Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Day The World Took Notice

By Talia Carner

Having been a supporter of counter-terrorism intelligence in the United States, I attended in January 2001 a closed-group briefing by Richard Clarke, at the time US Counter-Terrorism Coordinator at the National Security Council and a chief counter-terrorism adviser to four USA presidents. He told the attendees about a man called Osama Bin Laden, a Muslim billionaire hiding in Afghanistan who had trained thousands of militants to attack the West. Bin Laden was the man behind the USS Cole attack and others, Clarke reported. The man’s overarching plan was to take over the West, the world of infidels.

Furthermore, Clarke pointed out, Bin Laden had already planted six-hundred highly trained militants in the US. Some of them were known to the security authorities, many were not.

The media would not report about any of it, Clarke explained, not because they did not believe the credible threat supported by mountains of evidence, but because editors did not wish to sound “alarmists.” Their perception was that their respective audiences did not wish to hear about looming catastrophes.

As a fiction writer, I decided to use the idea in my new novel, which I started in August 2001. At a dinner in New York with my agent and her husband, I outlined the story’s premise. I had barely finished delivering the first paragraph when I saw their eyes glaze over. “You seem to see a Muslim behind every tree,” my agent wrote to me later, ignoring my explanation about Extreme Muslims—not all Muslims—who pose a major risk to America.

Three weeks later, on September 11, at around 9 AM, I started my car at my beach house in Bridgehampton, Long Island, two-hours east of New York City. I had a writing group meeting later than evening at my home in Port Washington, twenty miles outside the city, a place known on literary maps as East Egg. I inserted a “book-on-tape” cassette into the slot and set on the road. Forty-five minutes later, the cassette ended. As it was ejected from the console, the radio took over.

I heard that two planes had just hit the Twin Towers.

I thought of Sesnas and small commuter planes which I always distrusted. But two? The hair rose on my arms. The gears in my brains shifted. The synopsis clicked. This was a terror attack.

I pulled to the shoulder of the highway and called my husband back in Bridgehampton. “Turn on the TV. Now.”

When he did, he started screaming. He was incoherent.

“Tell me what do you see?” I shouted. “What is it?”

“Come back!” was all he managed to utter. “Turn around right now!”

“I can’t. I have my writing group tonight. What are you seeing?”

His screaming got under control only enough to tell me that the first building was crumbling. “The city will be closed. Long Island Expressway will be closed. You won’t be able to come back later,” he insisted.

The feeling of déjà vu--the events I've witnessed in Israel from close and far—settled on me with some strange remoteness. The wait was over. It had finally happened. I turned my car around at the first possible ramp and stopped again, heart pounding. We had children in New York City. “This is the moment that would change my life, our life, the world’s life,” I thought as I looked at the quiet blue skiy, the pulsating green of the grass and trees. I was too calm. I should panic. Something was terribly wrong with me.

I could not reach any of the children.

I called my husband again.

“Oh, my God!” he suddenly called out. “Oh, my God! The Building is falling down.”

“What do you mean ‘falling down?’ It’s just a small plane—”

“It’s a jetliner!” On the radio they told of a fire ball thirty stories high.

“This is the beginning of a war,” I said as I restarted the car. That was how things worked in Israel. Nothing was absurd anymore. Not if the World Trade Center tower fell down. Fell down? I still thought that only the top floors had collapsed, from the spot where the plane had hit, and upward.

How far could this attack go? Richard Clarke’s warnings banged in my head. My imagination in the novel I was working on hadn’t gone far enough. I hadn’t conjured anything like this….

One more plane had crashed in Pennsylvania, I now heard on the radio. I pulled to the side of the road yet again, and reached my youngest daughter. Her office was in the basement of an uptown building, and she shared a wall with one of the largest, busiest subway stations.

“Get out of the office and don’t come back,” I instructed her. There was no question of getting her out of the city as I did not want her taking the train. “Stay in your apartment.”

An hour later, I huddled on the couch with my husband, both of us in complete shock. We had supported investigators of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, an event that had left “only” six dead, too few to ring the alarm bells in the public’s consciousness. I now watched, horrified, as bodies hurled themselves off the buildings’ windows.

We got the news that our son-in-law walked across the bridge to Brooklyn, from where he hitchhiked home. My husband’s niece, a mother of three—the youngest only four months old—worked in the building across the street from the WTC. She managed to flee when her office was hit hard by debris. In the confusion and black cloud, she found herself on the Staten Island ferry, shoeless and bagless, and was taken into the home of a collegue. Ron’s two cousins who work on the 80th floor of the World Trade Center happened to be out of the office: one was away on a business trip, the other took their father to the eye doctor that morning! The old man’s progressive blindness had saved this son's life....

A few days later, at my local train station, I looked at the parking lot filled with unclaimed cars of people who went to work on September 11 and never came back.

In the coming months, I helped a friend who has been involved in fund-raising for social and psychological services for families of the deceased.

Ten years later, while I and the rest of the world have resumed our lives, there are over three thousand children in Long Island who suffer the irreversible, irrecoverable loss of a parent.

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Author Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, was just released by HarperCollins. Please see .

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