Forbidden thoughts about 9/11

From gloating about getting off work to enjoying the "country road" ambience of lower Manhattan to hating on-the-make firemen: A spectrum of improper responses to the terror attacks.

By Damien Cave

Published September 7, 2002 7:24PM (EDT)

Black smoke, orange flames, falling bodies and crashing planes. Our brains are branded with the images of Sept. 11 -- and our public selves are programmed to say the right things about them. But what did we really think when we first confronted this colossal event? What seditious words arose, never to be articulated in polite company? And when the smoke had cleared, replaced by a fog of analysis, grief, patriotism and hero worship, we selected our official opinions with care. What did we really believe? What forbidden thoughts did we keep to ourselves?

The outpouring of expression began just hours after the World Trade Center towers collapsed. One year after the trauma, that flow is cresting with the publication of dozens of books, many of them meant to help put the events and our emotional reactions into perspective. Among the more reflective tomes are those that attempt to act as records of our thoughts, feelings and actions at the time of the tragedy and immediately after. Many of them do an admirable job.

Dean E. Murphy's "September 11: An Oral History," for example, contains dozens of compelling personal stories: everyone from traumatized firemen to heroic survivors to those who rushed to the towers in search of lost relatives is represented, often in searing, literary detail. The fact that each person's story was dictated rather than interpreted by the author testifies to the power of the tragedy -- and, perhaps, to the brilliance of Murphy's interviewing and editing.

But even though Murphy's contribution stands out as one of the more enlightening commemorative books, it doesn't necessarily cover the full range of our response. Like so many of the other books now on shelves -- with titles like "Out of the Blue," "Men of Steel" and "Strong of Heart" -- Murphy's oral history treats 9/11 as a devastating tragedy that led only to pain and sadness, or heroism and bravery. It is not a complete record of our reactions, but rather (as the book jacket claims) "a tribute to the spirit of cooperation and the outpourings of empathy that marked that day for so many people in the United States and abroad."

What Murphy and many other authors miss is the fact that cooperation and empathy were not the only emotions of the day; they were simply the publicly expressed emotions of the day. Many of us didn't just feel sad or angry or proud in the face of the day's horrors -- or when President Bush and the media requested it. We also felt indifferent, confused, selfish, annoyed and, in some cases, even happy or excited. We had thoughts that we couldn't explain or control, thoughts we didn't express, except perhaps in whispered conversations.

A few rebellious thinkers with access to the media actually unleashed their forbidden thoughts, electrifying and infuriating a tender and almost universally righteous public. Some of these blurters issued contrite retractions, a few held firm in the face of public denunciation, sure to earn footnotes in future histories of the events.

All these forbidden thoughts are sometimes painful or mortifying to hear. Many could be accurately described as disgraceful. But they emerged from our mental ether, and they deserve to be part of the record of that day and its aftermath. They are necessary evils to be countenanced in an honest analysis of the time. They keep us from creating a distorted, overly sentimental picture of our national reaction to disaster. And perhaps, as in therapy, these are the most useful thoughts to confront as we attempt to recover from the violence of the day.

We asked friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers to share the thoughts about Sept. 11 that they had -- or heard -- and tried to hide. Surely there are many more, and we invite readers to contribute theirs by e-mail to For now, we offer what we have collected in the past few weeks.

"I was actually moving the week of 9/11 and I just wanted to find a way to get out of work so I could pack. When the attack happened, I was thinking, This is so cool. I can go to the dentist and still have time to get everything done." -- Ruth Wagner, 28, an editor in New York

"It's gorgeous out. Turn the television off." -- Author Barbara Garson's response to her husband's phone call telling her that the towers had been attacked.

