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No Exit From the Realities of Sept. 11

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

I remember Sept. 10, too. On that crisp night 10 years ago, friends and I went to hear Les Paul at a basement club in Times Square. The place was packed, and as was my habit in such settings, I quickly noted the fire exits.

The father of the modern electric guitar, the 86-year-old Paul reminisced about the early days of rock and roll as he played sets with young guitarists. (He died in 2009.) For me as for many, 9/11 has cracked their personal timelines into a before and after. That nostalgic trip through a century barely over remains the last of my "before" memories.

The next morning, I spent the most horrific moments stuck underground on an Amtrak train trying to leave town. The conductor would periodically come on the loudspeaker, telling us: "Please stay on the train. This is the safest place you can be right now." He said that we would move once the tunnels were inspected (for bombs).  The word "exit" had now taken on broader meaning.

Passengers with cell phones shared amazing reports from above of an attack on the Pentagon, a plane going down in Pennsylvania, the Towers collapsing. The conductor urged us, "Pray for the people in the World Trade Center," and then finally said, "Please remain calm, take your bags, and exit the train." We emerged into an emptied Penn Station and an utterly transformed city, country and world.

Could New York recover from an attack that showcased its vulnerability in such spectacular fashion? The greatest military power in the world could not protect the financial center of its greatest metropolis. Is anything defendable? Urbanites across American began planning their personal escape routes should disaster strike nearby. 

Rolling my bag back to my father's apartment, I passed elegant Fifth Avenue churches with hastily scribbled signs offering prayer and contemplation inside. This was far from ground zero, but even here, the smell of the gigantic funeral pyre downtown assaulted the lungs, while a rising haze of particles mocked the bright-blue sky.

Establishing a sense of normality was a struggle. For a while, every plane that flew overhead gave us the jitters. It took time to convince ourselves that it was the United States Air Force.

My father and I tried a familiar Italian restaurant. Emptiness engulfed the usually festive tables, as waiters in their red jackets stood idly by. The next day, I stopped by Bloomingdale's to see whether anyone was shopping. Only a few women had ventured forth, and they carried their bags without conviction.

Ten years have passed, and the people are back. Boy, are they back. Hotel rooms are hard to come by, as jumbo jets disgorge European families hunting for bargains. The Italian restaurant is gone, replaced by another Italian restaurant filled nightly with the overflow from a club across the street. The subways are jammed.

Everything looks super -- more super than ever, but ... When I'm on a crowded subway, I think how easy it would be for someone to blow us up. Since that Sept. 11, train passengers have been targeted in Madrid, London and Paris. Such scenarios were imaginable before 9/11 but easier to suppress. The suicidal hijackers who brought down four jetliners and two 107-story towers on a single September morning changed all that.

Experts say another major terrorist attack is not only possible but probable. Ten years after 9/11, we seem recovered enough to go about our business. But anyone who was there, in fact or heart, keeps looking for exits. The creepy part is, you can never know from what awful event you may need them.



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