Moved by 9/11, some Americans changed their lives
NEW YORK — At 8:46 a.m. silence again fell on ground zero, with only church bells pealing in the distance. Family members stood holding hands as well as photos of lost loved ones - some with tears rolling down their cheeks, others with heads bowed.
The sun was bright, the sky a deep blue, and the air fresh with a breeze off the Hudson just as it was four years ago when terrorists slammed two planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, killing 2,749.
Across the United States Sunday, Americans paused to remember those who died in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pa. Some prayed in churches and synagogues, some as they knelt toward Mecca. Each observance reflected on the nation's spirit of determination and resilience.
Almost every American life was touched by the tragedy in some way. Jennifer Kessler, a dog walker in downtown New York, says she's "more cautious now," conscious of things like unattended packages. David Fleischer, who from his balcony watched the towers burn, still jumps occasionally when he hears a plane overhead. Stagehand Ellen Walton left New York altogether to pursue her passion for dance.
For others, the moment propelled them into service in ways they never could have anticipated on Sept. 10, 2001. Following are the stories of three individuals who changed courses dramatically after 9/11.
Four years ago, Randy Rizor was a successful anesthesiologist taking his son on a college tour. After the attacks they ended up stranded in Hanover, N.H.
After waiting five days for flight restrictions to be lifted, they finally decided to rent a car to return home to Georgia. The 18-hour trip took them down Interstate 95 and across the George Washington Bridge, from which they could see the smoke still rising from the World Trade Center site. They also went through Washington, where people were holding candlelight vigils.
As they wound south, Dr. Rizor says he had a lot of time to reflect. "At the time I was 49 years old, and I'd been able to accomplish everything that I wanted, every dream I ever had," he says.
He thought the attacks would be "a call to action" but that young people would have to assume the greatest burden. He found this a particular injustice, since young people have "the whole promise of America ahead of them," but no time yet to realize it.
He'd been raised during the Vietnam era and had never served because of student deferments. "I felt I had a particular debt to repay," he says. "By the time I got home, I had pretty much made up my mind that I would enlist. I talked to my wife about it and called the recruiter the next day."
Granted, he was not exactly the prime age for picking up a rifle. But he felt blessed that he was a physician: He knew the Army would take him if he could pass the physical. It took a year, but he got his commission in September 2002. Major Rizor was called to active duty at a military hospital in Kosovo in 2004. He is now home in Georgia, waiting to be called again.
Sept. 11 "transformed thought, motivated service, and ultimately adds to the strengths of this country," he says. "It also points out the fact that we're different from the rest of the world in that we have so many gifts. And as a result, we have a greater responsibility toward peace in the world."
On the morning of the attacks, Ronald Bruder was in midtown Manhattan. An entrepreneurial tycoon with an elegantly appointed office on Madison Avenue, he'd made a fortune in real estate, oil, and pharmaceuticals. His daughter was working a few blocks from the World Trade Center. When he heard about the attacks and the crumbling of the towers, he was worried she may have rushed in to try to help. It was evening before he learned she was safe.
"It traumatized her quite a bit, and it traumatized me," he says "It was all very up close and personal."
The stunning nature of the attack prompted Mr. Bruder to read about what was happening in Islamic countries so he could understand the motivation behind the strike. What he discovered was a "huge gap economically, a disparity [with the West] that was growing greater."
So he decided the best way to deal with the terrorism threat was to give people a stake in society. "Nobody throws stones through somebody else's window if they've got a window of their own," he says.
He hired the Brookings Institution to help him figure out the best way to begin addressing that gap. He also reached out to leaders in the political, foreign-policy, and business realms here as well as in the Islamic world. And he began to travel to places he'd never been before such as Afghanistan, Egypt, and Turkey. He discovered that the education systems "were not doing what they could be doing" and were not focused on job creation. Neither was US foreign policy in the region.
"We should be spending our money on books and not bombs. The money that we're putting into 'shock and awe' should be used for a Marshall Plan," he says. "That's how you marginalize the terrorists."
With $10 million of his own money, Bruder set up a foundation hoping to achieve just that. It now consumes 90 percent of his time. Initially, he thought he'd build primary and secondary schools, but his board, made up of many of the luminaries whom he'd reached out to, thought that would take too long. So instead, the Education for Employment Foundation is now focused on creating vocational and technical education. A year from now, the Egyptian Center for Nursing Excellence will open, with more schools on the way. "What I'm doing is a very small effort compared to what's needed," he says. "It will take billions of dollars, but it will pay the best dividends one generation down the road."
Joel Collins had worked the night shift at a power plant in Groton, Conn., and was sleeping on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. His brother woke him up to tell him about the attack. "I was just stunned," he said. "I knew this was not an accident. This was an act of terror that would affect the balance of power in the world."
Mr. Collins had been raised a Methodist. When he was in high school, an older brother had gotten involved with the Nation of Islam, but he didn't find it "agreeable." That was the extent of his contact with Islam until several years before the attacks. Then, through a Muslim friend whom he'd met on the Internet, he began to learn about the faith. At first he simply wanted to understand how it differed from Christianity.
"The more I read, the more compelling and convincing I found it. This faith answered a lot of questions that Christianity didn't for me," he says.
Then came 9/11, and the American media broadcasts were suddenly full of Islamic sounding names like Al Qaeda, bin Laden, and Mullah Omar. The more he watched the news, the more Collins felt that the religion he was growing to love was being linked, unfairly, with radicals.
At work, he started getting in arguments, defending Islam, trying to explain that it wasn't the faith that did anything wrong, but rather individuals. The more he found himself compelled to explain Islam, the deeper he felt his connection to it grow. Eventually, he converted and now goes by the Islamic name Hamza Ismail. "People at work were shocked, my friends were shocked, and my parents were shocked," he says.
This summer, Mr. Ismail became the civil rights director for the New England branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's leading Islamic rights group. He now spends much of his free time working to help others understand Islam. "We all have to live in this country together," he says. "The only way we're going to continue to bring peace and harmony is to work together."