Transcript

445:

Ten Years In
Transcript

Originally aired 09.09.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/445

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK, just to put this out there, perhaps you are somebody who has not been looking forward to the inevitable deluge of 10th anniversary 9/11 coverage on basically every media outlet that exists. But think for a second about what it's like for the 9/11 families and survivors. Like Lynn Simpson. She was on the first show we did after 9/11, telling the story of working on the 89th floor of World Trade Center One when the planes hit, and how she made it down the stairs and out of the building with about a minute to spare. I caught up with her last week.

Lynn Simpson

I wish that people wouldn't make such a big deal about the 10th anniversary. And I'm very happy when September 12 comes along.

Ira Glass

You're saying in a way that, for you as somebody who escaped from the World Trade Center, you'd pretty much rather not be looking back so intensely each year. If that's so, then who are these commemorations for?

Lynn Simpson

Well, I don't know.

Ira Glass

Marian Fontana's husband Dave was a firefighter killed in the south tower. She was also on our show years ago, and she told me last week when we checked with her that she and her son are going to spend 9/11 not at any of the public events, but instead they're going to visit the spot at a park where Dave proposed to her years ago and where she later scattered his ashes. And then they're going to have a quiet family dinner together.

Ira Glass

See, I was wondering if when these anniversaries come up, if it's comforting or if it's more like, OK, let's relive the worst day of your life?

Marian Fontana

Yeah, it's complicated. I always feel like "never forget" is such an odd-- you know, the kind of phrase of 9/11, where it's like, "never forget," but to heal, you have to forget.

Ira Glass

Here we are, 9/11. And who exactly wants to watch the footage from that day again, think about it all over again? And we thought today on our program, rather than look back at that one day in 2001, it would be a lot nicer to spend most of this hour looking at where we have come since. After all, 9/11 happened to us, but the decade since, we created that ourselves. And this seems like a good time to measure just how far we've come. And to do that, we have reached out today to some of the interviewees who have appeared on our show in the last decade, whose lives seem to tell some piece of the story of what the world has gone through since September 11.

We checked in with them again to see what has happened to them. And I have to say, it has been really interesting this week, putting this together and hearing what has happened and where they are in their lives now. It's been a decade, but as you'll hear, for most of them it still somehow feels like they are at the beginning of something in their lives, something they are still figuring out. We bring you their stories on this 10th anniversary of 9/11.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Stay with us.

Act One. Kabul Kabul Kabul Kabul Chameleon.

Ira Glass

Act One, Kabul, Kabul, Kabul, Kabul, Kabul Chameleon.

Hyder Akbar

Hello, hello. OK, today is September the 11th, 2002. It's actually my last night in Peshawar. I'm at a relative's house.

A lot of people have been affected by September 11, but our family's literally turned upside-down. Like, even me, my whole plans and my life has changed.

Ira Glass

When September 11, 2001 happened, Hyder Akbar was 16. His dad ran a hip-hop clothing store in the San Francisco area. Hyder thought that maybe he was going to become a mortgage broker like his older brother someday. But his dad and some of his uncles had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, driving the Soviets out back in 1989. His family fled the country when the Taliban came to power, until September 11.

After Americans drove the Taliban from the capital, his father's old friend, Hamid Karzai, got in touch. Karzai appears in a family photo album in a picture that was taken at Disneyland maybe 30 years ago, baby-faced, standing next to Goofy. Now Karzai was leading the new interim government in Afghanistan, and he convinced Hyder's dad to sell his business and move back to help out. And Hyder, who'd never been in Afghanistan but who'd been raised on stories about all the family friends and family members who were heroes in the struggle, he wanted to go, too. And he recorded himself on those trips for our show.

Radio producer Susan Burton took dozens of hours of recordings and turned them into two programs, one documenting what happened on Hyder's first trip in 2002, when his father was the spokesman for the new Afghan government, and the second program the following year, when Hyder's dad was now the governor of a particularly unstable area called the Kunar Province. Over the course of these two hours, we hear Hyder grow up. When he first arrives in Kabul, he is completely green, thrilled, in this fanboyish way, just to be there.

Hyder Akbar

Today was a really interesting day. I went to the palace today, and it was this incredible-- It was almost like going through a movie. Like, there's all the gates, and how they open and the huge locks. Almost looks like you're visiting some place in Disneyland or Universal Studios. But it was the real thing. You have infamous war lords walking this way, and famous ministers walking that way. It was pretty exciting. I mean, it's like the equivalent, I think, of a Lollapalooza or something, going backstage and getting to meet all these rock stars going back and forth. It was kind of like that. And as nerdy and dorky as that sounds, that's pretty much how it was like for me.

Ira Glass

On these two trips, carrying a tape recorder, Hyder sees a lot. He works as an interpreter for the US military, including translating for a man, Abdul Wali, who dies while in custody after being interrogated by the Americans. He gets caught in a firefight. He walks through the devastation after a car bomb. He befriends people, especially his driver and companion, Sartor. And he vows to come back.

Ira Glass

Hey, Hyder?

Hyder Akbar

Hello?

Ira Glass

Hey, Hyder, can you hear me? It's Ira.

Hyder Akbar

Can you hear me?

Ira Glass

Yeah, yeah I can hear you. Can you hear me?

Hyder Akbar

Yes, yes, I can hear you.

Ira Glass

Where are you right now?

Hyder Akbar

I'm in Kabul.

Ira Glass

Are you in an office? Are you in your house?

Hyder Akbar

Yeah, I'm in my house, which also doubles up as my office.

