As a lawyer, it’s not uncommon for me to be at a company’s headquarters, conferring with clients and reviewing documents. I was doing just that on September 11, 2001, ensconced in a conference room in an office building adjacent to La Grande Arche de la Defense, in Paris, France.
At about 3:00 in the afternoon, Paris time, I had a few minutes to myself and so I used my cell phone to call a friend (now my wife!) in Dallas, Texas. It was 8:00 that morning in Dallas, 9:00 in New York City.
When my friend answered, I joked that, being a lawyer, here I was in Paris, but in a conference room going through a stack of documents. She interrupted to say that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. She was watching “Good Morning America,” which was showing a live view of the towers. At that point the type of plane, and how the crash had occurred on such a clear day, were not known.
Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Oh my God! Another plane just hit the second tower, and it looked like a passenger jet.” Immediately we knew, along with many throughout the world, that we had suffered a horrible terror attack.
I told my French hosts what I had heard. They tried to get more information, but there was no television in the offices and many Internet sites had crashed from the volume of traffic. Without continuous news and live video, it was hard to know how bad things were in Manhattan, much less what else was going on.
A couple of hours later two women came into the conference room, in tears, to give me the stunning news (which they had heard over the radio) that both towers had collapsed. Another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. There were reports that additional planes might have been hijacked, with their whereabouts unknown.
Nearly speechless, we speculated that tens of thousands might be dead. Others in the office came in to speak to me, to express shock and sympathy to the only American handy.
By this time it was nearing 6:00. My client offered me a ride to my hotel. As he drove we both heard the French radio report, Les tours jumelles n’existent plus — “The Twin Towers are gone.” It was still difficult to fathom the enormity of the atrocity. At that point I had seen no television — yet.
Not wanting to be alone that evening, one block off the Champs Elysees I found an Irish pub with widescreen televisions. It was packed, a gathering place for English speakers, native and otherwise. I met a Dutch couple distraught because a brother worked in the World Trade Center and they had no news. This and similar conversations were punctuated by repeated showings of the second plane hitting the tower, people falling to their deaths from the top floors, and other scenes now forever seared in our memories.
The following few days brought many touching moments. From French men and women, in cafes and shops and on the street, unsolicited words of comfort and support were common, and often accompanied by a touch on the sleeve or a pat on the shoulder.
From more than a few, also, came expressions of solidarity as news of the likely source of the attacks emerged. And the television reports brought more than pictures of the towers aflame and collapsing. There were repeated shots of young Palestinian boys brandishing AK-47s, cheering in the streets, plainly jubilant at the deaths of so many Americans. Their rejoicing made it easy to identify the enemy.
I think today of those boys and their French and American counterparts. They are all now in their late teens and early twenties.
In 2001, the French and American boys were in elementary school at the time of the attack. Whatever they were learning that day, we can be sure it was not that they should rejoice at death and suffering by people of a different religious faith in a faraway land. Now, they are in college, or in the military, or trying to earn a living in a difficult economy. By and large they are tolerant of other races and religions, and generous to those less fortunate. It’s how they were raised.
The Palestinian kids who cheered at the slaughter carried out in the name of their religion are another matter. They have been raised to consider murderous terrorists heroes, by way of, among other things, children’s television shows that glamorize suicide bombing. Taught in their early school years to memorize the Koran, they are now likely unemployed — thanks to their poor educations and their basket-case governments and economies. And they are likely unmarried, thanks in part to their religion’s practice of polygamy, which may also have seen their sisters married at 10 or younger to middle-aged men already sporting two or three other wives.
Now at or near the age of their “heroes” of 9/11, the Palestinian boys who cheered that day are still in the streets, and still angry. They are the prime candidate pool for tomorrow’s terrorist cadres and suicide bomb attacks. Their younger siblings are growing up in the same toxic environment, with leaders who prefer continued conflict to peace.
Ten years on, too many in the West are willing to excuse or appease these voices of hatred. Today Christians and other non-Muslims are persecuted more than ever throughout the Muslim world. And in the West, advocates for Sharia law seek to establish a beach head for the intolerant doctrines that make for such misery and oppression in their homelands. So, with those Palestinian boys now entering adulthood, we had best persist in our vigilance.
I treasure the copy of French daily Le Monde I brought home from that Paris trip. Above a color photo of the flaming towers, the headline proclaims, Nous sommes tous Americains — “We are all Americans.” More to the point, we are all beneficiaries of the democratic and tolerant values and traditions of the West. Let us remember that they are worth defending.
Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer, whose op-eds and book reviews have also appeared in The Washington Times and The Richmond Times-Dispatch.