In September, 2001, I was living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. I had sold my car for about $4000 and planned to live and travel on that for a year. (And I did!) I rented a room in a three-bedroom second-floor apartment from Irma, a pharmacist. Across the hall lived the couple who owned a language school where I had studied Spanish for three weeks a year before. That experience had convinced me I needed to spend some time in Xela (SHAY-la), as the city is known to Guatemalans, especially the indigenous Maya. I had only been settled in for a few weeks when September 11th “happened.” How odd that a date “happens.” I’d learn much more over the days, months, and even years following, broadening my perspective about the world and the sometimes inhumane human race. Within weeks I’d meet New Yorkers who, after witnessing it or losing someone in the terrorist attack, had dropped out for a spell to go somewhere far away and work through it. What follows is what I typed out at the end of the day on September 11th, in my little room overlooking the city in the highlands of Guatemala. I post it as is or as was. I may have made small edits in the days following – I don’t remember – but this is basically the raw reaction at the time of watching it from far away on TV, as most of the world did.
I am living in a different world where reality and magic often mix. Superstition is often the norm especially as you move out toward the villages. There is a harmony to the way life flows, or sometimes a disharmony. Perhaps if I were a native I might have sensed something was coming. Yesterday, two small tremors. My first experiences with earthquakes. Last night, I had trouble falling asleep. I had just started some meds for a stomach bug so I thought perhaps that was my problem. My pulse was rapid and I could find no way to lie on top of it and shut it from my mind. Finally I did drift off to sleep. But at 3:30 a.m., a more substantial swaying of the world left me dizzy as it woke me from a strange dream. Outside my window all the dogs were barking in Xela, and a strange noise passed away from me over the houses. I imagined it was the tremor tingling away through the corrugated rooftops. I lay awake for some time with my heart beating furiously. But again I managed to find sleep.
In the morning I waited for Irma to leave so I could use the shower without holding her up for work. I looked at the clock: 7:45 a.m. I picked up a copy of Discover magazine and began to read. Irma left late for work and I was about to take a shower when the phone rang. I had hoped a friend from the States would call at that time so I ran to Irma’s room to answer. It was a Guatemalan friend. “Kevin? I think you better turn on CNN.”
My guts clenched the whole time. I saw each tower as it took its turn to the ground. The anguish, the frustration, the feeling that I always expected something like this would happen some day, the guilt for having thought that, the amazement at the extensiveness which I never could have imagined. The disbelief. If it were a movie I would have called it fake; planes simply would not vaporize like that when they hit a building; buildings couldn’t be toppled so… could they?
I wanted to call someone. I wanted a witness. Eventually I drew away from the TV and headed toward the school for the internet. Several people asked me how I was and I gawked at them like it was the craziest question in the world, and then they’d nod sympathetically but not empathetically. I wondered if life in Guatemala was all tragedied out; a cultural tough skin like I had seen in Peten when my house mother spoke of her brother being gunned down by soldiers in her front door during the long years of war. Another man actually laughed at me: “It’s a theatre, right?” Who could believe it? He paled when I rattled off the neatly listed gory details I gleaned from CNN. I was disgusted that it was already the latest TV show: “America Under Attack.” One of the first factoids on the ticker had been the cost of the building, $400 million. What the HELL is that? I wanted Wolf Blitzer in tears, not competently cutting off one eyewitness for a more exciting lead. Where was Walter Cronkite pausing mid-sentence to dazedly turn to check the clock to mark the exact time for his succinct statement?
I emailed my anger and my frustration. I didn’t want to think of husbands, wives, parents, people with names. I wanted to curse our horrible foreign policy. Our complicity with so many bad political relationships that make traveling with a US passport a cause for caution. Our naivete that the senseless violence was somehow only for other less fortunate nations. How ironic that I kept hearing people compare Manhattan to Beirut. Yes, Beirut is a real place, where real people lived and died, and yes, it looked a lot like Manhattan does today. Nothing can belittle the loss, the insanity, the perversity of today, but it has to be added to a long history of this same stuff worldwide. Now we are the unfortunate sharers of a horror that has grown in a very personal giant leap.
I almost cried just at the mere mention of the existence of a nearby elementary school. No word on anyone hurt there. I couldn’t eat most of the day. I fumed about politics. I agonized over my fear of what will follow. Nothing good. Hell, by five Senator Hatch was already getting some plugs in for increased military spending. What? Maybe a multi-billion dollar missile satellite system to shoot down errant commercial liners??? Immediately it is called a massive intricate plot carried out by someone with great powers and resources. But early word is the hijackers used knives. I think what we fear is that it really wasn’t that difficult at all. Simple timing, basic knowledge of flight (not even take-off or landing), and the unconscionable willingness to die. No hi-tech satellites, intercept remote control computer scrambled James Bond. A knife. Hatred is still a most powerful weapon and no one needs to spend anything to make it.