Ira Glass

I reached Hyder last week by phone in Afghanistan. Some quick facts-- he's 26. After creating two amazing radio shows and writing a book with his producer, Susan Burton, he transferred from the community college that he was at to Yale University, where he graduated from. He now lives on the third floor of this house that I reached him at, and on the second floor is the NGO, the Non-Governmental Organization that he created, basically to go out and survey Afghans to understand what they're thinking and what they want, for international aid groups and others who are working in the country.

Also living in Hyder's house these days, Sartor, his friend, and Yusef, who's one of his father's old aides and a close family friend. Hyder's uncle, Rauf Mama, comes and stays with them sometimes, too. Rauf Mama's been driven from his own home near the Pakistan border.

Ira Glass

So I'm just going to launch right in, OK? I have, like, a million questions here. You ready?

Hyder Akbar

Sure, sure, I'm ready. Yes, I am ready.

Ira Glass

So when you were last on the radio show in 2003, the final thing you were talking about at the end of that show was about your uncle, Rauf Mama, who is a war hero from fighting the Soviets and has one eye. And then at the end of that show, you talked about this.

Hyder Akbar

It's probably about 1 o'clock at night right now. I couldn't sleep tonight. It's because that interview was so emotional. You know, when I asked him what was the hardest part ever of everything you've been through, he mentioned having to sleep next to this friend just hours after he was killed, and the hail pouring down on him and him trembling in that cold.

One of the reasons I wanted to interview my uncle before I left was because I knew it was going to really have a lasting impression on me. And just in case I ever get soft and I get like, maybe I should just stay in America, or maybe, you know, that image of him having to do that will at least keep me going for another five years. And we have a really close relationship. And he really has high hopes for me. And he tells me all the time that he thinks I'm so smart and that I'm going to do so much for this country. I'm going to be pulled back here. I know it. I just can't let my uncle down.

Ira Glass

So you were a teenager when you recorded that. What's it like to hear that now?

Hyder Akbar

Disappointing. It's disappointing to hear that, because I feel like, in those years, although there was a lot of problems to deal with, it was still about, how are we going to turn things around? How is Afghanistan going to have a better future? There was still an excitement in the air about the country moving forward. And now it's more about how to make sure that it doesn't go completely to [BLEEP] again.

Ira Glass

It's sobering hearing Hyder talk like this. If there was going to be one optimist left in Kabul, it would be Hyder. But he says lots of people there now are wondering which side is going to win in Afghanistan, the Americans, the Taliban. Who? Kunar Province, where his dad was governor, is in terrible shape, and the Taliban are so strong there that Hyder says that nobody wants to be seen as working with the Americans anymore.

You can hear in Hyder's voice how different this is, and how different he is compared to when he first got there. I asked him on the phone about what life in Kabul is like these days. Back in 2002, he remarked on how he spent a month and a half barely ever speaking with a woman or a girl.

Hyder Akbar

Here, I'll start counting and I'll look for a woman's face. And also, I'll tell you how long it takes me. Burka, burka, burka, burka, burka. Still no woman.

Ira Glass

And when he returned in 2003.

Hyder Akbar

Kabul has changed tremendously. Right now there's three girls in front of me. All they have is a loose chador, but I see jeans underneath their cloth. But last year, burkas were probably about 95%. This year, I'd say they've dropped to under a quarter, one out of four.

Ira Glass

Hey, Hyder, what's it like now?

Hyder Akbar

It's gotten much more serious than that, Ira. I feel like, at that time, again, because there was some hope there, there were some things that you could kind of look at, things like the burka, as an indication of the change. But when we just got a call a couple hours ago, Sartor being told that three people in his village were kidnapped. When Sartor's son, we had to drag-- Sartor's son is 19 years old, 18 years old. And he's in Kunar. And he is exactly of Taliban fighting age, and his father is becoming very worried about him. And we have to drag him out and make sure he stays with us here in Kabul, because the Taliban are recruiting him and it's a problem in our home now.

It's a problem. With Sartor it's a problem. With Yusef's kid-- Yusef's kid is 10 years old. And one night-- in the village sort of everybody's kind of armed-- so suddenly he heard there's some kind of loud bang at night, once real quick. And he ran to go grab the Kalashnikov, and he asked his wife, [UNINTELLIGIBLE], have you seen the Kalashnikov? They usually have this place where they hide it. And they looked and the Kalashnikov was missing.

So he started investigating it, and found out that, later on, it ended up being his 10-year-old son who had taken it. And when he asked him why he had taken it, he said, oh, because I'm going to shoot at the Americans, because they're infidels and invaders. And he's 10 years old. And so Yusef got very worried about his son. And he took the Kalashnikov from him.

And after that, he went-- the funny thing is, it kind of gives you a sense of who really has the control there-- he went back to the Taliban themselves, and said, look, my son is 10 years old, and because of all the propaganda and all the stuff that you guys are using here, he's getting riled up and he wants to steals the Kalashnikov and take potshots at Americans. So can you go and talk to him and say, you know, that the Taliban cut off the hands of people that do uncoordinated attacks, so you can't do anything without permission? Or something like that so he didn't do anything crazy.

So that's kind of more an example of how much the situation has changed, and I think gives you a better indicator of the momentum and direction of this country than the amount of burkas I've seen. [DOORBELL RINGING] Sorry, that's our doorbell, and it's really tacky and loud.

Ira Glass

Do you need to get that?

Hyder Akbar

No, I think Sartor's going to check who it is. I told him that I'm going to be busy upstairs. So I'll be OK.

