven is that we Americans need to establish a higher degree of commonality with peoples we have normally ignored -- and that UU Belief Number Six is a pretty good place to start.

I remember that when my dad died, about 13 years ago, one of my reactions was to say to myself, "if you want to do it, do it now." Likewise, events such as nine-eleven bring home the value of making every minute count. In the summer of 2001, my family visited the Oklahoma City memorial to the people who died at the hands of another ideological criminal, Timothy McVeigh. Across the street on the day of the crime, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board had been holding a routine hearing. In the museum at the memorial, you can listen to the start of that meeting and hear the deafening blast that interrupted it -- realizing, as you stand in a darkened room, that you're witnessing the last seconds in the lives of 168 people.

And you can't help vowing that if you ever had to face such a moment, you would want to have no regrets. Who can remember nine-eleven without pausing at that thought?


  At the same time, for many of us, the tragedy has lent new meaning to the ordinary. Take the somewhat obscure song from the Broadway show Les Miserables -- . I never really paid much attention to its lyrics, but today the song seems pertinent to me because of someone I heard on the radio -- an actor from the show -- who commended the singer for being able to get through that number a few days after nine-eleven.

On October 7, we drove into the city to attend a wedding in a loft on Greenwich Street, about 15 blocks north of where the Trade Center had stood. It was an azure day, just as nine-eleven had been, and the radio was full of speculation that the U.S. might soon be at war in Afghanistan. It was one of the nicest weddings I can remember, and five hours later we emerged from the reception to hear that the bombing had begun.

Three hours after that, we were sitting in a theater in New Jersey listening to jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who I thought had already died. For two hours, we watched a man with the body and voice of an 82-year-old play the piano with the enthusiasm and energy of a 30-year-old. And when it was over, he said simply: "Thank you for coming. I hope to see you again." And I knew, right then, that one of the lasting effects of nine-eleven will be to make me more fully appreciate the relationships and experiences that already matter to me.

There's one last thing that day reminds me of -- an ancient thought that's so simple and symmetrical and beneficial that it's hard to imagine why we all don't pay more attention to it: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Of all the lessons we should take from nine-eleven, that is the most important.

Empty Chairs and Empty Tables

There's a grief that can't be spoken.

There's a pain goes on and on.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution.

Here it was they lit the flame.

Here they sang about "tomorrow"

And tomorrow never came.

From the table in the corner

They could see a world reborn

And they rose with voices ringing

I can hear them now!

The very words that they had sung

Became their last communion

On the lonely barricade at dawn.

Oh my friends, my friends forgive me

(The ghosts of those who died on the barricade appear.)

That I live and you are gone.

There's a grief that can't be spoken.

There's a pain goes on and on.

Phantom faces at the window.

Phantom shadows on the floor.

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will meet no more.

(The ghosts fade away.)

Oh my friends, my friends, don't ask me

What your sacrifice was for

Empty chairs at empty tables

Where my friends will sing no more

© 1986 Alain Boublil Music Ltd.

Arnold is editor of BusinessWeek Online in New York

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