Unable to fly home from LA on 9/11/01, we decided to try and find a rental car and make the 3,000-mile trip to NYC in a Dodge van. It turned out to be a powerful experience. I kept a diary on the road and then each night wrote a letter to the country and sent it to my mailing list. Now, with my new platform here on Substack, I’d like to share these letters with all of you for the first time since 2001. I will post each one on the exact same day I sent them out 20 years ago this week. All of you who are subscribers, free and paid, will get my “Letters to America On the Drive Home.”
Here is the first one I sent to my fellow citizens on September 12, 2001, 20 years ago today…
September 12, 2001
I was supposed to fly home yesterday, 9/11/01, on the 4:30 PM American Airlines flight from LAX to JFK. But tonight I find myself stranded in L.A. with an incredible range of emotions over what has happened on the island where I work and live in New York City.
We were awakened yesterday in our Santa Monica hotel room at 6:25am by a phone call from family back in Michigan. I picked it up, and before I could say, “who is calling me at 6:30 in the morning!,” the voice on the other end, not screaming, but quietly shaking, spoke these words: “New York is under attack.” Not yet fully awake, I simply responded, “New York is always under attack. You’re calling to tell me this?”
“Turn on the TV.”
I turned it on. I rubbed my eyes. The Twin Towers were on fire, smoke billowing everywhere. Our daughter was an intern in a building a block away. I hung up. I called her office. A woman picked up, yelling, “WE HAVE TO GET OUT!” — and then dropped the phone without hanging up. All of a sudden I hear a loud roar, like I must have called somebody on the subway tracks. The train kept getting louder.
“Something isn’t right,” I said, the noise in the phone getting louder.
“Look at the TV.”
I glanced over, and there before my eyes, one of the towers was completely collapsing, all 110 floors — while I was listening to it live over the dangling dropped phone from New York City. Watching it in LA, listening to its monstrous, deafening sound on the phone in NYC. Then suddenly, the massive smoke and debris from the collapse was enveloping the surrounding blocks in the area where our daughter worked. The abandoned phone in her office had gone dead. I choked. We panicked. We tried calling again. Nothing. We called her flip phone. A fast busy signal, and we knew what that meant.
We spent the next five hours trying to find her, to make contact with her. Tears alternated with stone cold silence during those hours, trying not to anticipate. We convinced ourselves this was not her day to intern, that she was in her college class, some 30 minutes away.
It was a sick, horrible, frightening day.
We finally got through to her by noon LA time. Relief. She said she and some friends were going to go down to the site to see if they could help. I begged her not to do that.
“The hospitals downtown are reporting that no ambulances are bringing in the injured. There are no injured. It seems everyone in those buildings who didn’t get out, died.”
On December 27, 1985, I found myself caught in the middle of a terrorist attack at the Vienna airport — which left 30 people dead between there and the airport in Rome. (The machine-gunning of passengers in each city’s airport was timed to occur at the same moment.)
I do not feel like discussing that event tonight because it still brings up too much despair and confusion as to how and why I got to live through that. A fluke, a mistake, a few less feet on the tarmac, and thus I am still here, there but for the grace of…
Safe. Secure. I’m an American, living in America. I like my illusions. I walk through a metal detector, I put my carry-ons through an x-ray machine, and I know all will be well.
Here’s a short list of my experiences lately with so-called airport security:
* At the Newark Airport, the plane is late boarding everyone. The ticket taker at the gate sees my name but with no seat number. She’s in a rush so I am told to just “go ahead and get on and take any seat” — without a valid ticket!
* At Detroit Metro Airport, I don’t want to put my lunch I just bought at the deli through the x-ray machine so, as I pass through the metal detector, I hand the sack to the guard through the space between the detector and the x-ray machine. I tell him “It’s just a sandwich.” He believes me and doesn’t bother to check. The sack has gone through neither security device.
* At LaGuardia in New York, I check a piece of luggage, but then decide to catch a later plane. The first plane leaves without me, but it has my bag! I could have put anything in that bag.
* Back in Detroit, I take my time getting off the commuter plane. By the time I have come down its stairs, the bus that takes the passengers to the terminal has left — without me! I am alone on the tarmac, free to wander wherever I want. So I do. Eventually, I flag down an airport pick-up truck and an airplane mechanic gives me a ride the rest of the way to the terminal.
* I have brought knives, razors; and once, my traveling companion brought a hammer and chisel onto an airplane (I’ll tell that story another time). No one stopped us.
Of course, I have gotten away with all of this because the airlines consider my safety SO important, they pay rent-a-cops $5.75 an hour to make sure the bad guys don’t get on my plane. That is what my life is worth — less than the cost of an oil change.
Too harsh, you say? Well, chew on this: a first-year pilot on American Eagle (the commuter arm of American Airlines) receives around $15,000 a year in annual pay.