"Thank goodness they got those buildings. I've always hated them! They're so ugly." -- New York woman, overheard in London on the day of the attacks

"[My boyfriend] is a surfer and when he was dismissed from work, he was stressing not about the attacks but about how to get to the beach. He left me in Manhattan to go surfing on Long Island." -- Wagner, on how her friends reacted

"We walked to [my friend's] apartment in SoHo at about 10 p.m. on Thursday the 13th. The streets below 14th were deserted of cars, and for the most part, of people. A light haze of smoke and dust hung in the air. It was still and warm and surreal. And incredibly beautiful. I wished that New York could be like that more often. How many times will the middle of Broadway feel as if it were a country back road?" -- Kimberly Oliver, 33, a Manhattan marketing consultant

"Jeez, I'm a New Yorker. And now I'll never get to go up in the Twin Towers." -- Wall Street worker, name withheld, in a bar during the week of the attacks

"Best special effects I ever saw." -- Two teens on a corner in downtown Manhattan, just hours after the collapse

"You should take a picture." -- Novelist Colson Whitehead, to his wife, while watching the towers burn with a large crowd in Brooklyn

"What a great fucking action scene." -- New York film producer, describing the attacks less than a month after they occurred

"I'm sorry to say it, but it was the most exciting day of my career in journalism. It was really fuckin' fun." -- A New York reporter

"On the big day, my husband [a journalist] had to go to work immediately. He was covering the story all day and all night. I was sent home from work. I was glued to the television all day, dialing the numbers of all my relatives in New York (I'm from there originally), and of course getting through to no one. I was scared and alone and panicking.

"I called up my boyfriend -- Do I have to use the word 'lover'? It's so cheesy -- who was also sent home from work. We went to a local Chili's, drank gin-and-tonics and watched the TV. Then we got a hotel room together and in between making love, we watched the events unfolding on the TV.

"So basically I used the day off as an excuse to get a hotel room with my boyfriend. But the truth is I was scared and devastated by the events and it felt right to spend it with someone I loved.

" I've never told anyone this and it feels great to finally let it out. Especially since I know for the rest of my life that every year when 9/11 comes I'll think of how I spent it having sex with my secret boyfriend. I don't regret doing it, though." -- Texas woman, name, age and occupation withheld

"I volunteered downtown for a few weeks right afterwards with a group of actors. They put me in a coffee shop. Most of the people were doing it as a social outing, a way to get publicity, a way to make themselves important. There was a lot of talking on the cell phone. There were a lot of propositions. A 21-year-old national guardsman proposed to me.

"It was there where I started to hate cops and firemen. The cops in the middle of the night were kind and friendly and appreciated the coffee and the food and the company. We all shared being freaked out together. But come daybreak? A bunch of fat cops throwing our food around because it wasn't good enough -- we didn't have skim milk for coffee, or it wasn't the right kind of bread.

"I'm sure some people treat service people that way, but it was beyond my comprehension -- especially while they talked, not quietly, about retiring because they were making so much overtime and their pensions were based on their previous year's earnings. All while we stood out there all night for free making them hot coffee and soup.

"And really, what's all this shit about the fireman being heroes? That's their job, to be heroes. That's why they signed up. Once a month you go run into a burning building and grab a cat and the rest of the time you sit in the firehouse and play cards.

"I used to think all firemen were hot. I now think they are slimy. At least four times last October I was in a bar where a fireman was so forward and sleazy, saying things like 'It's been so hard. You can't believe it' while pawing me. I'm sure his buddy who died running into a building on fire would feel vindicated by this slimeball getting laid, but I'm not going to participate." -- Anne, 31, an advertising sales manager in New York

"I hated the New York Times profiles of all the deceased. It's just that everyone they wrote about -- all 2,000 people -- were depicted as really nice, really devoted parents who came home every night at 5 p.m. to make dinner, play with the kids, never missed a soccer game, and proposed to their girlfriend in a really sweet, creative way. I would read these profiles every day and think, yeah right. Was everyone in the WTC a super amazing person? Someone who worked there must have been an asshole." -- Female reporter at a major business magazine

