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Forbidden thoughts about 9/11: The readers respond
From "It was only white people" to hoping to get a 212 cell phone number to "I hope my father died," readers share their secret reactions to Sept. 11.

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Sept. 11, 2002  |  Last week, in a story about the forbidden thoughts that crept or leapt into the minds of otherwise polite Americans as they heard about the attacks on Sept. 11, or the events that followed the disaster, we invited readers to reveal their own quiet heresies via email. Hundreds of readers wrote, and a selection of their responses are printed below.

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I knew a guy who narrowly escaped getting hit by a falling body. The first e-mail he sent out, two hours later, was, "Hey, how do we get ahold of all the new 212 cell numbers that'll be available?"

I had another friend who watched the towers go down from Brooklyn, didn't know what to do to get out his sudden rage against Arabs, so he opened his refrigerator and started throwing out all his Middle Eastern food, yelling as he tossed items one by one into the garbage: "Fuck this baba ghanoush! We don't need their fucking pita bread!" I won't even tell you what he did to the hummus.

-- Name withheld

My husband and I were playing Jenga afterward. When the Jenga collapsed, I shouted "North Tower." Then the second round of the game, we shouted, "South Tower." Now we don't call it Jenga anymore. We call it North Tower.

-- Marisa

For the first month, every time they would show a picture of Osama bin Laden on television, I couldn't help but think that his face looked so sweet and kind. I kept thinking there had to be some mistake because he kinda reminded me of my dad's side of the family, who are all such gentle and loving people. Interestingly enough, I got over that. Now every time I see him, I want to kick his bony ass up and down the street.

-- Amanda E.., an Iranian woman in New York

When I heard there was a terror attack downtown, I hoped the situation would degenerate into urban guerrilla warfare. I was really psyched to go out and kick some Islamist ass.

-- Dave Gottlieb, student

At the time, my first thought was, "Holy shit. That's badass. I wonder what their ideology was. Hopefully they weren't Muslims."

-- Name withheld

I worked at a prominent chain of sex stores. On Sept. 11, I worked there all day, and as weirdo after weirdo came in, oblivious to the fact that hijacked airplanes had just crashed into and destroyed American landmarks and killed thousands of people (at that time, people were guessing up to 50,000 plus), I thought, Godammit. Of all the times to be on commission at a fucking sex store ...

-- Tim Link

In the days and weeks that followed the attacks I found myself worrying about the rescue dogs that were working the site. There were reports in the media almost daily about injuries to the dogs (and in some cases deaths) and I found myself wondering if it was really that important to recover things like concrete splashed with the victim's DNA.

-- Name withheld

I watched from my window, not on television, as the twin towers fell. As shocked as I was, I felt that this was not my problem as a black person. The people who worked at the World Trade Center were mostly white men, and so they had nothing to do with me as a black woman.

When there was an outpouring of grief and donations from every corner of the United States, I said to myself, If those planes had flown into a housing project and the victims were poor blacks and Latinos, people in Missouri wouldn't give a damn. When I heard that there had been over $1 billion in private donations, I asked myself where was this money before? Why hadn't it been donated to help the homeless, children who do not have access to an education, people who do not have access to healthcare? Here we have people rushing to write checks to people whose families will be taken care of by insurance or their employers.

To me, 9/11 was just another example of the American paradigm of deservedness and white entitlement. We are not all Americans; the white investment banker, the white fireman, the white police officer, the white EMT, they are Americans.

-- Name withheld

There's always been a joke among African-Americans about black folks and white folks during a disaster. My father was quick to point out a black woman who had managed to get out of the towers when she was actually on a floor above where the plane hit and she was still trying to get out of downtown when the reporter stopped her.

The fact that tons of white people just stood there near the towers looking before they fell cracked him up. It confirmed the stereotype of white folks never thinking anything is ever going to happen to them. And since black people are used to fucked-up crap happening to them all the time they were trying to get the hell out of there.

Of course I spotted a few African-Americans looking lost. My dad just said that they've been around white people too damn long. Real black folks run.

