with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Terrorism Hits Home on 9-11

Front page of newspaper showing World Trade Center tower collapsing. The world is different today. Not only is the landscape different in New York and Washington, DC, the world in general has completely changed today. My world changed today.

Yesterday, a normal day, Naomi asked me if I knew where to get a deep fat fryer, the electric kind with a lid and filter to keep the greasy smell out. Her boyfriend, Leslie, has a birthday next week and she thought this would be a perfect gift. I told her about the shuq (marketplace) at Brent’s work. They have great prices on household products and appliances for company employees. We choose today to go there.

On the way there, she told me again how proud and impressed she was by the fact that Brent and I were still staying here in Israel, even with all the crap going on around us. The recent “crap” she referred to is the bombing yesterday of a small coastal city’s bus terminal by a suicide bomber. Five are reported dead and over 80 injured, but the real horror of this event for Israelis is that the suicide bomber is an Israeli citizen. He was one of the over one million Palestinians who chose to stay and make a life in Israel. He was educated for free, voted, participated within the community, has family here, and now this Israeli/Arab has threatened the lives of all of the others of his kind. He hasn’t just made a political statement with his death, he may have destroyed the life and security of that same community.

This morning the media announced that Israel’s investigation found and captured seven more Israeli/Arabs dressed up in bombs and ready to follow their friend. It puts a new twist on the conflict here, one that strikes even further terror into the hearts of Israelis living with random violence everywhere.

Little did we know that the twist of terrorism would strangle even more hearts and spirits only a few hours later.

Walls of Terrorism

As we entered the appliance store, the volume of the televisions assaulted us. Stretching out along every wall and wrapping around corridors in the middle were televisions, all turned on full blast and showing the same scene. The sound of Hebrew screaming from the televisions wasn’t unusual. Like Israeli’s normal street speech, shouted at the top of their lungs, they like their televisions and radios loud.

Not interested in the televisions but in the small kitchen appliances at the opposite end of the store, I started forward but Naomi yanked my arm. She pulled me towards the crowds around the walls of televisions. She kept shouting at me but I couldn’t make out what she was saying with the volume of noise around us. She leaned in to my right ear. “The twin towers of the World Trade Center have just been hit by an airplane!”

I knew that there was no translation problem between what she said and what she meant. All the color had drained from her face and her eyes were pinched and frightened. I’d never seen her so scared. We’d sat together and held each other through reports of horrible terror attacks before, but I’d never seen her this frightened. She repeated the sentence and I finally “heard” it.

The world didn’t stop for me, but it slowed down a whole bunch.

We stared at the televisions lining the walls in every direction. The Hebrew coming out of the televisions was fast and filled with English words like New York, twin towers, Manhattan, airplanes, and terrorist. As she absorbed the information, she translated, her mouth close to my ear, but it was a struggle as every second new information was coming out and she wanted to listen.

Overwhelmed, I abandoned her to the Hebrew televisions and found a television away from the crowd and turned up the English channel just loud enough to hear. One sales person, ignoring me, walked by and turned it down. I turned it up again.

Two page spread of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers.As I watched, the news crew shouted and the people in the store responded with shouts of their owns. I heard people burst into sobs, others screaming. Two people grabbed the arms of a woman starting to collapse to her knees.

I turned back to my private television, and the sounds around me couldn’t drown out what I was seeing. A second plane slammed into the second tower.

My eyes glued to my own private television, peripherally I could see people turning to each other in the store, some hugging, others just putting their hands on a shoulder near to them, embracing each other with the shock they were feeling. I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling alone among so many strangers, yet united.

The news program kept re-playing the plane slamming into the building over and over again, closeup and highlighted with a spotlight, the burst of flame coming out in slow motion from the front of the building as the plane slammed into it from the back. Horrible. I wanted to scream but I didn’t know how to respond to this. It was real and yet not real. Too far away yet right in my face.

I couldn’t absorb any more and struggled through the crowds around the televisions to pull Naomi out. “Let’s get our stuff and get home now.”

She nodded, barely able to speak. I knew I would be bombarded with the news when I got home and now was the time to just get on with it and get home safely.

A few minutes later, as we gathered up our supplies, we heard a huge gasp from the crowds around the televisions. Word filtered back to Naomi, then translated to me, that one of the towers had just collapsed. I stood still next to Naomi, unable to respond to the news. She shoved items into my hands and grabbed her cell phone.

Naomi called her boyfriend, Leslie, and family members, and tried desperately to call to the United States where her sister in New York. Leslie’s daughter was on vacation in Greenwich Village and had called yesterday to tell her father that she was planning to visit the World Trade Center the next morning. The lines were tied up and all she got were busy signals and mechanical auto responds.

It is amazing how something like this can make the world seem so small.

We hurried with our purchases. I’d adopted the Israeli mentality to keep on keeping on. Resume normal life activities immediately after the restaurant down the block had been blown to bits, taking with it a dozen or more people, a bus bombed, or nightclub shattered with home-made destruction. You must go on. That’s the only way you can survive. They cannot win. By living your life normally, they don’t win. Life goes on and fear recedes to the background. You learn to live with the terror as a part of day-to-day life.

