For most of my adult life I have borne witness. That’s my job. I go to epidemics, wars, places where people are struggling to cope with disasters, and I carefully log the accounts and events, trying to represent the lives and experiences of others. It’s always been “others” – people in Zaire in an Ebola outbreak, in Maharashtra coping with the Plague, in Irkutsk watching their entire health system crumble, in El Salvador drinking waters so polluted that the translucent shimmering colors seem other-worldly. The position of “outsider” is emotionally safe, even as agonizing events unfold. Only the emerging AIDS epidemic hit me with sufficient intimacy to topple my comfortable perch on the edges of the emotional circle of grief, as I lived in San Francisco in the early 1980s and attended far too many funerals to count. Still, HIV takes its tolls in slow motion, giving individuals, families and entire countries time to adapt to, even ignore, the mounting death toll. That time lag, South African economist Alan Whiteside tells us, is why it is so difficult to measure the impact AIDS is having on cultures all over the world.
I could not distance myself from the extraordinary sequence of events that fell on America, and especially my home town of New York City, in 2001. A decade later I am still trying to understand how the attacks on the World Trade Center and the anthrax mailings affected me, and those I love. I heard the first jet slam into the north tower of the World Trade Center, and from the rooftop of my apartment building watched the second commercial jet veer towards lower Manhattan, change its trajectory, and slice across the upper floors of the south tower. I was standing on the Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge when the first tower crumbled like a deflated accordion, spewing dust and debris in every direction and crushing the life out of thousands of people within. And a month later, as people started falling ill from inhalation of anthrax spores, one of the nation’s top bioterrorism experts called me to warn that I was a likely target: Stop opening your mail.
In the months and years that followed the 120 days chronicled in this document so many lies were told, and facts distorted, by politicians, demagogues, religious leaders, academics, policymakers and talk show hosts that I grew deeply indignant. I found that the real lessons America, and the world at large, needed to learn from these events were getting lost, and lies and fables were replacing historical reality. This is remarkable because few events have ever been chronicled in real time as closely as these, or watched on television by as many people. That renditions of our recent history could so dramatically deviate from reality, when events were viewed by literally billions of people, speaks to the power of false ideas, internet chatter, cynical political manipulation and collective denial. As the great Soviet dissident and physicist Andrei Sakharov warned us, after decades of suffering under the great Communist lies and revisions of Russia’s past, nothing is more important than fidelity to historic truth.
I think that is why this book overtook my life, literally denying me holidays, vacations or sleep for years on end. As I now write these words America and her allies are locked in two enormous wars that were initiated by political leaders in the name of 9/11. Though al-Qaeda founder and leader Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011 by United States Special Forces operatives, he lived in a Pakistani village from 2003 to 2005, and in the city of Abbottabad for the nearly six years after. Because the Saudi-born bin Laden stood 6’4” tall and spoke Arabic it was hard to imagine that his presence in a claustrophobic village, or his reportedly $1 million compound in Abbottabad went entirely unnoticed by all elements of the local Pakistani society and government. Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan run high at this writing, and it is assumed that al-Qaeda’s supporters and members around the world have yet to fulfill their schemes or shared sense of jihadi destiny.
Other wars threaten, as the adversary – variously identified as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamists, terrorists, Iranian leadership, and sleeper cells hiding amongst us – expands its territory, despite experts’ claims that its numbers of cadres are diminishing. Adding to the confusion and concern for billions of non-Muslims is the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, erupting across the Middle East, from Tunisia to, perhaps, Teheran. Outsiders watched in amazement as longstanding corrupt leaders were toppled by unarmed masses in Egypt and Tunisia, ushering hope of a Berlin Wall-like moment for the Arab world that might bring some semblance of democracy and economic vibrancy to the long-repressed region. But with equal emotional parts the same outsiders – Europeans, North Americans, Chinese, Latin Americans – looked on in horror as brutal leaders used every imaginable tactic, including torture and wholesale slaughter, to retain power in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Iran. With a difficult mix of empathy and angst the outsiders watched nervously, even came to the cyber or military aid of some revolutionaries, uncertain about how this stage of Arab and Persian history would affect longstanding tensions between the extremist factions of the Islamic world and their historic targets, the United States, Europe, Israel, Judaism, Christianity and the remaining leaderships of the oil-rich Arab states.