Ira Glass

One of the things that's interesting listening to these shows from 2002 and 2003 is how hopeful everybody is about the new Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. And you talk, back in those shows, about how you have fond memories of him visiting with your dad when you were little. We start one of those shows showing Karzai being very charming shortly after coming to power, speaking to Afghans living in the United States. Here's a clip of him at Georgetown University, reading a question from a card.

Hamid Karzai

Specifically, how would you suggest that the younger generation of Afghans living in the US and [MUMBLES JOKINGLY].

[LAUGHTER]

OK, specifically, there are areas in which you have studied. Those of you who have gone through university and have acquired degrees in various fields-- medicine, engineering, computers, management, banking, business administration, all that-- these are the areas-- Statistics, by the way, we need that, very much. Accounting, auditing, [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. In addition to that, if somebody wants to be the president, she or he is also welcome. So all of you are welcome.

[CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

And you, of course, are one of the young people who actually took him up on that call and went back. So since then, his government, the New York Times-- and this is a news stories, not in editorials-- the New York Times refers to his government as one of the most corrupt in the world. President Obama has called Hamid Karzai unreliable and ineffective. Secretary of State Clinton says he runs a narcostate. He faces an internal insurgency. How have your feelings about Karzai changed over the last decade?

Hyder Akbar

I see Karzai as a sort of very tragic Shakespearean, almost sort of like a King Henry kind of figure. I see him as an individual whose intentions and heart was in the right place.

Ira Glass

You don't see him as corrupt?

Hyder Akbar

Yes, I do. I do see him as corrupt. But I see that corruption more as a weakness rather than a greed. I don't think he's hoarding millions and millions of dollars into Swiss bank accounts so that he can live comfortably. I think he's just put in a circumstance in which he doesn't know how to deal with it, and he doesn't have the backbone to deal with it.

So my father, in 2005, walked out on him and hasn't looked back since. He said that, I like you as a friend, I like you as an individual, but you're not fit to lead this country. And I didn't spend my whole life struggling for this country so that I can ruin my name and reputation by being associated with this government.

Ira Glass

Since then, his dad has been going back and forth between Afghanistan and California. Hyder, meanwhile, was briefly engaged to somebody who he met at Yale, whose family was from the Middle East. And she was willing to move to Afghanistan with him for a few years, but when it became clear to everybody that Hyder intended to stay, even after they had children, even if the country continued to fall apart, at some point he had to decide between her and Afghanistan. And he chose Afghanistan.

Hyder Akbar

So that's kind of what happened with that. I feel like I will have to be paying a price for what I want to do here. I feel like it's something much bigger than me sometimes. And I feel like I can't just run away from it.

Ira Glass

Hyder says that he doesn't believe that he's doing much good for the country, just running his NGO. And this is another change from who he was back when he was in college and we used to joke with him about how some day he was going to be either the foreign minister of Afghanistan or he would be out fighting in the hills with his uncle. Now he's in it for real, and he's become a hard-eyed pragmatist.

Lately, he said to his old producer, Susan Burton, that he's beginning to wonder if it's possible to be good and also stay relevant in Afghanistan. The people who are rising to the top, the people in power, are people with guns and their own armed groups, people who aren't afraid to use violence and intimidation. And with that in mind, Hyder is thinking about basically creating his own militia. He would do that by going into the security business with some partners.

He'd want it to be something that would eventually employ hundreds of armed men with their own trucks and their own ammunition so he could actually be a serious player in what happens in the years ahead, with the help and the political connections of his father and his uncles and all their allies. If he's going to be serious, he says, he needs resources, and he needs guns, and he needs people who shoot guns. And he's conflicted about that.

Hyder Akbar

Is that something-- I don't like it. To be honest with you, I don't. But knowing the situation of the country, knowing that it's not very stable right now, knowing that the use of force is something that's respected here, if you want to be relevant in there, you need to have the resources to be relevant. I didn't go to Yale to become a war lord, but I don't know. Given the realities of the situation, given the realities of my goals-- Like in the States, in the States the political systems are a bit more set, like, somebody can emerge politically because you can emerge through the party with [UNINTELLIGIBLE] resources and campaign funding and all that kind of stuff that you need to be politically relevant through the political party system.

Here, those things don't exist. They're kind of done on force of personality. And you have to kind of be able to use your own force of personality to get both sides, whether it's the politics or the resources.

Ira Glass

But you're saying the fear is just basically just, like, who you'd be associating with, that you'd be involved with a lot of kind of--

Hyder Akbar

Yeah, yeah, yeah, who you associated with, what you get comfortable with. Like, it's kind of a joke, but let's say, 20, 30 years down the line, I am surrounded by armed guards and I have become a dictator and I have become an [BLEEP] to everybody. I think people can look back at these years and be like, wow, OK, this is where his transformation was beginning. That's what I feel like sort of right now.

Ira Glass

And so have you already made this decision?

Hyder Akbar

No. I don't think I've made a decision yet. I think I'm still weighing the pros and cons. And have I tested the waters? Yes. Am I looking at the possibilities of how this exactly would pan out? Yes.

I was speaking to this guy that I had met here. He's an older guy. He's, like, in his '70s. He's a French guy. His name is Dr. Gerard Chaliand. He has kind of been all over the world. I can't name a conflict that he wasn't either a participant or an observer in. He trained the Mujahideen here in the '80s. He was with the Palestinians in the '60s and '70s. He was in Eritrea. He was in all these various conflicts.

So I asked him, you've seen all of these different kinds of movements and you've seen many young motivated individuals like myself in these kind of circumstances, and what would you tell me to do? And he said, lay low. Lay low until 2014. I think that's kind of when people are predicting the end game being played out in this country, where some kind of situation gets established, some kind of understanding between, OK, what exactly the Americans envision here, what exactly do the Taliban. And that's when somebody like you can emerge. You don't emerge in this kind of situation, because it's too murky, it's too dirty. Just stay alive, he said. Just stay alive until 2014. And he told me that that's not going to be an easy task for you.

