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What Osama bin Laden taught me

May 5, 2011

It has been a week of reflection for me. The academic in me has many things to say about the death of Osama bin Laden and its implications for international relations. But I am going to resist that impulse and instead share with you an email that I sent to my dear friend Veronica back in 2003 on the day that the US declared that it would invade Iraq.

I’m posting this email as a legacy of how Osama bin Laden affected my life as a New Yorker (ok, as a quasi-New Yorker who lived across the river in New Jersey).

—–Original Message—–
Sent: Wednesday, March 19, 2003 5:24 PM
To: Veronica

It’s the eve of war and the weather is sunshining-blue skies beautiful. I can’t help but be reminded that it was just as beautiful on Sept 11, 2001.

Last time, I had no idea what was about to happen. This time, I am assured of it, and I am terrified.

Here in New York, we have been told we should expect a terrorist attack of some kind. The only question is how successful it will be.

The person that I love works for a financial corporation that symbolizes American power. He reassures me that cement-filled vehicles have been stationed outside his building to prevent truck bombs from blowing up the trading floor.

I work for the World Bank, another symbol of American dominance and Western hegemony. Every day, I open my email and check the World Bank Intranet. Every day, there is another notice on security threats, or an email on evacuation plans. Most of the time, I try not to think about my colleagues being terrorist targets. Up to now, this has not been too difficult in the unsettling, but quiet peace of post-9/11 life.

Normally, I work from home, in the protected suburb of West New York, across the river from NYC. Next week however, I will be in the World Bank buildings, and I will struggle for normalcy in my day-to-day tasks. On Monday and Tuesday, I will be attending a seminar on post-conflict situations. The irony is not lost on me.

You are probably wondering why I don’t leave this godforsaken city. And I don’t have an answer. All I know is that it is hard to just pick up and go. I didn’t really understand this sense of inertia before, but now that I am experiencing it, it just seems to be so very human. We like our jobs. We love this city. And we just keep hoping that nothing will happen tomorrow. No dirty bombs. No anthrax. No subway attacks. No poisoning of the water system.

But is it worth it?

I keep asking myself this over and over.


In the years since 9/11, New Yorkers have regained their sense of safety, but I think it is important to remember what the after effects of terrorism look and feel like. I remember showing up at Ground Zero on Sept 13 2001 and speaking to the firefighters and watching 7 World Trade Center continue to burn. I remember the thin coat of ash that covered everything in the financial district. I remember the acrid smell. I remember walking into Grey Dog cafe on Carmine St and finding its normally lively atmosphere completely somber. Strangers shared coffee and stories with me. We cried. The city was in mourning.

A year or two later, I started making my then-boyfriend-now-husband carry a bar of soap and a towel to work everyday (as suggested by some government pamphlet) just in case there was a biological weapons attack. It sounds silly now (especially since the soap would probably have been utterly useless), but the fear was very real. It was all over the news that one of his firm’s buildings had been scoped out for an attack.

Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the attack of 9/11 made me realize how precious life is. And how it can all change in an instant.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Omar permalink
    October 7, 2011 8:09 pm

    Wow. Your “pain” is completely obnoxious to the pain of the thousands of people suffering because of the war on Terror.
    Try living in Lahore, or Kabul, or Karachi where its so unsafe we cant even go for a walk outside our house. Many of us here would die to be able to work and live in a city like New York (and heck youre from New Jersey and your complaining!). With poverty, famine, unemployment, illiteracy and constant militant threats we in Pakistan hardly need biological warfare to put a final nail in our coffins.
    “Is it worth it?”
    Grow up.

    • October 7, 2011 10:31 pm

      You missed the point. The email wasn’t a complaint. I posted it to convey a sense of the hysteria and paranoia from that time period and as a counterpoint to the celebratory mood that had taken over in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination.

      Obviously, there were and are places in the world that were much more dangerous to live than New York. I have since lived in several places where that kind of danger is real and present. But the fact that people are worse off in the Congo or in Liberia or in Northern Uganda does not take away from how individuals experienced fear in NYC after 9/11.

      Fear is not linear and it is not rational. Bear that in mind before you start judging how others experience it.

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