How were you transformed after Sept. 11, 2001?
Originally published on Morristown Patch · May 2, 2011
If it weren’t for Osama bin Laden, I might not be here today.
That’s a spooky and uncomfortable thought on any day, and one that’s been racing through my mind for the last few hours, since I learned the al Qaeda leader was killed by U.S. forces after 10 long years.
And it’s true. Had it not been for Osama bin Laden and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, I might not be a journalist. I might be a marketer, making a comfortable living while working predictable hours, practicing the subtle art of manipulation (say what you will about the quality of fairness in journalism; for most of us, that’s not the stated goal).
I’d been a journalist from the time I was 18, first for my college paper, then for community publications where I worked part-time while attending school. But after leaving college, I meandered over to what I thought would be a sane alternative to the grind of the news business, and got myself a job writing marketing materials and manuals for a now-defunct dot-com based out of Fort Lee.
On the morning of Sept. 11, I was driving into town when I heard a radio DJ casually mention there had been some sort of an accident—a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. It didn’t sound like much at the time—I thought we were talking about a small plane, and a small tragedy, but nothing approaching the scope of an event that would turn the world upside down. Minutes later, the morning unfolded into the blur of carnage and confusion that touched us all to one degree or another.
By the time I approached the on-ramp for a road just outside my office, police had closed off the entrance. I did what everyone nearby did. I turned up a news station and got out of my car, and found comfort in the company of other motorists as wide-eyed and stunned as I was.
I don’t remember most of the people I met that day. But one stood out. His wife, he told me, was in one of the towers, about halfway up. At this point, both of the towers were still standing; neither of us could imagine what was about to happen. He’d been trying to reach her on his cell phone for minutes, but couldn’t get anything other than a circuit-busy signal.
Don’t worry, I told him. The radio says they’re evacuating people. I’m sure she’ll be fine. None of us can get a signal. It’s going to be OK. It’s going to be OK.
I made it into work. I wasn’t long before the towers fell. It wasn’t long before rumor and misunderstanding and trauma and grief became the most powerful forces in play. It wasn’t long before the taste of smoke filled the air.
And it wasn’t long before the company that employed me saw an opportunity where most could only see calamity. It wasn’t long enough, at least not for me.
Among the products we had in the works was one dedicated to disaster recovery—to salvaging and mobilizing IT resources after a fire, or an earthquake or another extraordinary event wipes out infrastructure and data. And the higher-ups at my company soon realized—we’d just experienced as extraordinary an event as there could be, and a lot of New York-area businesses were going to need services just like that.
I sat through a lot of meetings about how to best communicate our offerings, about how to step up our level of service, and how to price our disaster recovery products intelligently in light of this new demand. It was that last part that made me particularly uncomfortable. It seemed so cold, so calculating, so predatory.
Looking back, I still can’t say whether I really take issue with what my company was doing. It recognized an opening, and it went for it. It wasn’t planning on deceiving or defrauding its customers. It wasn’t planning on breaking any laws. And the service it planned to offer could actually prove useful for companies that would need to get back on their feet after unimaginable loss.
But I was a kid. I was 22. I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities or personal ties. I had a streak of idealism. And something in the pit of my stomach was saying it was time to go.
When I told my boss I was leaving, and why, and that I might go back to news, she was furious. “You think you’re not going to have to be tough in news? You think you won’t be a predator? You think you can just be a nice guy and do that job?”
For what it’s worth, I’ve certainly had to be tough in news. And while I’ve tried to be a nice guy, I’m not sure I’ve always succeeded. But I’ve worked hard to adhere to the promise I made to myself that day—that I wouldn’t take advantage of people. I’ve had to cover a lot of difficult stories, many involving the deaths of people taken far too young, in tragic ways. And I’ve had to carefully negotiate the approaches to grieving loved ones tending to fresh and horrific emotional wounds. I’ve probably misstepped. I’ve probably crossed lines. But I haven’t brazenly pushed past them. I’ve tried to act with integrity, and I like to think that more often than not, I’ve succeeded.
I’m no more a perfect journalist than I am a perfect person. But the events of 9/11 set me on a path that I’ve been proud to walk. I’m not sure I would have found it, had the attacks not taken place.
We’ve all had transformative journeys in the decade since 9/11, many far more profound than my own. Today, as we grieve the losses of so many, and as we celebrate a justice that was too long delayed, I’d like to hear how the attacks changed the lives of others in our community, for better or for worse. Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
Louis C. Hochman is a regional editor for Patch.com, working with sites in and around Morris County.