-- Name withheld

My father was one of those people who was supposed to be in the city that day but didn't go in that morning due to a freak coincidence. I hate him.

I wish he'd died in the attacks, because then memorializing him would have been easy. I wouldn't have ever had to hate him again because he would have been one of the people lost in 9/11. As we waited to get in touch with him, I prayed we'd never find him. No one knows this.

-- Name withheld

What cheeses me off the most about the Sept. 11 attacks is that it gave Americans a newer, better reason to be narcissistic. Before they were just (in their own eyes) the world's No. 1 providers of liberty, entertainment and industry. Now they're the world's No. 1 victims, too.

-- Name withheld

Dubya should write Osama a thank-you note. Remember the campaign slogan "I'm a uniter, not a divider"? Osama got the job done for him.

-- Paul Lorentz

"Well, I guess Gary Condit's relieved."

--overheard by Josh Anderson, 30, Arlington, Va., during the week of 9/11

2001 was a great year for me; I hated the twin towers and I hated the Taliban and now they're both gone!

-- Lesbian feminist from Greenwich Village

I love to watch the footage, over and over. I'm looking forward to the anniversary just because the videos will be played again. People claim they don't like to see the images, but I don't believe it for a second. I was sorry I missed footage of people jumping, because you just don't see that too often and that is rarely replayed.

-- Graphic artist, 41, Chicago

A friend of mine noted, as all the flag bumper stickers and crap started getting slapped up all over houses, cars and work cubbies, that some people weren't even really sticking the stickers on their cars -- they were scotch-taping them to the inside of their car windows. It was as if they knew that their surge of patriotic feeling would fade, and they wouldn't want to be left looking like a hick with the stupid flag sticker left on their car. Totally cynical, but I think that's true.

-- Maggie, Massachusetts

I'll admit my first thought was, Thank God, I won't have to hear [name withheld] bitch about her marriage anymore. Her husband worked in the WTC and they were on the road to a messy divorce. Of course, then I spoke to my friend, who was now the proud widow of a martyr -- and has since claimed full benefits. The hypocrisy of her attitude, especially as she spoke about him in the reverent tone normally reserved for saints when he was once known as TB (short for 'The Bastard'), nearly made me physically ill.

While I no longer associate with her, mutual friends have told me she now claims they had a storybook romance -- sure, if the author is Jackie Collins.

-- Name withheld

The deification of firefighters was the result of guilt. Most white-collar people never think of blue-collar workers at all or dismiss them as insignificant. When yuppies realized that firefighters would brave flames to save their sorry, self-centered lives they suddenly became ridiculously reverential. There is no convert like a new convert.

-- Name withheld, New York

"Oh, it started before 9. The casualties will be investment bankers."

-- Name withheld, on a first thought noting that banking is one of the few professions in NYC that gets going before 9 a.m.

My husband, a rather spiritual and caring person, truth be told, was incredibly pissed at how the reaction to the attacks messed up sports for the next week. Florida (his team) was supposed to play Tennessee in football the next weekend. It was, of course, canceled, and played closer to the end of the season. Florida lost, and lost the chance to be national champions as a result.

He's convinced that if they'd played Tennessee when they were supposed to, they would have won ... yada yada. He still talks about it.

-- Name withheld

When the towers started collapsing and all chaos broke loose, I felt actual excitement. Here was an event that broke banality. Finally, here was something meaningful. I had grown so tired of the meaningless fluff our continent had become so enamored with. Here was an issue of raw emotions. I was glad that this was happening to snap people back into reality, to snap them back to mortality. My last sinful thought was that of genocide -- lets just send nuclear missiles to all of the Middle East and let it be done once and for all.

-- Name withheld

9/11 was three days before my wedding on 9/14. Honestly, my first selfish thought upon learning that all the airports would be closed until further notice was, now my mom and the rest of my family would not be able to attend. We held the wedding anyway, with half the guests, and no one felt like dancing or celebrating.

I still feel a little used by that, especially since my first anniversary will be eclipsed by one-year later specials and flag wavers.