Ira Glass

Hyder Akbar in Kabul. The book that he wrote with Susan Burton when he was still here in the States is called Come Back to Afghanistan.

Act Two. In the Garden of the Unknown Unknowns.

Ira Glass

Act Two, In the Garden of the Unknown Unknowns.

Marian Fontana, who you heard from a little bit at the beginning of the show, had the experience after 9/11 of going from a normal life to suddenly finding herself at events with the mayor and her senators and the governor. She met President Bush three times. She was interviewed everywhere. This is because, after her husband Dave died in 9/11-- he was a firefighter-- she started an organization that's now called the September 11th Families' Association. And she was heavily involved in the politics that followed, and especially in trying to get better pay for New York firefighters.

We had her on the radio show back in 2005 to tell a few, truthfully, incredible stories about what it was like in this new life that she found herself in. And we only have time to play a part of one of those stories here. This story takes place two years after 9/11, on the anniversary. 9/11 also happens to be her wedding anniversary. And there was a small event at the White House that year. And the vice president of her organization, her friend, Lee, who was a firefighter and who lost a firefighter son, thought it would be helpful for them to go. But Marian didn't want to go.

Marian Fontana

I did not feel comfortable with this administration at all and what they were doing.

Ira Glass

This is in the run-up to Iraq by then.

Marian Fontana

Right. Oh yeah, were already in Iraq. And so I felt very uncomfortable. I said, oh, you don't want me to go. And he always teased me about having a big mouth and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. And he said, no, I absolutely want to go with you.

Ira Glass

Lee told her that they needed to go because they had to talk with New York Governor Pataki and he was going to be at this dinner. And so she went.

Marian Fontana

He told me it was formal, so I put on this sparkling blue gown. And we arrive at the White House and go through this elaborate security system. And I walk out into the Rose Garden and everyone's wearing business attire, black suits, including the women in brown suits. And I'm in this sparkling blue dress that I wore at my sister's wedding. And I just saw all the Secret Service men kind of-- I could just imagine what they whispering into their lapels, like, whore in the blue dress has just entered the garden.

And I was furious at Lee. He's in his late 50s and short. And I felt like I looked like his hooker, basically. So we went in.

Ira Glass

Which is really not a good feeling in the Rose Garden.

Marian Fontana

No, I was so self-conscious. And so I was just playing with the dog, because I'm just-- Lee made me promise not to do anything inappropriate, not to talk to anybody about my liberal politics. And then I'm looking around this odd conglomeration of people, including Maury Povich and Condoleezza Rice and the Rumsfelds. And I felt so uncomfortable, I just wanted to go home. I really was feeling kind of emotional about the anniversary, and feeling like a hypocrite being there.

And so we got up to Governor Pataki, and we chatted for a while and said what we needed to say, and then I was ready to go home. But then there was a buffet dinner and a film to see, so we had our buffet dinner. And I sat all the way in the back of the garden at this farthest picnic table in the back. And I'm eating quietly, waiting for Lee to join me. And I hear someone say, is this seat taken? And I look up and it's Donald Rumsfeld and his wife, and they want to sit at the table with me. And I was like, no, nobody's sitting here, go ahead.

So they sat down, and Lee joined me. And of course, Lee, having served in Vietnam and having about 28 medals on his Class A firefighter uniform, immediately got into the conversation. And Donald Rumsfeld had just gotten back from Afghanistan, so they were chatting about all this stuff. And I decided I would be a good friend to Lee and just talk to his wife, Joyce, about his daughter's rock climbing. So that's what I was, being good. But half an ear was listening to their talk.

And I was getting more and more upset. And I could feel my face turning red. And then, finally, Rumsfeld turned and said, "Marian, what do you think about all of this?" And I said, "Oh, you really don't want to know what I think." And he's like, "No, no, I actually really do. I'm curious what you think." And I look at Lee to get permission if this is OK, and he nods. And I said, "Well, actually I think you used the death of my husband to go into a country you have no business being in." It felt kind of like a cop-out at the time, because there was so much more I wanted say.

Ira Glass

Because there's some more direct thing that you can say than, you're taking the death of my husband and using it to start an inappropriate war. What is the mean version of that? Like, what were you holding back?

Marian Fontana

No, I think I was actually being good. I think if Lee hadn't kicked me under the table, I probably could have said more. And everything kind of got quiet. Rumsfeld nodded, and he said, "Thank you," and turned back to Lee and they continued their conversation.

Ira Glass

Soon, there was a screening of a 9/11 documentary, and so they went to this tiny screening room in the White House. She's one row behind the president.

Marian Fontana

And then so I was kind of up against the wall, and Lee was sitting next to me, and Condoleezza Rice, and some other guy. And then the film began, and I didn't even think about what the film was about. And the screen opens and it's the towers burning, and the shaky cameras filming it. And I lost it like I've never lost it publicly in my life. I just started almost like having an epileptic seizure of grief, sobbing really loud. And I had to get out of there. And so I literally just stood up like a hysterical woman, which I'm not but suddenly became, and started clawing my way out of the row.

And I stepped on Condoleeza Rice's foot. And they had pulled a curtain over the door, and I couldn't find the knob. And I'm, like, at the door, kind of shaking the curtains, and Lee's behind me trying to find the door.

