Sunday, September 11, 2011


Photo courtesy: Michael Foran

Ten years.  A full decade now of a world changed in a single day by 19 murderous men.  In some ways it doesn’t seem so long ago; in other ways it’s a lifetime.  My kids, especially my daughter who was only five at the time, probably have no real sense anymore of how life was any different before that day. 

Of course, it’s not the same for us living in Finland as it is for Americans Stateside.  As far as I can tell, life for Finns has not changed much except in the most superficial ways.  Thankfully, there have been no terrorist attacks here, and no pervasive feelings of insecurity.  A total of two Finnish peacekeepers have been killed in Afghanistan.  Finland was not among those willing to be dragged into the mess of the Iraqi war. 

So, the so-called War on Terror has been experienced by my family mostly as trivial inconveniences at airports, inconveniences that barely register with the kids since they’ve grown up with it. 

They don’t remember the days when boarding a plane was no more onerous than stepping on a bus, when a person could walk onto an airliner carrying a pocket knife or even – as my father would do – a .22 caliber bullet or two (he would sometimes have those in his pocket, for no particular reason).  Removing shoes and jackets to be x-rayed doesn’t merit a second thought for my children. 

We’re lucky that, on a very personal level, the events of 9/11 and its aftermath have not touched us much more profoundly than that.  Not so far.  Even ten years later, it’s too early to say it is quite over yet, as fears of a credible 10th anniversary attack in New York this weekend show all too well.  Perhaps, it will never be completely over within my lifetime, and in another 10 years we’ll again relive that day in 2001 with as much emotion as people are doing today. 

In 2001, I had spent “that day” in an off-site training session at a conference center surrounded by damp forest on the outskirts of Helsinki.  As I walked to my car for the drive home that afternoon, I got a text message.  At the time, several of my colleagues at Nokia and I were beta testers for a new mobile phone service being piloted by one of the Finnish telephone operators.  As part of this new service, we “subscribers” received breaking news headlines three or four times a day as text messages.  I’ll always remember that this was how I learned of the death of Finland’s iconic comic filmmaker, Spede Pasanen, a decidedly parochial event that will always be linked in my mind to the attacks that took place in the US four days later. 

The text message that afternoon read that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  I assumed it was a small plane, like a Cessna, a dramatic enough accident considering it involved the Twin Towers.  Long ago, when I used to play an extremely primitive version of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, I especially enjoyed “flying” my CGI “plane” through the narrow airspace between the Twin Towers.  And not being a very good pilot, I would sometimes crash into one of the buildings.  It was easy to see how the same kind of freakish accident could occur in real life. 

But as I drove home, news came over the radio that it was a passenger jet that had crashed into the North Tower, an accident much harder to comprehend.  I called my wife, who immediately went online and fed me updates from CNN as I navigated rush hour traffic.  By the time I picked up my daughter from daycare, the second plane had hit and we began to realize the truly sinister nature of what was happening in Manhattan. 

I remained glued to the TV for the rest of the day.  My youngest son came in from skate boarding and found me standing in front of the TV, visibly upset.  And that’s how I remember watching the tragedy unfold, mostly standing, unable to sit, as I tried to take in first the horrible images of the fires raging out of control, and then the unworldly sight of the towers falling in on themselves.  I recall saying aloud, mostly to myself:  “There will be consequences.”  That sounds absurdly obvious, and it was.

Because we didn’t have a satellite connection in our house at the time, I could see only the Finnish news and couldn’t follow the full story being reported, beyond the stark images that needed no explanation.  A British friend with cable invited me over to his apartment to watch the coverage in English, and I sat a few hours there listening to the BBC or CNN until I felt exhausted. 

All that has happened since – the wars, the extra security, the changed political and diplomatic landscape – has now been woven into the fabric of “normal life”, so much a part of our world that we might often forget the enormity of the event that started it.  Not this weekend.  As each news outlet has aired its own special remembrance of that horrible event, commemorating the nearly 3000 innocent people who died that day, the footage and images from 9/11 bring back to me the shock and sadness I felt in Helsinki 10 years ago as we watched the US being attacked.

Bizarre footnote:  Finland has one especially strange connection to the events in New York ten years ago.  It turned out that for some time, perhaps even years, prior to that September a woman in Finland had been a pen pal with Mohamed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers.  Through that correspondence she had developed, what was for her, a close personal relationship with this man, whom she likely had never met. 

Though perhaps no one will ever know the full circumstances of her relationship with Atta, I’ve understood it was completely non-political, only personal, maybe delusional.  Beyond that, I wouldn’t want to speculate about the woman’s state of mind.  Suffice it to say that she felt a strong enough personal bond with Atta that, even after his murderous actions on September 11th, her grief and sense of loss compelled her to commemorate his death.  Apparently, after several attempts, she was finally able to persuade the Helsingin Sanomat to publish an obituary for him, I dare say the only one printed anywhere in the Western world.  Even now, simply looking at the line denoting the date of death – “11.9.2001 New York City” – sends a chill down my spine. 

A very misguided tribute to a mass murderer.

1 comment:

  1. Finns probably haven't changed much but Finland has been dragged to stomp on the human rights in the name of War of Terror along with the rest of the world.

    Many clueless people seem to be gunning for a full-blown police state. On the face of it, I'd say bin Laden won.

    For what it's worth, I'd say the woman mourned the death of the man she knew, whether that person ever existed or not. Frankly, when we lose the capacity to mourn for the guilty, we've already lost.