I stood at the counter as Naomi paid first, my arms filled with drinking glasses to restock the ones I seem to break all the time. The clerk leaned in towards Naomi and said something softly. I thought it had something to do with the appliance she had just purchased, but when Naomi turned to me I knew the world was about to tilt again.

“The Pentagon has either been bombed or attacked as has the Mall in Washington, DC.”

This is the moment my world finally stopped moving. Everything sank into jello mode. When I started to push through the greenish colored cloud of artificial gelatin filling my mind, I whispered to Naomi to take the glasses out of my hands, emphasizing the “right now.” I looked down at my hands through the haze in my brain. They were shaking, and so was I. I turned and ran to the walls of televisions and begged someone to speak to me in English.

A young man stood near me and I directed my words at him. “I’m sorry,” he told me, “I don’t work here.”

“I don’t care if you work here. You speak English, right?” He nodded. “Is it true that the Pentagon has been hit?”

His face dropped into sorrow. “Yes. You from the US? You from New York? It bad. Twin Towers hit and fall down. Pentagon hit. Fire. Burning.”

Understanding a few of the words from the crowd and televisions around us like a bad chorus, I filled in the blanks of the chop chop English. Hearing his loud English words, many in the crowd turned towards me.

Israel newspaper front page news of the World Trade Center Attacks in New York.As the only American in the store, everyone was concerned. They moved close, touching my shoulder, stroking the back of my head, reaching for my hand to hold for a moment, eyes so sad. So much sadness around me. Empathy. I was one of them now. A victim of terrorism.

Israel has a strong connection with New York, not just from the immigration perspective, because of the strong Jewish community there. Many young people consider it part of their ritual into adulthood to spend a week or two there either just before entering the army after high school or just after getting out. Many people in Israel have friends and family living in New York. More importantly, every single person in that store had been affected by the terrorism that infects our lives here in Israel. Their compassion for America was only starting to be expressed and I was their first target.

I looked around at all their caring faces. I didn’t feel anything yet, just a powerful sense of “I want my mommy!” I smiled softly at each of the assurances I received as I made my way back to Naomi, thanking them gently. I couldn’t watch the hundreds of televisions any more. I wanted to go home. The world still moved around me in slow motion, I moved through it.

Naomi wrapped her arms around me and the tears came tumbling out of both of us. We were shaking, holding each other up.

“Let’s go home,” she whispered in my ear, grasping me once more tightly.

She helped me pay, the clerks wished me happy holidays (Jewish New Year) and gave me assurances that it would be okay. Would it? I could do nothing more than thank them for their kindness.

We walked numb to the car carrying our purchases. She cranked up the radio to listen all the way home, translating as she could, every few minutes hissing a “whoo-eesh” sound that is uniquely her own express in response to the shocking news and information. I finally stopped asking what was going on. I just wanted to get home.

I used her cell phone to call Brent and tell him I was on my way home. One of his bosses had come to him just before he left work to tell him that he’d heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center building. Brent couldn’t believe it and raced to the computer. The Internet sites like CNN and BBC and other news agencies were offline or inaccessible. Too many people had the same thought, eager for information, crashing the servers.

With the help of two Russian friends at work, they were able to get to the Russian news web sites in Moscow. They translated the news. Shocked, he raced home to join the billions in front of televisions across the world.

He filled me in on a few short details. The towers had both collapsed. Pentagon was indeed hit by an airplane and on fire. Another plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Maybe hijacked, too. All airports across the US have been shut down. All incoming flights are being diverted to Canada and elsewhere. Two more airplanes have just been reported possibly highjacked and are flying around and no one knows anything. He’s fine, but angry, and glad I’m on my way home.

I tried calling my mother on the cell phone but the lines were clogged.

The Love of Family and Friends

At home finally, I raced up the stairs, leaving the packages in the car. Naomi did the same, eager to be with her own family. Brent was glued to the television. He filled me in quickly. Little had changed. Southern Manhattan was being evacuated. All government offices and buildings evacuated and closed down. American Embassies closed around the world along with Israel Embassies. It made me wonder if other embassies were closing in response and protection? Who else might be considered a sister of the United States and a potential target?

The news quickly got redundant as there was no new news, just rehashing what was known to that point.

I went to the telephone. After six or eight tries, I finally got through to my mother in Seattle. She’d just sent her husband off to work and didn’t know anything about it. The world had tilted on its axis and she had no idea.

I told her to sit down, that I had news. She thought we’d been in a terrorist attack but I reassured her that we were okay. It was the world that was broken. I told her. She was shocked, but she has been through enough of life to take it more in stride than most people. After assuring her again that we were fine and would be fine, and would do whatever it took to stay fine, even if it means leaving Israel, I hung up, leaving her to turn on the television and catch up with the rest of the world.