-- Aubrey Wilder, 25

On 9/11/01, I just kept going out to stare up at the sky. It was so quiet and empty -- and yes, actually beautiful -- without jets and vapor trails everywhere. What corner of Antarctica will I have to visit to to see another completely empty sky from horizon to horizon?

-- Name withheld

As a good Oberlin College alumni, I was horrified by my own cowardice in the face of 9/11 and its fallout. I wanted to be safe, at any cost. I thought that maybe me and my progressive friends had it wrong, had always had everything wrong, that we should go forth and bomb and destroy and invade and do whatever necessary to guard "our way of life," a phrase I have always hated.

Also, in thinking about the possible end of the world, one of the thoughts I was most upset by went something like this: "FUCK. If we're all barricaded in bunkers we won't be able to go to the movies anymore."

-- Lisa B., 34, writer and professor

I played the part, of course; I expressed the mandatory shock, outrage and sadness while watching events unfold with co-workers. I was, in outward appearence, the very picture of solemnity and sympathy. Inside, though, I was excited. I got the same weird sense of roller-coaster joy I do when a hurricane comes up the coast or a blizzard shuts down the city. In the chaos of the initial reports, I found myself disappointed to find out that some of the early reports of additional targets being hit were erroneous.

As the second tower collapsed, I found myself with a terrible sense of satisfaction. It was almost like, somewhere deep in the parts of my soul that don't see the sun, I was rooting for the event to be even bigger -- for it to cut so deeply through the banality of daily life, that things would never be the same. I suspect I am not alone. Whether it's shark attacks, wars, school shootings or child abductions, something in human nature gives people a sick thrill in such horrific voyeurism. That's what drives the infotainment industry we like to call the nightly news. In the Civil War, spectators went out to watch the battle.

Until fairly recently, watching public executions was regular entertainment for the masses. Few have the guts to admit it publicly, but we're all monsters.

-- Michael Middleton

I was an EMT at the time as well, and I remember the frustration and rage at how the Emergency Medical Technicians were getting nothing in the way of kudos or hero worship or anything. No, it was firemen-this and firemen-that and think of all those poor lost firemen. Statues and commemorations and speeches, lord the speeches -- EMTs and firemen are two very different beasts!

Stop mentioning just the one of them! I'm sick and tired of the goddamn heroic firemen! In the secret depths of my soul, I think they get all the attention because they have spiffier uniforms.

-- Katharine, college student, Bryn Mawr, Pa.

I'm a college debater and the topic last year (decided in August) was international terrorism. What I kept thinking all day was, Damn, my research is completely useless. Those assholes!

-- Name withheld

I started a doomed business last year and at the time of the attacks I was two months behind on my mortgage and facing foreclosure on my house. Somehow, mixed in with fears concerning WWIII, attacks on the West Coast, and the welfare of my New York friends, my mind kept saying, Maybe my mortgage company was in one of the towers. The thought was accompanied by this involuntary, gleeful little zing of hope. Maybe the records were destroyed. Zing. I might not have to pay my mortgage for years until they sort this out. Zing.

-- Name withheld

When the planes hit ... and when it was clear that they were planes bound for L.A. ... and when it was clear that a massive conflagration had ensued in the towers ... I reached for my calculator. This is a chemistry class thermodynamics problem, went my illicit, cold, train of thought. I use a TI-83 graphing calculator. I used it in my calculus classes at an Ivy League school.

I used it in my chemistry and physics classes there too. I got A's in the classes. Calorimeter problem, I thought; the carbon-hydrogen bonds of that jet fuel are breaking like crazy, releasing energy like crazy, raising the temperature like crazy ... I began to think about the contribution that the rakelike penetrating crash into steel could make to increasing the surface-to-volume ratio of the fuel tank's contents -- and therefore exposure to vaporization and combustion. More C-H bonds breaking simultaneously. Yes, the temperature (delta T in the equation) would render the temperature in the container one that would make solid steel into molten steel.

