Friday, September 10, 2010


We had just come from dinner at the cafeteria when we noticed a commotion at the ABS-CBN newsroom.

Everyone was glued to the TV monitor hanging in one corner of room, close to Atty. Dong Puno’s office. CNN was showing one of the World Trade Center towers covered in a thick plume of smoke.

People looked at each other, confused. We hadn’t yet grasped its significance and we kept asking, to ourselves as well as colleagues around us – what’s happening? Someone told us a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. What went wrong?

Then, suddenly, we saw a jetliner hit the second tower, propelling flames and debris into the gray sky. There was an anguished gasp, some cursed, and then a deafening silence. Even the CNN anchors’ annotation seemed to drown from the enormity of what we just witnessed.

The terror attack in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC spawned two wars and a deadly conflict that rages even today.

That was nine years ago to the day. It feels distant, especially for someone who witnessed the carnage from thousands of miles away.

One of my first obsessions after settling here was finding the spot where the third hijacked jetliner crashed into the Pentagon.

The Pentagon is a major public transport hub so it’s easy to get there. Seeing the edifice for the first time, our immediate impression was how huge and formidable it appears.

Through the years, we’ve met people who, around this time of the year, recall September 11 as if it was yesterday. The area around the Pentagon is often filled with planes taking off and landing at the Reagan Airport just across the Potomac River. People are so accustomed to their sight and noise, few bother to look up.

Only after the attack did people remember one plane in particular because it flew so low.

We interviewed for The Filipino Channel some years back, a Fil-Am woman from Manassas who survived the attack on the Pentagon. She worked there and was trapped in the rubble.

She appeared alright until we asked her about that day. Her voice wandered off, her hands seem to tremble and her eyes appear to fix to some distant space where not even her husband could follow.

Yet her message was clear, she’s grateful to be alive.

Longtime Fil-Ams would describe to me how it was like here before and after September 11, as if it was some clear demarcation in time – how easy it was, for instance, to get a Virginia driver’s license (some of the 9-11 plotters got their licenses here).

The changes seem to become part of routine and what was extraordinary right after September 11 has become as ordinary today as taking your shoes off for inspection at the airport.

Coming from a country still wracked by bloody strife, we are amazed at how life here seems – on the surface at least -- unchanged, unyielding. People have stopped looking up at the planes. People laze in parks, reading books or playing baseball or lacrosse. DC residents may balk when the Secret Service close off the streets, but many are resigned this was a price for living in the nation’s capital.

“Survival” is the default setting for most Americans, with or without al-Qaeda.

Obviously, Americans have their soldiers to thank for chasing the nation’s enemies far from its borders, carrying the war to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Somalia and even the Philippines.

How much has America changed?

The US has elected a president who’s embraced the Islamic world like no other. And yet there are some who want to burn the Quran.

The country is in the grip of a stubborn recession and millions are unemployed. Those are problems Americans can hardly blame on al-Qaeda. Perhaps they are added proof of just how inutile the al-Qaeda grand strategy to “force America to its knees”.

We’ve come to the conclusion the only people who can actually defeat America, are the Americans themselves.

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