October 7, 2001
I am sitting at my desk in my home office dictating this article into my computer using voice recognition software called Dragon Naturally Speaking. Today is April 14, 2021. On this date in 1912, 109 years ago, the passenger liner RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank the next day. (Just a factoid for your brain to ponder.)
I just finished listening to President Biden announced that we were withdrawing the remainder of our troops from Afghanistan thereby ending a war that has lasted nearly 20 years. He said that the final withdrawal of troops would take place by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. As I listened to President Biden speak my mind drifted back to October 7, 2001, the day the United States sent troops into Afghanistan. Our military went into this country to root out terrorist, especially Osama bin Laden, who had attacked our country less than a month before.
Our invasion was announced by President George W. Bush on the morning of that day. For me, October 7 was a strange day and one that will stay with me always. After Roselle and I escaped from Tower One of the World Trade Center and after the news media took an interest in my story I began receiving requests to come to events to tell my story and to discuss lessons I felt we all should learn from the events surrounding September 11. My first real speaking engagement involved traveling to Vancouver British Columbia, Canada to speak at an event sponsored by a Canadian guide dog users group called PAWS. On Saturday, October 6, 2001 my wife, Karen, Roselle, and I flew from Newark New Jersey to Vancouver. Of course, since my escape I kept up with the news especially anything regarding the terrorist attacks.
On the morning of October 7 Karen and I went down to breakfast at our hotel expecting to have a calm meal and then a quiet Sunday preparing for the week ahead. No sooner than when we sat down Karen exclaimed, “We have invaded Afghanistan”. “What are you talking about”, I asked. She told me that she was looking across the dining room to a television where a reporter had broken into programming to announce the invasion. Almost immediately President Bush appeared to discuss the decision of the United States to go into Afghanistan to deal with the terrorist threat from people hiding in that country.
For Karen and me the announcement seemed surreal and almost unfathomable. Not only did we see this announcement while we were not at home, but we were in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home.
Of course, when others around us learned that we were from America they began asking us what we thought. Those with whom we spoke were supportive and encouraging about the decision of President Bush. In fact, the whole week we were in Canada we only heard one outspoken “expert” who said during an interview that America got what it deserved due to the attacks and that Afghanistan should not have been invaded.
As I now look back on October 7 and all the events surrounding and following September 11 I can but wonder what we have learned in 20 years? First, I do not at all buy into the concept that America got what it deserved on that day. I do think, however, that September 11, 2001 offered us an opportunity to decide to learn more about people different than we. For example, September 11 should have taught us that the attacks on the World Trade Center were not a reflection of the Islamic faith. Rather they came from a small group of extremists who wanted to impose their will on us and the rest of the world. Given history over the past 20 years we should have learned that while it is certainly necessary to keep a strong and active military presence, military force should still be a last resort and that we need to spend and should always explore more careful and peace-oriented methods of accomplishing our goals around the world. Even in our own country we should have learned as a whole to be more tolerant of others who think and who look different than us and who have different gifts them those we assume to be “normal”.
The week of October 7, 2001 for Karen and me was a unique and great education because we were in a country of people who, no matter how closely they are allied with the United States, are different than we. That whole week we had a wonderful chance to communicate and grow to understand people whose ideas and actions were different than our own. We had some wonderful opportunities to discover the value of real conversation and genuine respect. For my part, during that week not only did I interact with a number of people whose views, while similar to my own, came from a slightly different perspective, but I was also subjected to several national Canadian television interviews where I knew that in one way or another I was representing the United States. I realized early that my words and thoughts mattered and that I could only speak intelligently if I learned to understand those around me and their views.
I would never trade my time in Canada in 2001 for anything. As I have been thinking about that day since President Biden’s speech this morning I can but wonder why more of us have not learned tolerance and understanding of those around us. Like it or not, we seem to be almost as intolerant as ever for people of color. We who are white as a whole still have not taken the time to understand where and how our black brothers and sisters have grown up and lived. We have not taken the leadership position we should address their fears and concerns.
We still as a country have not learned to be tolerant and inclusive of all of our citizens. We see all too often attacks on our Asian neighbors. Over the past 4 years, especially over the last year during the pandemic, we have seen many attacks including a number from our government “leaders” without much effort by other “leaders” to stop them.
Many people of Muslim descent will tell you that they are still viewed with distrust and a lack of understanding. Why? Maybe more of us need to read and absorb the Koran to understand that the religious beliefs of these people are really no different than our own. Besides, we all come from the same God, something that the Koran, the common in the holy Bible also.
As a society, we still treat women as less than equals to men. Women do not get the same wage by large as men. Women face job discrimination on a regular basis. Possibly because of the accessibility to social media, we see more and more the sexual harassment mistreatment and abuse that women face.
Lastly, the approximately 70 million persons in this country who have disabilities continue not to be recognized, understood, or included. I could talk forever about the discrimination and lack of inclusion on a regular basis. We can’t even usually access covert 19 vaccination sites because they are by and large inaccessible. In the case of the disability discussion, it is not that we are hated, but rather it is simply that we are overlooked.
After September 11, 2001 I began to travel and speak to try to educate people about the lessons that we should learn from September 11 as well as to attempt to teach people about blindness and the myth and misconceptions that most people have about being blind. I’ve worked to try to eliminate some of the fears that people have about the loss of eyesight were losing their eyesight. Earlier this year, I accepted the position of Chief vision Officer with accessiBe, a company that is vigorously working to make the Internet accessible for all persons with disabilities. In part, I accepted this position because again it gives me an opportunity to help educate people more about disabilities and to have a way that I can actively participate in bringing about the change in our view toward disabilities that we need.
September 11, 2001 offered as an opportunity. It still does. The opportunity it affords us is to learn more about others and to become more tolerant and understanding of those were different than we no matter the difference. It also gives us the opportunity to teach them about us and to help them better understand where we come from. It all starts with conversation. The week of October 7, 2001 taught me this. I invite all of you who read this to step back, think, do some self-analysis, and actually go out and converse with those who are in some way different than you. You will find that the differences amongst people are not as great as you think.