September 18, 2012

50,000

It was a "back of the envelope" estimate of the number of dead on Sept 11, 2001. I'm an engineer, so that sort of calculation comes naturally.

I was out in Chicago that week; and watched the towers fall from the floor of the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, IL. Somewhere that morning I heard the total occupancy of the towers, and based on where the planes struck, the time the towers remained standing, and the number of first responders, media, and onlookers, that was the number I imagined I had just watched perish as the buildings collapsed.

A lot of things went right that day. The World Trade Center occupants and safety personnel had a test run back in 1993, and folks remembered and kept their heads. The terrorist attacks came early in the day before the offices filled. The towers stood long enough for many to escape. The buildings pancaked in on themselves, containing the damage to the World Trade Center footprint. When all was said and done, 3000 had perished - a horrific number, to be sure, but I never quite forgot my initial estimate. And so I walked away thinking "it could have been so much worse".

In the ten years since that tragic day, we've witnessed a lot of mass casualty events:

2010 Haitian Earthquake - 300,000
2008 Sichuan Earthquake - 68,000
2005 Kashmir Earthquake - 79,000
2004 Indonesian Tsunami - 230,000

Yet those things happened far away, the World Trade Center was right here - on the skyline, in our collective and recent experience, our friends and neighbors. And the attacks were not arbitrary acts of nature, of chance, of misfortune - they were deliberate, targeted acts.

Perhaps my initial calculation tempered the shock and grief, for me. I mourned the 3000 dead, but I also felt deep gratitude for the 47,000 I had imagined to be dead who remained alive. And in the subsequent years, I have carried that sense of proportion with me as I watched my government and country respond in terms of security, privacy, military actions, torture. I don't think it was wrong to seek retribution and justice. But I wish we had a more intelligent, more thoughtful, and more patient government at the time.

Revenge, as they say, is a dish best served cold. How much sweeter would it have been to track down and dispatch Osama Bin Laden had we not added nearly 6,000 dead, 40,000 wounded, to the pricetag. The terrorists could not have scripted out a better response to the attacks in terms of American costs - loss of life, loss of capital, loss of world reputation, loss of rights and freedoms, distraction from global and national issues.

So, on this 10th anniversary, I mourn the loss of those who suffered and died ten years ago. And I mourn the effects of the resulting 10 years on my country.

Not a very popular posting, I am sure.

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