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Paper Tiger

When Morning Edition on my car radio crackled with static and went out on my way to work, I just changed the station from WNYC to WHYY. I had just crossed the invisible boundary at Princeton that separates the New York news market from the Philadelphia market. Princeton has dead spots for radio and cell service. What I didn’t know or any NPR station for the next 5-10 minutes was that the broadcast antenna on top of the WTC north tower had been cut off.

When I got into the lab and fired up my workstation, I usually checked the news in my browser before I settled in for a morning of creating pretty protein pictures. But my browser was slow. Like impossibly slow. Almost like the whole world had logged in at once.

When my supervisor A. rushed in to my office to tell me that a plane had accidentally hit the north tower, I remembered that time about 7 years previously when some terrorists had planted a bomb in the garage of one of the towers. Then I remembered the day I took the elevator to the top of the WTC tower and thought there was no fucking way it was an accident. So that’s what I told A., except I left off the expletive because it was a work environment and it was still early in the morning. Well that explained the slow internet.

When the second plane hit a few minutes later, I *almost* expected it. It just seemed like the kind of thing a terrorist would do. You can’t just leave one smoking tower on the skyline. Symmetry demands two. It sends a clearer message. But we assumed the loss of life would be contained to the floors affected and that everyone else would be able to evacuate the floors like they did the last time.

When the plane hit the pentagon, I jumped out of my seat and ran out to the parking lot to my car to turn on WHYY. I remember saying to no one in particular, “we’re under attack” and I started to consider all the other targets because there were definitely going to be more. Then I recalled how my dad, the nuclear reactor maintenance specialist, took me on a tour of Three Mile Island and told me that the reactor building was reinforced to withstand the impact of a plane crashing into it. I was hoping the structural engineers had gotten that right and then wondered how they knew this day might come.

When the managers realized that no one was going to get any work done, they opened the auditorium and projected the network feed on a large screen. We watched in horror as the first tower fell. The room gasped and then cries erupted and fear was all around because some of those people had relatives working at the WTC and the their cell phones were busy. Our colleagues at the New York labs stood on the roofs of the buildings and watched the smoking towers in the distance.

When I heard about United 93 crashing somewhere between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, I wondered again what the target might be.

When the school called and told me to pick up Brook from her first week at Kindergarten because after school was canceled, the lab had already told us we could go home. By then, the computational chemists I worked with were sitting around talking about what was happening. My Chinese colleague K. turned to me with a smirk and said, “That is not surprising. The country that did this thinks America is what we say in Chinese, a Paper Tiger. You know what that is?”, she smirked again.

Then I turned on her and looked her dead in the eye. You never say that to someone who was born here, grew up here, shouted “this is a free country, I can say whatever I want” on the playground. We didn’t have military parades. We had sonic booms from jets that went faster than the speed of sound. We saved Europe- twice. We dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I said, “We beat our chests and roar and then we eat you alive. Whoever did this has no idea what they have unleashed on the world. You think Americans are soft? You have no idea what you are talking about. Watch us.”

I picked up my bag and left her a bit stunned. But not nearly as stunned as what she would see in the next few weeks.

We took it seriously. We sought vengeance. We delivered retribution and punishment and justice for the lives they took. We were also remarkably restrained. It would have been no trouble at all to reduce Afghanistan to a glass parking lot. I’m probably not the only one who wanted to do it. But our cooler heads prevailed. The pastor of the Princeton Presbyterian held an impromptu lunch service, and read the psalm about the waters of Babylon where the Israelites sat down and wept for Zion and then vowed to dash the heads of their enemies’ little ones against the rocks. Do we really want to do that?, he asked. Aren’t Christians all about peace? Which religion would have the moral high ground?

When the dust settled but the chaos remained, a new set of bad guys stepped in to take advantage of all that rage.

The rest of it we did to ourselves.