Ira Glass

And do you think it's just the combination of being in the most alien environment possible and then suddenly just missing your husband so intensely, like it's all coming together at once, like that's why?

Marian Fontana

Yeah, exactly. Absolutely, that's exactly what happened. And it was the anniversary, and I really wanted to be home with my son. And I had that feeling in my stomach, like I made the wrong choice. I shouldn't have come down.

Ira Glass

I talked to Marian again last week. She's no longer heading the September 11th Families' Association. She got tired of the politics within the organization, and the bigger politics, too, actually. And she told me that she started to feel like she couldn't make this one day in 2001 the rest of her life. Her son, Aidan, who was in kindergarten on 9/11, is now 15 years old. And she and I talked about what these anniversaries are like for him.

Marian Fontana

For him, it's harder now that he's older and understands it. I think he was so young and didn't really comprehend what was happening. And I kind of kept things on a very simple, easy-to-understand scale for him. And I avoided letting him see the images of 9/11. I never took him to Ground Zero. I really tried to protect him from a lot of the violence of 9/11.

That said, now that he's older and he's much more political and interested in politics, he has a lot of questions. And I try to answer them as best as I can. But I know the bin Laden capture was a very hard day for him at school. All the kids were talking about it, congratulating him, and he really had a hard time wrapping his head around that.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I read you wrote about that in salon.com back when it happened in May. And you wrote that, when he went off to school the morning after-- bin Laden was killed on a Sunday, so on Monday he went to school-- and that morning, when you dropped him off, he said he felt like a big weight off of his shoulders. And then you wrote, a little after 1:00, Aidan called. You wrote he was uncharacteristically upset. He wanted to come home after school. Everyone's talking about bin Laden. In every class they're happy he's dead, but I don't feel happy.

Marian Fontana

Yeah, he kind of was coming to terms with his own feelings about it. I think he felt uncomfortable with the celebratory nature of what was happening. In New York, he had heard that people were down at Ground Zero partying all night. And he said to me, doesn't that make us like them?

Ira Glass

Oh, that just seemed wrong to him.

Marian Fontana

Yeah, he said it felt a little archa-- I mean, he didn't use the word "archaic," but he said it seemed a little medieval. And I kind of agree.

Ira Glass

In 2005, you said that you felt like you were still kind of a walking symbol for what had happened to the country. Has that worn off, or has that gotten worse as time has gone on?

Marian Fontana

Well, I think for the people who know me and my friends and family, I don't think they ever saw me that way, thank goodness. But I think it is hard. I think dating, it makes dating very challenging. I had dates cry when I tell them the story, which is a little uncomfortable, to say the least. I guess it's just not very romantic.

Ira Glass

It's not sexy. No.

Marian Fontana

I've had a lot of strange and different reactions from different men on dates about--

Ira Glass

Like what?

Marian Fontana

Well, I always hear everyone's 9/11 story, almost always, which I appreciate. It's understandable. I think they want to connect.

Sometimes it feels a little strange, where they'll say, oh, 9/11, yeah, I was in Queens and my subway couldn't get to my stop, and it was really, really hard. And I was like, yeah.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

I can beat that.

Marian Fontana

I can't sound like, yeah, that's tough. And I guess everything's relative. I try to have patience and understand. But it's sometimes like, really?

Ira Glass

Did you find yourself, just at some point you just stopped telling strangers?

Marian Fontana

I have tried that, yes. I do try to avoid it.

Ira Glass

Do you hope that this 10th anniversary, after this the anniversaries will pass with less ceremony and commemoration?

Marian Fontana

You know, I'm not sure. I have mixed feelings about it. I mean, I do like that people remember, but for me, personally, I want to forget. So it's kind of, I'm not sure. I feel like 9/11 happened to everybody, and so I think people have this strong draw to come back to Ground Zero or to come back to 9/11 and connect with that. For me, I like to connect with the kind of moment in time that was so unique after 9/11 where the world kind of came together for a second.

Ira Glass

You mean that everybody was getting along for a second?

Marian Fontana

Yeah. It kind of gave me hope for us as a culture and as a world. And I feel like we've moved in the complete opposite direction of that, that we're more divided than we've ever been before. It's just very hard to watch.

Ira Glass

The thing you're describing is the thing you wish people would dwell on. I feel like even that somehow has become part of the standard, blah, blah, blah of this day. You know what I mean? I feel like, if you were to tune on to the television coverage that day, I'm sure that there'll be a lot of things in the speeches about the moment after when we all came together. And I feel like there's like--

Marian Fontana

It's almost a cliche.

Ira Glass

It's almost a cliche in a way that's hard to even get back to that feeling.

Marian Fontana

Absolutely. And yet, anyone who was involved, when I mention that, they nod vigorously because they do remember that. And it was very fleeting. But I mean, it was so profound. I really don't know if I would have made it through that time without having had the kind of whole world wrap their arms around me, is what it felt like.

Ira Glass

Marian Fontana. She wrote a book about her experience after 9/11 that is a lot like the story she's telling here on the radio. It's called A Widow's Walk. She's now working on a book about her dating experiences since 9/11 called The Middle of the Bed. And it's looking for a publisher.

Coming up, a story that generated more email than almost anything we have ever broadcast. We return to see what's happened in the years since. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Put on a Happy Face.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today, for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we are returning to people who we've had on the show during the past decade, people whose lives were changed by 9/11, because we wanted to see what's happened to them as the decade's proceeded. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Put on a Happy Face.

Chris Neary

On 9/11, where were you when that happened?

John

I was actually in war games in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Ira Glass

This is reporter Chris Neary talking to John, who was in the Navy back then.

Chris Neary

What are war games?