And then there were the people. I set about calculating the number of people who could be expected to have arrived at work in the towers, the number descending the stairs upon the first plane hit, the rate at which they could walk the stairs in an orderly fashion below the affected floors and the timing of the melting of the towers. Conclusion: that the numbers gone would be the number of people at work on time on a sunny, bright Tuesday in September that would surely have beckoned some to stay in bed with legs happy, moving against deliciously crisp sheets, breathing a late summer breeze through the window ... or to go buy corduroys and a work of fiction ... or to escape to the Catskills ... or to get to work early to turn over a new leaf. Yes, about 3,000 would be gone.

Calculating morbid stuff: It's cold, it's utilitarian, throws Kantian ethic to the wind, reduces people to numbers ... and is very pragmatic if we want to stop and think about what is going on. As Congress sang and swayed, I hit numbered buttons."

-- Jen

Within 12 hours of the tragedy, it occurred to me that they'll never, ever show that great episode of the "The Simpsons" where the family goes to New York and Homer has to take a whiz in the World Trade Center.

-- Daniel Price, 31-year-old writer, born in Manhattan, corrupted in Los Angeles

I was really annoyed with people saying, "I could have been there, blah blah." You weren't, so stop dwelling on it.

-- Meredith, 25, public relations executive in Washington

The night of Sept. 10 I had an amazing one-night stand with a hot, swarthy Middle Eastern man. I lived in Battery Park City at the time. The next morning, we gazed at my spectacular view of the World Trade Center. The last thing I said to him was, "The R train? Just walk toward those two towers." Fifteen minutes later the first plane struck. I spent the whole day thinking (among other things), He did say he was Israeli, right? I didn't just fuck a terrorist, did I? I hope he made it out!

-- Female, 30, from New York

Sept. 12 I heard some people talking about the different state quarters. Shuffling through their pockets they pulled out a few and noted that the New York quarter had a picture of the Statue of Liberty on it. "Heh, heh, lucky they didn't put a picture of the twin towers on it," one said.

-- Name withheld

Being largely ignorant of which businesses were located in the WTC, I searched the Web with faint hope that any of my various credit card or student loan debt records might have been destroyed.

-- Name withheld

Q: What's Osama bin Laden's favorite football team?

A: The New York Jets.

-- Terry Forte, who says the joke was conceived on Sept. 12

So, I remember feeling that people who weren't from New York were assholes. That they were interested in fetishizing my memories. Total strangers were probing deeply into the most terrifying experiences of my life and I hated them for it. Even my tears would not stop their questions. Even with my tears they could never understand.

--Aimee Dawson, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

This is just another reason for people on the East Coast to feel more important than the rest of the country.

-- Name withheld

The people on Flight 93 were not goddamn "heroes" or "warriors," they were passengers on the wrong plane. If I have to hear about Todd Beamer and "Let's roll" one more time I am going to puke.

-- Houghton

During the whole awful day, I was kind of excited that something had finally happened for MY generation so I didn't have to listen to my grandparents bitch about Pearl Harbor endlessly and ask why doesn't my generation get some direction.

-- Todd VanDerWerff

The first thing I did when I saw the first tower fall on 9/11 was whoop and holler with joy. I know for a fact that there were federal law enforcement agents in the WTC (including FBI and Customs). My family and I were victimized by the feds for a victimless crime in the past. I am an American citizen, but I hoped that as many of them would die as possible.

I'm really disgusted by Lisa Beamer, professional widow. First of all, she allowed herself to be used by the Bush administration less than a week after her husband's death by appearing at Bush's speech. That totally horrified me that she could go and wave to the cameras (all the while looking frail and injured, yet calm and self-possessed) and her husband had just died! And she's continued to take advantage of every media opportunity and now she's written a book!!!!

You know, there are lots of things I'd like to be famous for, but having a dead hero husband isn't one of them. That's one situation I wouldn't take advantage of!

-- Name withheld

For nearly every single day since Sept. 11, 2001, I've been saying, "When's the other shoe going to drop?" The dirty secret that I've never revealed to anyone is that there's a part of me that actually wants it to drop. Rationally, not really -- I've got family and friends who would be in serious danger if something happened in our major cities.

