Professor Peña asked us, “Is there an ecological explanation for the September 11 attack?” He posed this question in the final few moments of our first Environmental Anthropology class meeting. I was about to get my first exposure to the post-structural analysis with which deep thinkers use deconstruction to convince themselves that all values are situational. It came as a surprise to me. I left college for law school in 1975 thinking that Sartre was correct; we choose who we want to be.
Shiva, an engineer and city planner who was born and raised in Kerala, India said, “Well, it was clearly a response to the Crusades.”
Melissa, who most recently worked for a high adventure eco-tourism company that takes wealthy clients to exotic places and was conflicted about its impact on the life ways of simpler people, said, “Any explanation must take into account the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.”
Vannia, convinced that Western patriarchal military industrial hegemony was to blame said, “It was a reaction to globalization.”
Wondering how ecology might explain why airplanes fly into buildings, I asked, “Professor Peña, does your question assume the complete absence of the element of human choice in explaining the attack?”
He said, “Absolutely, what do you mean by that, Michael?”
I said, “It seems to me that this event demonstrates only that evil exists and some people choose to commit evil acts.”
Sharon, who uses only lower case letters when referring to herself, asked, “How do we identify evil?” I protested that evil was a universal value and even Islam as I understood it would call the attack evil.
Peña cautioned us to be careful, and he launched into a speech about the relativity of evil. I would soon learn that there are choices, and then there are choices.
A few weeks later, California Governor Davis called the alert, claiming there was a terrorist threat to several prominent bridges in the Western United States. Of course, he was most concerned about the Golden Gate Bridge, which is as much an icon to American success as the World Trade Center. But we have bridges in Seattle, too, and I watched the I-90 bridge over Lake Washington sink one stormy Thanksgiving weekend ten years ago.
When I got home from work the day Governor Davis said our bridges were at risk, my wife told me she was waiting at the children’s school bus stop when she saw a Middle Eastern looking man park his car in an odd place near the bus stop, walk down to the lakeside and look at the I-90 bridge with binoculars while speaking to someone on his cell phone. She called the police to make a report as soon as she got home.
Everybody was on edge. You may recall that anthrax poison was passing in the U.S. mail during this time, a tabloid newspaper's office in Florida was contaminated and nobody knew where it was coming from.
The next day, I was returning to my office after a meeting north of the city when I saw him. Certainly, it wasn't the same fellow my wife saw. Looking back on it, I recall that he looked like he had been sleeping in his clothes.
I was stopped at a traffic light, and I noticed a Middle Eastern guy who was waiting to cross the street in front of a rental car lot. He had three gym bags with airline claim check stickers that made me think he just got off an airplane. I don’t know why, but I watched him. He was a small guy with an unkempt beard and he didn’t look at anybody. He didn’t look at the traffic, he didn’t look at the women standing next to him, he looked down. He looked guilty. I couldn’t not look at him.
When the light changed, he picked up his bags and they were obviously very heavy. I drove ahead and then I pulled over and stopped and I watched him in my rear view mirror as he walked down the street. There was a mailbox at the next corner and he stopped. I watched him reach into one of his bags, take something out of the bag, put it in an envelope and put it in the mailbox. Convinced that I was witnessing a terrorist anthrax attack in the making, I had to call the police, and I reached for my cell phone.
As I was telling the police dispatcher what I had seen, a motorcycle officer came down the street, and I jumped out of my truck and flagged him down. He pulled over and said, “What can I do for you?” I told him what I had seen, I said something was very odd about this man’s behavior, and I gave him my business card and I left. I was terrified and shaking with fear.
About an hour later, Officer Mike Henry called me and asked me to repeat exactly what I had seen. He said the fellow admitted putting two envelopes in the mailbox, they had called the postal inspector, and they were going to check some things out. He called me back at the end of the day.
He said they had to let the guy go. The man was a U.S. citizen from the Middle East who has lived in the U.S. since age one. The postal inspector opened the mail box and, to be careful, she seized the two letters for inspection. Officer Henry said, “It got real interesting when I asked him for his identification and he handed me a Florida driver’s license.” Some of the 9-11 hijackers had lived in Florida.
I asked him, “What was in his bags?”
Officer Henry said, “All his life’s possessions.” The fellow was on hard times and he was on his way to Alaska, looking for work.
He said, “You did the right thing.”
I think I had no choice.
And now I’m sure that the reason this fellow looked so guilty and the reason why he wouldn’t look at anybody is that for the last six weeks, everybody around him had been accusing him of being a terrorist. He probably couldn’t even get a room to rent and was forced to sleep in shelters or outside in the elements. I wish I could find him and give him a hundred dollars and say I’m sorry. I’d like to tell him that sometimes we make choices and sometimes whether we like it or not the choices are made for us.
Michael J. Bond