John

Playing war. You do live fire, stay out in the field for two or three weeks. And at that time, we hadn't even put on our gear or anything. We're getting ready to go out to the field for war games, and someone ran in and was like, a plane just hit the Twin Towers. And we're all looking, we flipping through our manuals, like, what do we do? What do we do? What are we supposed to do? Like, this was a situation that they gave us.

Chris Neary

So wait. So you didn't think it was real?

John

No, I didn't think it was real.

Chris Neary

You thought that 9/11 was a war games exercise?

John

Yes. And they take this stuff kind of serious, the war games. So we don't know what's going on. We really didn't know what was going on.

Chris Neary

When did you find out that it was real?

John

Maybe, like, four hours later.

Chris Neary

Did you realize that this means that I might really be a soldier?

John

Yes. Yes. They told us to go home and get ready.

Ira Glass

John ended up serving in Iraq as a mortarman. Chris met him once he was out of the service, four years ago in the fall of 2007, while reporting a story on PTSD. And they hit it off right away. John was especially open about what he was going through. He was direct. He was funny. He answered the sort of questions that reporters ask, which doesn't always happen.

After Chris filed his story, they talked on and off for months. Then one day, after Chris hadn't heard from John in a while, he learned that John had attacked his fiancee in one of those grizzly incidents that had made the news from time to time. Here's Chris.

Chris Neary

I read the details in a 20-page police report. John slammed her head into the floor, tried to choke her, and cut her badly. Then he sat down on the floor of the kitchen with a knife and started slicing at his own chest. Reading all this, I was shocked. Afterwards, he couldn't remember what he'd done. That sometimes happens with PTSD. This American Life producer Alex Blumberg and I visited John in jail shortly after the attack.

John

I remember waking up and here, here, still bleeding. I got stitched up some. And I'm like, who cut me, and all this? They're like, well, you did.

Chris Neary

When you learned what happened, when you woke up and people told you what happened, do you remember what your first thought was or your first emotion was, that like--?

John

My first thought was that I killed my daughter.

Chris Neary

Oh, really?

John

I thought I killed my daughter. That's my first thought. I know that I was capable of it. In no way was I like, oh no, not me. Anytime I go outside, especially around people that I like, I try to limit the time. That's most the time why I'm so paranoid, to keep them safe. And then it's like, I gotta keep them safe from me.

Chris Neary

It was hard to imagine him ever getting back to a normal life. I've talked with John just a few times since then. And when I checked in last month, three years after we'd talked in jail, things were a lot better. He is, remarkably, on good terms with his ex-fiancee and their daughter. He has a new girlfriend, a veteran herself. And he's pursuing singing and music production, things he dreamed of doing before the military. When I got to the studio to talk with John, he was upbeat and funny.

Chris Neary

Hey, you sound really good, man.

John

I practice in the mirror every morning.

Chris Neary

Really?

John

Yeah, I don't want people to think I'm crazy.

Chris Neary

What do you practice?

John

Being happy, chipper. If I have any hope to ever reintegrate into a civilian world, I have to not wear a scowl. I mean, I have to be friendly. I know it seems weird. How do you forget how to do it? But it's hard.

Chris Neary

Do you feel like now the way you present yourself to others has changed, but on the inside you're still the same as you were in 2008?

John

The same with coping skills. I mean, that's why I'm the same. I have the same problems. I just know how to mask them. And I know how to comfort myself somewhat without having to go get wasted, without having to just be blackout drunk.

Chris Neary

Small, closed spaces still scare John. He gets panic attacks. It's hard for him to be around people for very long, which makes recording and producing music difficult.

John

I mean, I'm pretty sure everybody knows that crazy Vietnam vet that everybody has in their family or just on the block that lives in your neighborhood, and he's out there in his war pants, cutting the grass with his flag up. You know, that's probably going to be me in 30 years, man, just different color pants. Mine would be tan. It doesn't really go away. You know what I mean?

Chris Neary

Yeah. I mean, 9/11 for the US was-- and for you-- ended up being a call to war. How do you think we've done as a country?

John

Are you trying to get me in trouble, man? Seriously, you ask me that question?

Chris Neary

I am going to ask you that question, yeah.

John

I don't know, man. I think I don't really like talking political stuff at all. I love the military. I love the military, yeah. Yeah, I love what the military's done for me. But I mean, I feel like I wish that-- I don't know. When people's overseas dying, and I'm sitting here at a radio station talking about how does it feel, I feel like it's not going good. I wish that these guys was home. It's 10 years, man.

Ira Glass

Chris Neary, who lives in New York.

Act Four. What's Arabic for Fjord?

Ira Glass

Act Four, What's Arabic for Fjord? In 2007, we told the story of an Iraqi who worked as an interpreter for US forces. His name is Basim. And like many Iraqis who helped the US, his life was threatened by other Iraqis. He was sent a DVD that showed a fellow interpreter, a colleague, a guy who he knew, being beheaded, and warning him that he would be next. So Basim fled the country with his wife and baby, and ended up in Europe.

At the time that we did our story, we didn't even want to say which country he was in, but now he's feeling safe enough that I can tell you that it is Norway, and he's doing great. Out of the millions of Iraqis who were made into refugees or displaced by the war, he is possibly in the best possible position. As he says, he went from the most dangerous country in the world to one of the safest.

Basim

I can say that, today, me and my family are going through the same hopes and fears or worries, like any other person who was born and raised in a normal country that has not been affected by atrocities like war and an embargo for 12 years. Today we are studying, working, making sure that my son would have a gooder future here in this country.

Ira Glass

How old is your son now?

Basim

He's six years old. He has just started in school.