After an hour, I finally got through to Brent’s parents. They had been trying to call us for over an hour. With visions from the dozens of televisions flashing before my eyes, again I made the same assurances, being a little more lighthearted as they had been watching the news when the first pictures came on as part of their morning ritual in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Brent finally shut off the television in frustration and anger, unwilling to keep watching the horror. He went into the kitchen to make dinner, the fumes of his anger darkening the apartment. I asked him if he wanted company or solitude and “alone with his anger” was the answer.

I went into my office and turned on the radio, trying to absorb the details so long denied me, but even that was too much. I turned it off.

I called a few friends here in Israel to check-in. They were more worried about us. I gave my assurances and we commiserated. One friend, Angela, works for the Swiss Embassy here in Tel Aviv. She promised that if she heard any news through her contacts at the Embassy, she would call me immediately. I apologized for abusing our friendship this way, but she shushed me down. “You know I love you. I would call you in a minute anyway, you don’t have to even ask. You know I would.”

I began to feel a little better when she told me that she had called her 80 plus year old mother in Switzerland to tell her about the terrorist attack before she could hear it on the news. She was worried that her mother would be frightened and upset all alone. Her mother calmly told her that she had heard about it and that she was on her way out to church to pray for the Americans.

“I love the Americans. They rescued me and saved my life several times in the war and after. I am going to pray for them because I want nothing bad to ever happen to them. They don’t deserve this and they need my prayers.”

Angela admitted that her mother had worked for the Mission in Geneva during World War II and the Americans did save her life. What a wonderful thing to hear. Not everyone hates America.

Brent and I ate mostly in shared silence, chosing to speak about other things if we spoke at all. We know that the next few weeks will be filled with talk and inquiry as well as planning for our safety and future, so now was not the time. Words will fill the air later. Now we absorb and consider the situation. Such old married folk we have become.

After dinner, I returned to my office and radio. The phone rang again. It was Risa Blair, my friend-like-a-sister. Back home in Vermont after her three month stay in Israel, we stayed in touch. I had considered calling her while trying to get through to the parents, but figured I’d just overloaded the phone lines enough with my two calls. Later, when the dust settled, I would call her, but she beat me to it.

“Are you alright!” I recognized her voice in an instant, a grating but energetic rasp, so New York.

“We are fine. I was going to call but lines are tied up,” I told her.

“I knew you were. I just had to call you. Even this far away, I know…” She never has to say more. We finished each other’s sentences.

We shared the same reassurances, repeating the same blames against the Palestinians and the Arabs, naming names of the bad guys, but it is all too early to be blaming anyone. No one has taken responsibility and the rest is just cheap talk. Wasted breath. The United States was quick to blame Arabs in the wake of the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing, only to find out that it was one of our own home grown and military trained idiots. Why should this time be any different?

“It’s too well organized!” This is the answer that rings in everyone’s heads, echoed by the media. It would take the combined efforts of at least 30 people, maybe more, to make this happen, not just a few wackos with an idea. And it took a lot of money. The hijackers, of which there appears to be four or five, maybe more, had to have money and help to make this happen. It had to have been planned for years not days. Who has the strength, money, and capability to make such a thing happen? There must have been an orchestra leader to create such a coordinated effort. It must be Arabs! It must be Muslims! Blame rings out from around the world.

Brent commented that as far as he knows the Irish and the Muslims are the world’s leading experts in terrorism, with a lot of funding behind them. There are a few militants in China and Japan, but they tend to attack close to home. But who knows. Blame blame blame. It won’t help those thousands who are probably dead and the billions around the world walking with fresh scars on their soul.

As the hours go by, I know the phone will keep ringing. As the days move forward, as they invariably do, the emails will start flooding in. I will issue the same assurances, getting shorter and more charming and funny as distance from the event eases the stress.

For now, as I listen to the radio at 9PM our time and 3PM New York time, the world is still reeling, buildings still burning, and the search for other possible terrorist airplanes is ongoing. The world is tuned into CNN and BBC along with Americans glued to NBC, ABC, and CBS, holding their breath waiting for the next part in the puzzle to play out.

Two planes devastating two 100+ story buildings into dust, thousands presumed dead and thousands more injured. Another plane destroying part of the Pentagon, the fire raging and a five story section of the building in dust like the World Trade Center. Another plane crashed in Pennsylvania, maybe related and hundreds dead there. Rumors of car bombs and other terrorist acts flooding the cities. Is this the end of it or will there be more to this wicked and senseless plan?

Even here in Israel, on the other side of the world, I wait with the rest of the planet to find out what the next chapter in the story will be.

Spy and thriller novelist, Tom Clancy was just interviewed on CNN about his reaction about the horror filling people’s living rooms. Folks, this ain’t fiction any more.

I had to call Dr. Alex about the class tomorrow, a scheduling change unrelated to the news, and he immediately said, “It’s terrible. Terrible. Horrible. So very terrible.”

I had just taught him the word “horror” and its relatives like “horrible” and “horrific” yesterday as we discussed the book he just finished reading, Frankenstein. Today, he got a chance to use his new words.

He’s right. This is terrible and horrible. What else needs to be said right now?

Tel Aviv, Israel

Updated September 11, 2013

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