On September 10, 2001 the United States stood alone as the global superpower, controlling upwards of 30 percent of the world’s wealth, the largest and most sophisticated military on earth, and about a third of global trade. Today America is overwhelmed by its new historical position in the world, coping with multipolar power, rising superstar nations like China and India, a vast array of previously ignored transnational threats such as climate change and pandemics, and a fragile, frightening global economic picture. The U.S. government has spent well over two trillion dollars since 9/11 in an effort to make its frightened population feel secure, building a Department of Homeland Security, transforming its entire public health apparatus into a bioterrorism-ready infrastructure, turning its police and military forces into counterterrorism soldiers, and hardening the rivets and pinions of every bridge, tower, landmark and mall that terrorists might conceivably target. Nations all over the world have followed suit, spending precious resources to defend against an invisible, incalculable enemy.
Following the December 2004 tsunami, August 2005 Hurricane Katrina, 2010 Haitian earthquake and Japan’s 2011 triple catastrophe of earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown the notions of “security” and defense have steadily expanded to include preparedness for natural disasters. Once again, systems of preparedness and response were found wanting, and in attempts to harden them policymakers turned to the alleged lessons of 2001.
And therein, as the Bard would put it, lies the rub. Those lessons were distorted. The record is mis-recorded. Young 21-year-old adults today were merely eleven-year-old middle school students when these events transpired, and the secondary school graduates of June 2011 were just elementary school children of 7 or 8 years of age. The tragedies of 2001 have had the same sort of bewildering impact on their world views and lives as did the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby, or the 1960s inner city riots in American cities and youth uprisings across Western Europe for people now in their fourth or fifth decades of life. Just as a person of 48 years of age today may dimly recall seeing Soviet tanks on television firing on freedom advocates in the streets of Prague in 1968, or a 50-year-old may recall images of National Guard soldiers in 1968 battling African Americans amid enflamed Detroit, Newark or Los Angeles, today’s 2011 college students have niches in their brains that are filled with images of jets flying into the World Trade Center and men in space suits searching for anthrax spores. But this blur of childhood memories is imprecise, and vulnerable to false interpretation by those seeking specific political lessons from history.
I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM is a day-to-day chronicle, told with passion, yes, but accurate detail – or as close to it as I was able to get. There is an eyewitness “reporter” in these events: Myself. Since 1979, when I moved to Lusaka, Zambia to cover the wars and social tensions of the African region, I have been honored to toil alongside some of the world’s greatest journalists and photographers, and witnessed history unfolding with wars, revolts, epidemics, natural disasters and social upheavals across Asia, the former USSR, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, North America and Central America. I have been the consummate “outsider”, watching and chronicling with care.
But as events unfolded in my home town the “outsider” had two hats to wear: Chronicler and defiant victim. Even as I witnessed events in 2001 I was aware of the bias I imposed on everything that I saw. It wasn’t possible to pretend that eye witnessing the demolition of New York’s World Trade Center “mountains” was an emotionally-neutral experience. Nor was it conceivable that after receiving a call from a top government official warning me that I might be a target for an anthrax mailing I could entirely shut off my indignation as I proceeded to cover the events for Newsday. There is a day-to-day diarist reflected in this book that dutifully sat down to tell friends and colleagues all over the world what she saw and felt at that moment. I have included abbreviated, but otherwise unaltered, missives that I delivered every day because they capture my emotional take on the events enveloping me and my community. I offer them to the reader as a gauge of the veracity of this chronicle, and a measure of the emotional tenor of the times.
I find that every person to whom I mention September 11th has a compelling need to share memories. It usually begins, “I was [place, activity] when I heard about the World Trade Center.” To a lesser degree the fear of receiving anthrax in a letter prompts memories in millions of people – stories that ache to be shared. So it is that every person old enough to have understood the events that transpired in September, October, November and December 2001 views the saga through a distinct emotional prism.
More than anything this book is the story of perfectly normal people trying to cope with extraordinary events. Like wars and conflicts I have witnessed, these events brought fear and outrage; as with epidemics, the threat dragged on amid profound confusion and blame. Many surprises are revealed. Nobody could have imagined, for example, how important a baseball team’s victories in the Bronx could be for the emotional recovery of 8 million people, or what vital information could be gleaned from the sound of a piece of metal in a postal service sorting center. The hysteria policymakers had long assumed “the public” would exhibit following events like those of 9/11 did not materialize. Indeed, The Public largely behaved heroically and compassionately.