Ira Glass

Is it sobering to see him speaking better Norwegian than you do?

Basim

No, not at all. But it is a little bit annoying sometimes at home. Just yesterday, my son told me that there's another boy at third grade who was running behind him. And I just couldn't get the real sense of the meaning of the word that he was using. And I couldn't know whether the other boy was chasing him or whether he's just playing with him. And I just had to read his body language, because I see him, he was telling it as if it was a game. So then I was kind of, OK, then I don't need to talk to the teacher.

Ira Glass

Is your son old enough to ask about Iraq? And if you're going to go back there?

Basim

Yes. We are trying to give him some answers of which it's enough to satisfy his curiosity, but it is not so harmful for his childhood. He asked why? Why did we come here if we're not originally born here? And I said, we come here because, as you can see, it is easier to live here, then your mother can study further. You can go to the kindergarten and play with all of these toys. And the people are funny and good and things like that. We didn't tell him that we were actually refugees. We tell him that we have chosen this place.

Ira Glass

No, that seems like a nicer story to tell a six-year-old than we were running for our lives.

Basim

No, we cannot tell him that.

Ira Glass

Now, I'm calling you on the anniversary of 9/11. Does this anniversary mean anything to you personally? Do you usually view 9/11/2001 as a day that affected your life?

Basim

Yeah, of course. It has affected my life and it has affected the lives of millions of Iraqis, even though we were not involved in those attacks in any possible manner. We're still wondering why it actually affected all our lives and it didn't affect the countries who were actually involved in supporting and financing those terrorists.

Ira Glass

You mean Saudi Arabia?

Basim

Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain.

Ira Glass

What's it been like for you to watch crowds seize democracy in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya after knowing what happened in your country? Like, what's it been like for you?

Basim

I was shocked. I was thinking in the back of my head, there was a thought that, what if the United States had waited until now? Maybe Iraq would join the club of countries that decided to liberate themselves from their dictators. But I always more logically thought that, if it wasn't for the removal of Saddam Hussein, would it be possible for the Tunisian people and the Egyptian people to realize that those presidents are not gods? They can really, if they want to, they can really get rid them.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you about something else. The attacks in Norway this past July which killed 92 people, and which were designed to stir hatred against immigrants and non-Christians in Europe, what was that like for you to witness that?

Basim

The first hours before we actually find out who actually did it, I was really, to be honest, I was a bit afraid, like we don't need another Muslim hero to commit something like that in a peaceful country like Norway. And I was telling my wife that, if it turned out that the perpetrators, the ones who did the attacks in Norway, are Muslims who exactly look like us, we would be at home for two, three days until everything clears out.

Ira Glass

Do you think your son will graduate high school in Norway? Do you think you're going to be spending his entire childhood there?

Basim

Well, yes. I do believe in that, not because I don't want to go back, not because we're not missing Iraq, but because there is no improvement at all. So why would I choose this sort of life for my son, not having a clean hospital, not having electricity, having still threats from al-Qaeda and from other religious groups? I would rather decide for my son to go on with his life here.

Act Five. Bad Teacher.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Bad Teacher. In December 2006, roughly halfway between September 11, 2001 and today, we ran a story that generated more email than almost any story we have ever broadcast. The story was about a family, a happy family, whose names we changed on the radio. Five kids, including a daughter who we called Chloe, who was pretty, a good student, very popular.

Chloe

I had a lot of friends. We were into horses, basically. And we went over to each other's house just to play with them and talk about them and draw them.

Announcer

Chloe was 12 when we talked to her, but this story takes place back when she was eight. Her family was Muslim, and they were observant, and they lived in a suburb which didn't have many Muslims in it. Her mom liked it that way. She chose that area because she wanted them to have a life with all kinds of people in it.

And 9/11 did not change anything for them. They weren't discriminated against. Chloe's friends didn't care that she was a Muslim. All fine, until the first anniversary of 9/11 in 2002. Here's Chloe's mom, who we'll call Sari.

Sari

I picked up the children from school that day, and she was in tears. She was inconsolable. She wasn't even making sense. She just was crying and crying.

Ira Glass

Apparently, as part of the lesson for the 9/11 anniversary, the teacher in Chloe's class had passed out a slim paperback intended to educate students about the 9/11 tragedy.

Sari

On the cover, it was a picture of the World Trade Center in flames.

Chloe

And the first thing was like, September 11 was a horrible day. Thousands and thousands died. And it said, who did it? We don't know, but here's a clue.

Sari

Muslims hate Christians. Muslims hate Americans. Muslims believe that anyone who doesn't practice Islam is evil, and that the Koran teaches war and hate.

Chloe

There were some pictures of Muslim ladies wearing the headscarf, hijab. And some of them said, hey, those weird ladies, her mom's one of them. And then they just all looked at me and said, you're one of those bad Muslims, aren't you? And I just said, no, no, I'm not.

Sari

That's when the taunting began. It was just overnight.

Chloe

They called me loser Muslim and Osama. Like, they all saw me as a different person. Before reading the book, I was just a normal child. And then I turned into an Islamic extremist who hated the world and wanted to kill everybody. And there's a big difference there.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel, who reported this story for our show, picks up now with what happened next.

Alix Spiegel

The teasing just got worse from there. Even her siblings were targeted. Boys on the playground would surround her sister and pretend to pee. There was nothing Chloe could do to stop it. No matter what she said, it didn't matter, in part because the teacher of her class also seemed hostile to Muslims. And eventually, all of her friends stopped talking to her. This made her physically ill. She wouldn't get out of bed for days at a time. Some of her hair turned gray. She was eight.