"'Throw him/her in the rubble,' became the standard response to annoying people for months to follow. Easily the worst [reaction], though, was the dramatic reenactment performed by me and two of my friends a couple of days after the attacks, but you'd kinda have to see it to believe it. Suffice it to say, when my two friends, playing the towers, were hit and collapsed, I stayed on my knees flapping my arms: Yep, Building 7 on fire. Pretty shameful." -- New York book editor, 29

"Since I tend to be self-referential, I read [the New York Times'] 'Portraits of Grief' -- at least the early ones, the ones in September and October, when there were more details about the deaths -- as object lessons in why one should never aspire to be a model employee. So here's what I learned and took to heart:

"* Come in late -- and never come in early just to make up the time if you have to leave early. (Several people died this way.)

"* Run errands on company time -- preferably in the morning. (See above: That's what saved some workers.)

"* Never come back a day early from vacation so you can take a day off in the future. (The way one mom did: She came back so she could be off for Halloween. It would have been better for her to call in sick on the 31st.)

"* After you give notice, never tell your boss you'll stick around until they find someone (as the pastry chef for Windows on the World did). -- A 46-year-old magazine editor in New York

"I know it's not PC right now to be sick of flag waving and 'God Bless America,' but I really, really am. I just feel like the whole thing has been cheapened by our culture's saturation of patriotism." -- Network news producer, 29, in New York

"Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a 'cowardly' attack on 'civilization' or 'liberty' or 'humanity' or 'the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word 'cowardly' is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others." -- Susan Sontag, in the Sept. 24 issue of the New Yorker

"Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani transformed from a crazed, intolerant zealot into a sensitive and compassionate leader. Wasn't his new subdued personality just the effect of his cancer medication?" -- An editor and writer in New York who served at least 2,000 meals and helped about 600 families file relief claims between September and New Year's

"I was upset that Bush would get an undeserved boost in popularity. I also worried that support for valuable domestic programs would be diverted to the war effort." -- 29-year-old lawyer from Arlington, Va., on her initial thoughts after the attack

"The day of 9/11, [my friend and I] spoke frequently, as we always did, being that we were inseparably close. The next day she called and said that she was walking in her neighborhood and some 'Indians wearing saris' were walking down the street and she spit on them -- it was her patriotic duty. I was stunned. She continued to say that everyone at [her company] felt the way she did: that Indians were responsible and that they should all be sent back to their home countries.

"I tried explaining that India is predominantly Hindu and at that point they thought the terrorists were extreme Muslims from Afghanistan. She didn't seem to care at all. Incidentally, we no longer speak." -- Soozan Baxter, a 27-year-old Indian woman, who has since moved out of New York, recalling her close friend, a graduate of Stanford University

"We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" -- Ann Coulter, in a Sept. 14, 2001, column that focused on the death of Barbara Olson, wife of the U.S. solicitor general, Ted Olson

"If I see someone come in that's got a diaper on his head and a fan belt [wrapped] around [it], that guy needs to be pulled over and checked." -- Rep. John Cooksey, R-La., speaking to a network of Louisiana radio stations. On Sept. 20, he retracted the statement. "I chose the wrong words," he said, according to media accounts.

"The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" --  The Rev. Jerry Falwell, in a Sept. 13 appearance on "The 700 Club." He later apologized for making the statement.

"There is a God -- Barbara Olson is dead." -- unattributed

"I sort of felt, hey, they finally caught up to us. All the dirt the U.S. has thrown finally came back around to kick us hard where it hurts." -- Dave Elsaesser, 28, a work-readiness instructor at a San Francisco nonprofit

"I had a thought, when it first happened -- the kind of conspiracy thoughts that liberal college students have who studied poli sci and read too much about Nicaragua or Colombia -- that maybe the Americans let it happen so that they could use it as a tool to get serious in Iraq. Then the buildings fell and all the liberal poli sci hippie stuff drained out of my body and for the first time ever I felt, kill them all. -- Anne, the New York advertising sales manager previously quoted

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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