The flow of these events, from the hijacking of four commercial jets on September 11th to the November death of an anthrax-infected Connecticut villager, took most of the world population from a remarkably united emotional and political place, to a deeply divided, frustrated, angry position. The arc of the response matters: It ultimately determined the course of historic events worldwide and tore America asunder, the people having lost trust in their government and without it, most forms of social cohesion. The government was accused of incompetence, verisimilitude, military aggression. By the end of the winter of 2002 the arc had completed, from spectacular unity and confidence in governance to deep division and accusations of American arrogance.
Sixteen months after al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center I sat on the floor of an over-packed meeting room in Davos, Switzerland, listening to a military consultant from Virginia outline to the World Economic Forum audience the Bush Administration’s strategy for the post-9/11 world. Because the session was off the record, I cannot reveal the speakers’ names, but Mr. Consultant was a very powerful, well-placed individual who had a direct line to the offices of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his second-in-command, Paul Wolfowitz. The U.S. will first destroy the Sadaam Hussein regime in Iraq, Mr. Consultant asserted, and our soldiers will be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people. Within months we will have installed a democracy in that country and liberated the oil fields. We will then march on Iran, toppling the Shiite regime, and, again, being greeted as liberators by the democracy-hungry Persian masses. In quick order the U.S. military’s power will be brought to bear upon the regime in Syria and against the Hamas and Hezbollah organizations in the Middle East. By this time next year, Mr. Consultant predicted with staggering hubris, the Middle East will have been transformed from a breeding ground for terrorism into a vast utopia of nascent democracy. That was January 2003.
A French CEO from one of Europe’s largest corporations rose to his feet to ask, in a plaintive voice, “Can you be serious? Can this truly be the American plan?”
Assured by Mr. Consultant that yes, indeed, this was the guiding vision behind the then-imminent allied invasion of Iraq, the French businessman choked up, and tears spilled over the brims of his eyes as he pleaded for reason. “I have always loved America,” he said to a room filled with European leaders that nodded in shared sentiment. “Please, please, do not do this!”
The previous year the World Economic Forum had bravely convened in New York City, just four months after the al-Qaeda attacks, in a demonstration of solidarity with America. By 2003 the Forum seemed shell-shocked and shattered, its well-heeled members unable to fathom the arc of history that was leading to war, and that compelled white camouflage-clad Swiss military sharpshooters to ski up and down the Alps surrounding Davos, searching for hidden terrorists.
Through the frustrated anthrax investigations and drumbeats of war, the global community, especially Americans, moved in just a few months’ time from collectivism to fragmentation.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were shocking occurrences, focused for everybody in the world in finite time and space. Riveted to televisions and computers worldwide, everybody shared powerful and immediate emotional reactions of either fear or, sadly, celebration. Within the United States most of the citizenry recognized instantly that the country was in some sort of state of war on September 11th, and responded as did the American people following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Patriotism, support for Government with a capital G, volunteerism and community spirit were the overwhelming sentiments of September 2001. Thousands of young men and women responded to the attacks by marching off to nearby military or police recruitment offices.
In contrast, the anthrax mailings and murders ushered a very different set of reactions. The events transpired with no clear focus in space or time, highly diffuse, eventually becoming a relentless element of day-to-day life persisting for months. Fearfulness was immediately mixed with confusion and bewilderment, as Government could not provide The People with answers: Where did it come from? How dangerous is it? Is this tied to the 9/11 attacks? When will it stop? How can I protect myself and my family?
The World Trade Center attacks focused the masses of the world on a singular event and mass emotional/political reaction to it. Anthrax pushed the masses in the opposite direction, toward individualized risk assessment, personalized fearfulness, and distrust of “others” – whoever they might be – that were responsible. As the investigation and incidents dragged on, anthrax produced a state of public annoyance about the costs and difficulties produced by postal contamination. And that annoyance ushered increasing irritation with The Government, and outrage over its apparent incompetence to both find the culprits and provide clear scientific and medical advice to a worried people. Worse, as Christmas 2001 approached the public was treated to two notions regarding who was behind the awful bioterrorism: The government of Iraq, versus employees of the government of the United States.
In the arc of early 21st Century history, 2000 brought optimism, amid American trade and leadership in foreign policy. It was, pundits opined, a unipolar world, a time of American hegemony, and an era of American domination. Ten years later America’s hegemony was shattered, and internally rifts within the nation seemed irreparable. Those rifts became canyons when the 2008 financial crisis emerged, and now render the U.S. a country reminiscent of President Abraham Lincolns 19th Century warning that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Most of the books, essays and broadcast hours reflecting on 2001 have viewed the September 11th attacks and anthrax mailings as entirely separate episodes, both as crimes and as sources of political resonance. Though many writings have provided brilliant insights into how and why these events transpired – notably the report of the 9/11 Commission, Lawrence Wright’s THE LOOMING TOWER, and Leonard Cole’s THE ANTHRAX LETTERS – they have all tackled the tragedies in pieces. From the body of post-2001 literature and reporting we have learned a great deal about radical Islamism, the response of the George W. Bush Administration, the Amerithrax investigation, and the fog of Iraqi and Afghani wars. Thanks to such writers as Richard Clarke, Ron Suskind and Bob Woodruff we know in stunning detail what arguments transpired inside the Bush Administration as it struggled to interpret the 2001 events and marched to wars. Peter Bergen, Michael Scheuer and Ahmed Rashid have provided similarly striking accounts of the strategic and political thinking and divisions within the radical Islamist world. Marilyn Thompson’s heart-wrenching account of the suffering of U.S. postal workers during the anthrax attacks is invaluable.
But missing from the body of 9/11 and anthrax literature is a sense of what 2001 felt like for average citizens, front line responders, disease investigators and those that experienced the events in a very personal way. Because the two events have been viewed in isolation, “anthrax” barely merits footnotes in the al-Qaeda and 9/11-focused literature. And conversely, few of the anthrax investigative tomes have offered more than passing mention of the September 11th attacks. This book bridges the divide, and in the process offers new insights into the period, presenting its profound implications for public health, mass psychology, governance, scientific integrity, social resilience and cohesion, criminal justice, and America’s sense of itself. Whether the reader was ten or forty years old on September 11, 2001 the details in this book will often prove flabbergasting, and its totality is likely to evoke indignation.
This book is structured in two parts. The first, THE END OF THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, is written in the present tense, describing almost hourly the events that unfolded primarily in Washington DC and New York City over 120 days in the fall and winter of 2001 and 2002. Each day is a chapter that opens with the actual diary entry that I sent on that date to a list of friends all over the world. The entry is followed by a detailed breakdown of the day’s events. For some readers young enough to have only childhood memories of the saga this may well unfold like a novel. For those who bore witness through adult eyes it may reawaken and sharpen memories, and aid in reflecting on events that have unfolded over the subsequent decade in the name of 9/11 or anthrax.
Part two, NEW WORLD ORDER, details the repercussions of these events, transformations of critical government institutions, public health disasters, and what, in particular, the specter of terrorism meant for the American people. We have a pretty good idea what these things meant for Osama bin Laden, thanks to a video distributed in 2001 by al-Qaeda, showing him pleasantly shocked to see that his horrible scheme to turn commercial passenger jets into missiles had completely destroyed the World Trade Center. In that video he seems to chuckle under his unkempt beard at the profound impact his little band of twisted soldiers had on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. After bin Laden’s 2011 assassination a treasure trove of computers, videos and digital files was found in his Abbottabad home, demonstrating that he took delight in monitoring Western news reports, noting with glee the deaths, economic trials and destruction that the al-Qaeda leader felt could be credited to Islamist terrorist actions. Tragically, those attacks, coupled with the anthrax mailings, have proven to impinge further and longer than even the calculating Saudi Islamist could have imagined.
Because the Amerithrax investigation was closed with the suicide of Dr. Bruce Ivins, and doubts remain concerning the veracity of the FBI’s conclusions, we may never know how the anthrax culprit(s) reflected after 2001 on their actions, and the impact that they had on the collective psyche. It remains a distinct possibility, however, that the same force responsible for the attacks of September 11th also ordered the mailings of Bacillus anthracis, no doubt snickering at the response through the same Saudi beard.
Finally, I dedicate this effort to the First Responders to these events: Police, firefighters, public health officials, private security guards, hospital workers, good Samaritans, military personnel and volunteers. And to all of the members of the U.S. Armed Forces and NATO participants that have died in combat or put themselves in harm’s way as a result of the events of 2001, I salute you. Whether or not the battles you fight are justified by the events of 2001 can be decided by each of us, and may remain a politically divisive determination for Americans well into the future. But there can be no doubt that you collectively and individually display courage and honor in battle that are the best defining features of the world 9/11 begat.