But the little devil on my shoulder keeps saying, "Come on already, let's get this fucking apocalypse OVER WITH." I mean, there are times when I'd almost feel relieved if something happened -- it would be better than this awful waiting accompanied by an overwhelming sense of looming doom.

-- Female writer, living in Texas

I work in central New Jersey and live very near the New Jersey entrance to the Holland Tunnel. I take the train to work and once the towers went down, you couldn't ride a train toward New York, even if you were going to get off before reaching the city.

A guy in a cubicle near mine offered to give me a ride, but there was a sign up that the highways going toward the city were closed too. I had no way to get home.

Our human resources department reserved a block of hotel rooms for employees who were stuck. I appreciated the room, but the hotel wasn't very nice and sheets felt like sandpaper. I was very annoyed at the hotel for forcing me to sleep naked between uncomfortable sheets.

-- Name withheld

The Sept. 11 attacks, and the interest rate drops that followed, allowed me to move into a house with a very affordable mortgage. The thing I've never told anyone was that day all I could think was, This is got to cause the economy (and rates) to drop, and now I can finally get out of the apartment. The thing I'm even more ashamed of: In the weeks that followed I sometimes thought to myself, Now if only another attack happens, I'll be riding the lowest interest rates in the last hundred years.

-- Name withheld

The Friday night before 9/11, I met a girl at a party and got her phone number. On Monday the 10th, we made a date to go to a party on Thursday the 13th. She called me on 9/11 to make sure I was OK, and we kept our date. We ended up going out four or five nights a week for the next month, having a glorious time, enjoying wonderful sex, and laughing a lot.

There was a true sense of freedom and peace after 9/11; that media crap about all New Yorkers coming together was real, and it made the city a really nice place to live, and a great place for romance. Plus, it was terribly exciting to know that I was living in the middle of history. For the rest of my life, when I look back on being in New York during and after 9/11, I'll remember having some of the best times of my life.

-- Noah Tarnow, freelance editor in New York

We were living in D.C., but it didn't really faze us that terrorists had hit our very own city. We attempted to go to the movies where a homeless man kindly told us that no movies were being shown that day; grudgingly ate at the only food establishment open --Taco Bell -- and ended up renting Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson Lee's staged X-rated extravaganza. We did the nasty all day (no thanks to Tommy and Pam), convincing ourselves that what we were doing was life affirming. And it was.

-- Name withheld

My sister moved to Brooklyn on the night of Sept. 10. On the morning of the 11th, she and her best friend coped the best way they knew how: They climbed to their roof with a bottle of tequila, watched the towers burn, and toasted the day with a black-humor contest. Whoever could think of the grimmest, ugliest, most horrifying joke would win.

My sister called out, "To an unobstructed view of lower Manhattan!" and tossed off her tequila. The winning toast turned out to be, "To employment opportunities in the New York Fire Department!"

-- Ivy

I frantically called a friend's cellphone in lower Manhattan. An elementary school teacher, he was evacuating students when I rang. He was in sight of the just fallen towers. He said, "When the radio played 'It's Raining Men' this morning, I didn't realize they were serious." When I reminded him of this charming comment some months later, he didn't remember making it.

-- Robert O' Shaughnessy, Washington

On Friday Sept. 14, I was in a shopping mall getting some last-minute items for a vacation trip the following day. I had mixed feelings about taking the trip, but it was too late to change the dates. On my way out I saw two people walking through the mall carrying candles, and I saw three others standing outside as I left. I held my tongue, but what I really wanted to say was, "You're deeply moved by the recent events, and the only place you can think of to share your grief is a shopping mall? Why not go to the church or house of worship of your choice? Or maybe the mall is your house of worship?"

Driving home, I saw a bunch of people on a busy street corner. One of them was waving a big American flag and people were trying to get drivers to honk their horns. It was all I could do to keep from rolling down the window and shouting: "Thousands of people lost their lives, and you're acting like your team just won the World Series."

-- Mitch Hellman

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About the writer
Damien Cave is a senior writer for Salon.

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