Another general gets on the TV and responds to the criticism that a military retaliation (against whom? A foreign city full of people heading in to work in the morning in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Timbuktu?) would simply continue a cycle of violence. “Well now, you can talk yourself out of anything really, that diplomacy isn’t going to work, sanctions aren’t going to be effective, military strikes… I mean, you can talk yourself out of all these things. But we need to show some sort of firm response.” What isn’t said: “So why not make it the violent one?”
The military wants us to know that they are ready to serve. Great. Start donating blood. If this is a terrorist organization we’re up against, on whose soil are they going to go stomping marching and shooting and what will it solve? Are they going to bomb unknowing office workers who have the misfortune of having been born in some far away country where these madmen hide? And what sort of justice is 5 or 12 or 50 dead conspirators for thousands of unsuspecting victims? Do they really think they will intimidate a person bold enough to hijack a plane and kill himself? No death of a handful of lunatics will heal us. What would we do if ALL the conspirators were part of the suicide pact? Catching the perpetrators will not be the end of this unfortunately. Threats beget threats. Murder begets murder. This is just simple history. The solution has to be intelligent and new, not Neanderthal and proven to fail. Maybe if we spent more time making friends in the world. Maybe if we all realized that losing someone to an act of hatred in Manhattan or Beirut or Palestine or Baghdad feels the same. Or should.
I watched the New Yorkers. The cold, the loud, the impersonal. Not so. They were the quick and the caring. Could people be so relatively calm and orderly and quick to comfort, quick to risk, like the New Yorkers today? The nationwide call for blood, so immediate, such rapid responses. Someone asked me at the internet lab, “Will they ever rebuild it do you think?” I snorted indignantly. Don’t be ridiculous. Look at them. Do they look beaten? They’ll build something even better. And they’ll never forget.
As night fell after a long day of discussions and disgust, I sat back in the apartment, watching it all, over and over again. And then the magical world of Guatemala decided I’d had enough. With such a massive change in my surroundings there ought to have been some kind of sound. But it was silence that accompanied the darkness that closed off the horrors and left me looking out over a Xela without electricity. My ears just rang with the absence of the news.
I sighed and thought to go for a walk. Outside my front door was obscure enough that I had to hesitate before stepping onto the walk. Across the street two police officers with billy clubs were addressing a man stepping from his car. I frowned and turned the corner squinting into the headlights of occasional oncoming cars and negotiating the shadows of so many people still in the streets. In the central park, a portable generator whirred and supplied a single bulb in front of the municipal building where a man interviewed the Xela Queen before a crowd of unseen hundreds. A couple of battery-charged bare bulbs on distant concession carts made faces impossible to discern as I threaded through the mute crowd that lurked along benches and flower gardens, beneath hulking columns. When I reached the other side of the park, my skin crawled. Everyone was lined up on either side of the street, silent and looking up the hill at an empty road. No one seemed to move, very few even made small talk. They just stared into the distance patiently. I felt I was the only one not in the trance. I didn’t ask anyone but rather skirted the perimeter hoping some clue would emerge. I found a fellow American and we nodded to each other glumly, avoiding the subject. “Whatya suppose this is?”
“WEIRD, isn’t it?”
“Feel the earthquake last night?”
“Whatya suppose is going on here?”
“A parade maybe?”
“There’s one tomorrow.”
“I mean, LOOK at them!” All lined up in perfect order on either side of the street, three rows deep at least, nearly silent but for the whirring of another generator somewhere, in the dark except for the occasional glow of headlights as a car snuck through their ranks. It struck me then. A very funny feeling. I turned to her. “It’s all like a dream. The whole damn day. Starting with that earthquake.” God, right then I just felt that ridiculous flicker of hope, that maybe just this once, it really is a very vivid dream. Moments later the power came back on and the faces of the crowd were revealed.
I found some foreign friends and we sat in a bar drinking soda, speaking of everything but the day. Finally, after almost two hours, the silence hit. “I just can’t believe it. You know?” We were all Americans at that moment and it bewildered as much as it hurt.
I went home tired, my stomach churning now from nerves rather than illness. Irma was already asleep, so I couldn’t torture myself with more images from her TV. No need to try to wrap the mind around something that may have causes, effects, but has no explanation. I sat down on my bed, kicked off my shoes, and stared down at Discover magazine where I had left it open. I felt a tremor that didn’t come from the floor: the article was about a seismologist who could analyze airplane crashes and terrorist bombs from around the world just as one would measure quakes. I had been beginning that article when the phone rang that morning.
Quetzaltenango, September 11, 2001