That’s right — $15,000 for the person who has your life in his hands. Until recently, Continental Express paid pilots a little over $13,000 a year. There was one guy, an American Eagle pilot, who had four kids so he went down to the welfare office and applied for food stamps — and he was eligible!
Someone on welfare is flying my plane? Is this for real? Yes, it is.
So spare me the talk about all the precautions the airlines and the FAA are taking. They, like all businesses, are concerned about one thing — the bottom line and the profit margin.
Four teams of 4-5 hijackers were all able to penetrate airport security on the same morning at 3 different airports and pull off this heinous act? My only response is — that’s all that got through?
Well, the pundits are in full diarrhea mode tonight, gushing on about the “terrorist threat” and today’s scariest dude on planet earth — Usama bin Laden. Am I being asked to believe that this guy who sleeps in a tent in a desert has been training pilots to fly our most modern, sophisticated jumbo jets with such pinpoint accuracy that they are able to hit these three targets without anyone wondering why these planes were so far off path? I guess anything’s possible.
Am I also being asked to believe that there were up to 20 religious/political fanatics and that 4-8 of the 20 JUST HAPPENED to be skilled airline pilots who JUST HAPPENED to want to kill themselves today?
Maybe you can find one jumbo jet pilot willing to die for a cause on any given day — but FOUR of them? Ok, maybe you can — I don’t know.
What I do know is that all day long I have heard everything about this bin Laden guy except this one fact — WE helped to create the monster known as Usama bin Laden!
Where did he go to terrorist school? At the CIA-in-Afghanistan desert training institute.
Don’t take my word for it — I saw a piece on MSNBC last year that laid it all out. Bin Laden was grateful for what we taught him back then and I guess today he thought it might be fun to use those same techniques against us.
We abhor terrorism — unless we’re the ones doing the terrorizing.
We paid and trained and armed a group of terrorists in Nicaragua in the 1980s who killed over 30,000 civilians. That was OUR work. You and me. Thirty thousand murdered civilians and who the hell even remembers.
We fund a lot of oppressive regimes that have killed a lot of innocent people, and we never let the human suffering THAT causes to interrupt our day one single bit.
We have orphaned so many children, tens of thousands around the world, with our taxpayer-funded terrorism (in Chile, in Vietnam, in Gaza, in Salvador). I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised when those orphans grow up and are a little whacked in the head from the horror we have helped cause.
Yet, our recent domestic terrorism bombings, like the one in Oklahoma City, were not conducted by a guy from the desert but rather by two of our own citizens: a couple of ex-military guys who hated the federal government.
In the first minutes after yesterday’s attack, I did not hear anyone entertain that possibility. Why is that?
Maybe it’s because the Arabs are much better foils. A key ingredient in getting Americans whipped into a frenzy against a new enemy is the all-important race card. It’s much easier to get us to hate when the object of our hatred doesn’t look like the whites among us.
Congressmen and Senators spent the day today calling for more money for the military; one Senator on CNN even said he didn’t want to hear “any more talk” about more money for education or health care — we should have only one priority: our self-defense.
Will we ever get to the point that we realize we will be more secure when the rest of the world isn’t living in poverty just so we can have nice running shoes made by 12-year olds?
In a mere 8 months, Bush succeeded in getting the whole world back to hating us again. He withdraws from the Kyoto agreement, walks us out of the Durban conference on racism, insists on restarting the arms race — you name it, and Baby Bush has blown it all up.
All flights tonight across the whole country, including LA, are canceled indefinitely, maybe for the rest of the week. The last Amtrak to New York is sold out and has just pulled out of the station. We walked around the 3rd Street Promenade, mostly deserted, and stopped in one of the few stores that hadn’t closed and bought the new Bob Dylan album which was released today. The movie theater was also open, so we went in to watch whatever was on the screen. We saw “Moulin Rouge”, a welcomed distraction. Tomorrow we’ll try to find a rental car to drive the 3,000 miles home.
The Senators and Congressmen right now have just broken out in song on the steps of the Capitol, a “spontaneous” version of “God Bless America.” I must say, they’re not a bad group of singers. If only they knew what to do now.
Yes, God, please do bless us.
Let’s mourn, let’s grieve, and when it’s appropriate let’s examine our contribution to the unsafe world we live in.
It doesn’t have to be like this…
“Fahrenheit 9/11” Update:
Thanks to the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of you who joined me on Friday night for our first ever “Mike’s Movie Night” -- an anniversary screening of “Fahrenheit 9/11” featuring a live Q&A and two special conversations with Abdul Henderson (the former Marine Corporal) and Lila Lipscomb (the mother from Flint, Michigan) who both appeared in the film.
For those of you who could not join us live, I’ve got great news — the movie, the Q&A and conversations with Abdul and Lila will all be kept available on-demand on YouTube (and below on this Substack page) for at least the next week!
Just click on the player below, or go straight to my YouTube channel and enjoy!
Good Morning America:
Here’s a link to my appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on the 9/11 anniversary yesterday: