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  xWednesday, September 11, 2002

One Year Ago

One year ago, I had just started with the consulting firm I work for, and my contract was with Simon Property Group, whose offices were in the heart of downtown next to the Circle Center Mall. My entire professional career I'd worked in corporate campus-type buildings out in the 'burbs, and I so dug working downtown, where I could take the bus to work and walk to get something for lunch if I chose.

That morning I woke up as usual, hitting the snooze button a few times as is my bad habit. (Indianapolis at this time of year is an hour behind the East Coast.) I know how much time it takes me to get ready, and so I got out of bed, showered, shaved and dressed in time to catch the bus. One of the things I liked about the bus is it let me relax and listen to NPR on my headphone radio.

Earlier that morning, a bunch of people I'd have otherwise never heard of went through pretty much the same routine--waking up, showering, dressing, grabbing that morning cup of coffee, groggily groping their way towards work, and saying goodbye to their spouses and kids, never dreaming that it's be for the last time. Others may have been grumbling at the discomfort and inconvenience of having to catch an early flight to the Coast.

And a handful of murderous fanatics were in the check-in lines, in the boarding queues, in their seats surrounded by the faces of the people they were about to murder in the name of their god.

I arrived at my office high up in the National City complex, which houses offices, shops, restaurants and a Hyatt hotel. I poured my morning coffee and turned on my computer as I do every day. The Web portal on the start page carries headlines, as many do, and one terse line caught my eye right off the bat: plane hits World Trade Center.

My first thought was that it must have been a small plane that wandered too close to the building. It wouldn't have been the first time a New York skyscraper got hit--in the '40s a B-25 bomber, lost in fog, slammed into the Empire State Building; fortunately it was in the evening and casualties were relatively few.

That first headline had no details attached, but soon it became clear that this was no minor accident. Meanwhile, more and more people in the office were becoming aware that something terrible had happened, but even then we hardly realized an attack was in progress. As it dawned on us, we soaked up as much information as we could get. We tried a TV in a conference room, but its reception was poor; the same with a co-worker who had a portable TV--even so, we could see smoke billowing from the stricken North Tower. So many Web browsers were tuned to CNN that morning that we could hardly get thru, but I found that the Voice of America's audio stream was workable, and thus learned of the scale of the atrocity. Needless to say, we didn't work--we were too shocked.

Since it looked like we were going to hunker down together for a while, a co-worker and I decided to make a bagel run. Looking back, it seems incongruous, but I think we wanted something to comfort us. Leaving the building and crossing the street, I saw a beautiful blue sky and tall buildings, and even then the contrast with the smoky New York sky struck me. We didn't exactly expect Indianapolis to be a target, but we couldn't be sure we weren't, either--no one knew. I brought my portable radio and kept my co-worker up to speed on whatever details came through.

Not long after we returned, we got the word that we'd been sent home for the day. I don't know if it was a decision to clear out downtown--they definitely evacuated the government buildings--if they realized no work would get done, if they wanted us to go home to our families or a combination thereof.

(I can say that CEO David Simon, who lost several friends in the WTC, took the news very hard and rose magnificently to the occasion in the following weeks, making several moving statements and launching a fundraising drive even as revenues in his shopping malls started to drop.)

I called my wife, who agreed to come pick me up. (I'd completely forgotten we'd given my co-worker Minghua--also called Mike--a ride home until my wife's recollections refreshed my memory.) I was very grateful to be home with my wife and daughters. We turned the TV on to CNN in the living room and banished the girls to the back bedroom with Sesame Street or something. I remember standing in the living room--I couldn't sit--and watching the smoke pour from the buildings, watching the towers fall. I distinctly remember a ground-level camera's recording of the moment the towers fell, with pedestrians scurrying for cover as bricks and dust scattered everywhere. The contrast with the familiar street-level perspective downtown really made an impression.

I really don't remember much of the subsequent events. I know my wife and I held each other, and I called my parents in Louisville to tell them I was home and OK. I think we eventually took refuge in the routine of necessity--making dinner, getting the girls ready for bed.

Even a year later, though, the emotions are still strong. Anger, of course, and sorrow, a gratitude for my life that makes me feel like falling to my knees at times.

But one thing I've been very happy to share with millions of Americans is pride. I think about how the first reaction of many of the people at the center of the destruction was not anger and not hatred and in many cases not even panic, but that so many ordinary people cooperated in helping others out of the buildings--some at the cost of their own lives. And of course, the first official reaction was not war, not speeches, but hundreds of police and firefighters converging on the site--many instinctively, with no official call to duty--and their efforts to help. (It's since been discovered that some firefighters actually made it to the floors hit by the first aircraft, a feat no one had suspected. And of course, though they tried to do what they could for the injured, none of them made it out.)

I'm still awed that even as the attacks were unfolding, a group of 40 Americans were already making the attacks a partial failure. Again, one of the first reactions to the terror was a diametrically opposite one that the hijackers obviously never considered possible--that the passengers and crew of the plane would take control from them. And their main weapons were things that no metal detector can reveal and no terrorist affect--information, in the form of cell phone calls to loved ones who were themselves informed by a free press, and an inborn belief that this great nation is worth fighting for no matter the odds.

I contend that the terrorist strikes a year ago were an abject, miserable failure. They may have achieved some operational success--the hole in the ground where the WTC once stood attests to the fact--but they failed to break the spirit of Americans; indeed, the very act kindled that spirit to a burning flame immediately. Many more could have died in the WTC if the reaction had been panic as well as fear, but the terrorist's earlier failure had led to the establishment of evacuation procedures. Even as the attacks were unfolding, one out of the four planes failed to reach its objective, thanks to the bravery of its passengers and crew.

Hijacking has long been a favorite tactic of terrorists, but bin Laden's gang of thugs has now denied that weapon to terrorists forever. Never again will a hijacking succeed. They did before because terrorists once wanted to negotiate, but never again will we give them the benefit of the doubt. And I can't imagine a cabin full of passengers allowing it to happen ever again.

I've said before that bin Laden, like fellow savage Charles Manson, harbored delusions that his atrocity would herald a new age in which they would hold absolute power. Not only did that not occur, but American resolve is renewed, while the odious regime that hosted al Qaeda has received the unceremonious boot--and demonstrated clearly that for all their self-delusion as warriors, terrorists are no match at all for real soldiers--and bin Laden, if he lives, is in hiding rather than presiding over a new caliphate. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict bin Laden uses as a pretext is hardly solved, but Arafat knows that terror is counterproductive, even if he has not yet gone so far as to say so in public.

Not all of our responses to September 11 have been positive, but overall we have shown our strength. There's no doubt that the day is the subject of numerous blog posts, many of which disagree--but the mere fact that this discussion can occur here, that different arguments can be made, advocated, disputed and discussed on their merits--is an embodiment of the same strengths that prevented the fourth airliner from reaching its target.

Imagine what would happen if the Saudis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Iraqis, the Iranians and others were able to participate in a vigorous discussion--online or otherwise--of whether their government's objective and tactics are aligned with their own. When that discussion is able to occur, our victory will be complete.