Pax Americana: 20 Years Later

America, a shining city on hill, an illumination 9/11 revealed to be a funeral pyre.

Rey Nante sells American flags to people having lunch in downtown Atlanta during the National Day of Remembrance for victims of Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. September 14, 2001 at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. (Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)

Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers practiced flights at Briscoe Field near Lawrenceville, famously focused on their takeoffs and not their landings.

Atta stayed at two Suburban Lodge hotels nearby, plotting to ruin the world. One of those places is on Memorial Drive, about a mile from where I live today in DeKalb. It’s a grotty place, even now, renting rooms to people lucky enough not to be living at the burned-out Brannon Hill complex across the street.

In my personal sense of the senseless moments of the World Trade Center attacks, I contrast that motel with the beautiful Georgian Terrace hotel, across from the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. I’m sitting here now as I write this.

Ghosts haunt me here.

The first time I found myself amid this splendor – my first time in Atlanta – was twenty years ago. To the day.

I had different dreams in 2001. Back then, I was a technology journalist for IDG News, a wire service covering tech news. I was two years out of college and three out of the Army, a twenty-something professional in Boston looking for the story that would carry me into the Wall Street Journal. My words moved markets.  People paid money to put me on planes to write about things.

The Georgia World Congress Center hosted a technology conference in the fall of 2001 – Networld+Interop, not that it matters today. One of my editors, the inestimable Nancy Weil, knew Atlanta well enough to tell me to book the Georgian Terrace.

I flew out of Logan airport on September 10th.

Nancy said I should walk Peachtree Street to feel the city. I walked by the Shakespeare Tavern, past Suntrust Plaza and the insufferably touristy Hard Rock Cafe, to Woodruff Park. I played chess. The pockets of poverty around me didn’t lodge in my memory the way the Black men in business suits around me did.

The tech world was – and remains – overwhelmingly white. I was always the only Black guy in the room who wasn’t there to bus a table. But here I stood that day, on a street corner in Atlanta, surrounded by people who looked like me. I was a Black professional and completely unremarkable here. I grew up in New England. I went to college in Amherst. Even after five years of military service, I had never experienced such a thing.

And then I went back to work.

The network computing industry had been melting down amid the dot-com bust. People had already been questioning the rationale of expensive conventions like N+I, designed as junkets to separate vendors from their marketing budgets.

Still, the auditorium on the morning of the 11th was mostly full. Avaya’s executives had been presenting something about the business environment for network computing at the opening keynote that no one remembers today. After they finished, Valerie Williamson, the show’s president, came on stage, shaking. She said two airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center and that the Pentagon was on fire.

I talked to Williamson this morning. I’ve long wondered what was happening behind the scenes that day. She told me that one person after another approached her, Blackberry in hand, describing the attacks as the keynote unfolded. She interrupted the presentation with the news.

I don’t have to remember what happened next, because I wrote about it.

Dozens of people began leaving the convention hall, cell phones in hand, to get more news, reassure family and check the status of people they know in New York. "It hits so close to home," said Jeoffrey Varner, a sales manager at Pumpkin Networks Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. "On a Tuesday morning, you know [the travel] is business-related."

Many of the conventioneers were evaluating their travel plans, having left New York, Boston or Los Angeles only hours before the attacks. At least one of the airplanes was confirmed to have been hijacked en route from Boston to Los Angeles. With airports shut down, it wasn't immediately clear if executives planning to travel to Atlanta for the remainder of the convention would be able to make it, or if airport restrictions will make it difficult to return home.

The TV sets around the convention center typically are tuned to business channels or to in-house programming during events like Networld+Interop. And most of the time, they are routinely ignored by passers-by more interested in attending the next break-out session on networking or making their way to the convention floor.

Today the televisions were turned to CNN or MSNBC, and crowds 100 deep gathered around to glean more news about what happened.

In one of the great ironic twists of the networking convention, the throngs of networking specialists immediately tried to log on to the Internet for news or to call home on their phones and were often rebuffed by congested Internet traffic to the popular sites and crashing phone networks at home.

I’m still shocked that most of the attendees stayed in the room to hear the rest of the keynote.

I filed a story, because that’s what journalists do. I went back to the hotel. I worked out for some reason; an act asserting normalcy or control, I suppose. I went to my hotel room on the seventh floor. And, alone, I wailed.

Atlantans participate in a candlelight vigil at Piedmont Park in Atlanta September 12, 2001, commemorating the victims of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. (Phot by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)

Pax Americana. The phrase rolled through my mind, over and over. I knew what was coming. A war of vengeance. We would pacify the world. Or so we would think.

The hijackers had flown from the same terminal I had left less than a day before. I knew, slightly, one of the men on one of the flights out of Boston — Danny Lewin, a genius mathematician working for Akamai. The technical principles of streaming media were born in his mind. He was the first person killed that day.

Flights back to Boston were grounded for about a week after the attack. The show went on, or tried to, because what else could be done? Every bus in town that could be chartered was gone. “The people at CNN told me they thought they were a credible target for another attack,” Williamson said. “How do you keep 40,000 people safe and not create a panic?”

But the moment bonded me to Atlanta in a way. I had four days here, with silence in the air, to process my shock and grief. I was stuck here for however long it would take. My editors told me to hunker down and chill. I felt useless.

I spent a long time feeling useless.

How many bad decisions are made in the quest to do … something … in moments like this? Staring up at the gigantic plastic ants on the ceiling of Hartsfield Jackson airport that Saturday, waiting in an eight-hour screening line, I wondered if I would be called back to military service. I left the Army with marginal Arabic skills from a year at the Presidio of Monterey and a secret security clearance. I had been a perfectly average soldier, but still.

I passed the foreign service officers examination in the year to follow, without selection. I campaigned for public office. I changed careers twice before returning to journalism. I was adrift. In retrospect, I think many of us were.

I can guess at what I’m going to be reading today. We will be reminded of how “unified” America was in the months following the attack. George W. Bush had 80 percent approval ratings. We flew flags and tied yellow ribbons to trees.

We had all resolved to do … something. But in the moments to come, we never resolved to do the same thing.

I am struck today at how profoundly we squandered this moment. A call for shared sacrifice would have been heeded. Instead we were told to spend money and salute sharply.

Perhaps that’s what led me back to Atlanta. I felt like civic purpose could make a place for me here, in a city where I wouldn’t feel like a supporting cast member in my own story. Atlanta presented potential and openness and welcome in ways that Boston closed off.

The ghosts called to me here. And I came.