Commentary: 9/11 and the pandemic

Image from ABC News of the North Tower burning at the World Trade Center on 9/11, 2001.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States killed nearly 3,000 Americans, altered countless lives, and changed the psyche of a nation. Twenty years later, I’m sitting in the Philippines during the pandemic remembering how the attacks affected my own life, and how the pandemic affects my present and will partially shape my future.

Both events ultimately taught me the same life lesson: our humanity is at its best when we are united.

Where were you on 9/11? I was at work in Cleveland, Ohio, at a local television station. I was supposed to produce “Live on 5” that day, but all local programming was preempted by national coverage on that day, and several chaotic, uncertain days afterward.

Theo and I talked about our 9/11 memories from 20 years ago as we wait out the pandemic in Malay, Aklan. He remembers Rehan Aslam calling him into work early. Theo remembers sitting in gridlock because of evacuations in downtown Cleveland.

Earlier this year, Reh accepted the news director job at WABC in New York City. Recently, our former colleague was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He’s had surgeries in recent weeks and Theo and I wish the best for Reh and his family.

9/11 made an odd bond between Theo, Reh, me, and everyone working at our Cleveland newsroom during the attacks and in the long days and weeks and wars that followed.

When I think beyond where we were that day, I have a fleeting memory of everyone coming together. I have a hazy recollection of people being kind to each other regardless of beliefs or religions or class. I even think I can almost remember some congresspeople singing the national anthem together.

I’m being a bit snide. But I do remember Americans were united for a while. Maybe it was months. Maybe a year. And then, our unity faded as we moved through our individual victories and defeats in life.

For me it was alcoholism, promotions, vacations, love, loss, layoff, marriage, travel, cancer, pandemic.

Today I’m in a unique position. You could say I’ve attained a bit of worldliness from much international travel. Outside of my American prism, I have talked with people from many other countries – including Afghanistan and Iraq.

The refugee camp in Greece where we volunteered for a month in 2018 intimidated me at first. I knew regular people were collateral damage in the revenge America took for 9/11. I was about to meet ‘those’ people.

At the camp, refugees who fled their homes in the aftermath of bombs dropped by my country — were kind to me. They invited me into their temporary, make-shift homes to offer me fellowship, food and drink when they had virtually nothing.

There was no reason to be fearful. They didn’t knife me or rob me or beat me.

Throughout our travels, I have come to know people from ‘evil’ countries. They are kind. Strong. Driven to try for a better life. Hoping for a shake at equality. They have dreams for their futures. They are just like me.

I always knew that, logically. But to experience this truth moved my soul, and I came to believe humanity is one race.

Project Elea one race sign

These days I observe what happens back ‘home’ during the pandemic, and it seems any lesson of unity learned by Americans from 9/11 is long lost. Media and money made a mess of things in more recent years. The divide is immense and it leaves me wondering what the hell ever happened to United We Stand?

Americans get their news from social media instead of news media. One of the negative results during the pandemic is people refuse vaccinations because they believe there is some evil plan to dominate the masses through mysterious substances inserted into bodies via the jab. I say the anti-vaxxers are led astray by ‘fake news’ and false prophets. Anti-vaxxers say the flip-side thing about me – that I’m led astray by ‘mainstream media’ and puppet leaders.

Anti-vaxxers are not totally wrong when it comes to problems with mainstream media. News media are owned by companies with financial interests above all else, and the public is innocently ignorant of how deep that problem is. There aren’t many “free press” examples I can think of. Even non-profit news organizations have donors who have agendas.

Countless journalists who work in newsrooms – like me and Theo and Reh and so many others – really had no agenda except to do a good job bringing news to people.

I remember I called my dad on 9/11 from the Cleveland newsroom after the first plane hit. At the time, my parents owned a delicatessen on Long Island’s north coast, an hour east of New York City. Some customers worked in Manhattan.

Dad, what happened?

A plane hit the Trade Center, kid.

What type of plane?

Dunno. Local firefighters are going in to help…

Then I watched United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower live on ABC News (my TV station was an ABC affiliate). In that instant, we all knew we were under attack, and the world would change.

Many years later, in December 2019, in Liloan, Cebu, Philippines, I saw news reports of a massive lockdown in major Chinese city I’d never heard of named Wuhan — a city with millions more people than New York. I sensed something was about to change, and today the world is still changing from the pandemic.

The global recovery is lopsided. Wealthy nations are so much better off than poor countries with low vaccination rates. I know this from experience. I’ve been in the Philippines since November 2019.

Religion, money, and ego power trips are human constructs that divide us. Science, vaccines, and empathy should unite us.

Maybe one day we humans will learn that without terrors to provoke us.

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