Now, in 2004, the US Department of Justice actually did an investigation of what happened to Chloe and found that Chloe's teacher in the school had behaved inappropriately, contributing to an atmosphere where Chloe was brutally harassed by her peers. The Justice Department required the school to take a variety of actions. But in some ways, by that point, it was already too late. Chloe had been so traumatized, she dropped out. And worse, her family had been torn apart.

They'd picked up and moved away to put Chloe into a new school. But it wasn't far enough for Chloe's father. Chloe's father had grown up in the West Bank. And after what happened to his daughter, he decided that his family, in particular, and Muslims in general were no longer safe in America. America, he concluded, hated them. He wanted the family to move with him back to the West Bank, but Sari couldn't agree.

Sari

Well, I was born and raised in this country, and I'm aware of what makes this country great. And I know that what happened to our family, it doesn't speak to American values. And I feel like this is such a fluke. And I have to believe this is not what America's about. I know that. But I don't think that's the same for my husband.

Alix Spiegel

So Sari and her husband divorced. Her husband moved to the West Bank alone, and she and the kids stayed in America. But when I called her recently, she told me that the last five years have not been good to her family, particularly, she says, to Chloe, who's now 17.

Sari

Well, since then, she has been in three different schools. Each of those schools were a challenge.

Alix Spiegel

What kind of things would happen?

Sari

Well, for example, at the high school this past school year, at one point my daughter walked into the school library and about nine ROTC kids were seated at a table along with their instructor, and they began taunting her and calling her a raghead, saying she came from a religion of messed-up killers. So it's just been very hard.

Alix Spiegel

Hard in a bunch of ways. This past spring, Sari got the news that her ex-husband had died. And the civil lawsuit that the family had filed against Chloe's old school dragged on for years, a constant reminder of what had happened. Two weeks ago, the school settled for a tiny amount. Still, Sari says, despite all this, Chloe is mostly managing.

Sari

She's a remarkable young lady. She'll be entering her senior year of high school. And academically, she's doing great. It does concern me that she is not very social. The entire summer passed and she never got together with any friends.

Alix Spiegel

What does she do with her days?

Sari

She hangs out with her siblings. They like to bake a lot.

Alix Spiegel

Probably the biggest change for Sari since I talked to her five years ago was that, back then, she was adamant that what had happened to her family was a fluke. And hundreds of our listeners actually wrote in to agree with her on this. She says, at the time, she found these letters very reassuring. But slowly over the last five years, she's really changed her mind. This was no fluke.

Sari

I think if I felt that way it would be delusional, because the past seven years really speak for themselves. It's just been a barrage of intolerance and ugliness. And really, I feel like our world back then was turned upside-down, and life as we knew it before is no longer what it was. Even the mosque that we used to attend, which is about 45 minutes away, someone randomly started shooting into the mosque. And I haven't been back since then, because I just won't put my kids at risk. But that tells you that, even amongst our so-called own kind, amongst Muslims, we're really not safe. We're a community under siege.

Alix Spiegel

So this is where I try to figure out if Sari's right, if Muslims in this country really are a community under siege. And that is a tricky question to answer. I can tell you that the number of hate crimes against Muslims are still much higher than they were before 9/11. In the last year for which the FBI provides statistics, 2009, hate crimes against Muslims constituted around 10% of all hate crimes nationwide, even though Muslims are only about 1% of the population. And according to a poll published last week by the Pew Research Center, the majority of Muslims are like Sari. They feel like 9/11 made their lives more difficult.

But at the same time, around 80% say they're satisfied with their lives in the US. In other words, it's a complicated picture. It's complicated for Sari, too. She's American. Her kids are American. And she doesn't want her children to give up on this country. And so, she says, she's given them some very targeted reading materials.

Sari

The kids have read about Japanese-Americans and what they've gone through post-World War II. And eventually, that passed. I'm hoping that this will pass, too.

Alix Spiegel

When it will pass, though, is not entirely clear to Sari.

Sari

So far it's been 10 years since 9/11, so I don't know. I wish it would happen before the kids' childhoods are over. That would be really nice.

Alix Spiegel

This fall, the family's moving again, hoping that will help. Sari's looking for a job.

Ira Glass

Alix Spiegel is a correspondent for NPR News.

Act Six. Clutter.

Ira Glass

Act Six, Clutter. Let's end today's show with somebody who was at the World Trade Center on that day in 2001. When I first talked to Lynn Simpson less than two weeks after the towers collapsed, she was still having trouble sleeping. She'd escaped from the 89th floor, and she kept waking up, thinking about it.

Lynn Simpson

For the first several nights, I would wake up in the middle of the night and just have those images of the towers in my mind, and the smoke. And also, that was when I couldn't get the smell out of my hair, the very acrid dust smell. And it's a smell that's on my clothes. I have the clothes that I was wearing that day, my shoes, my socks, my slacks, my top, even the little-- I wear a little thing in my hair which keeps my hair clipped back. And I don't know what to do with them.

Ira Glass

You still have them?

Lynn Simpson

I still have them. I don't know what to do with them. I don't want to throw them away. I don't want to have them cleaned.

Ira Glass

Why don't you want to throw them away or have them cleaned?

Lynn Simpson

I don't know. I don't know. I just, I can't quite let go of them. It is a bunch of trash, but it happened to me and I survived. I just know that I have them in a bag, and I keep the bag in a little corner. And I will eventually do something with them, because that's clutter, and clutter is not good. But right now I just can't do that.

Ira Glass

So when you and I spoke 10 years ago, you still had the clothes that you had worn that day to work. And you said that it was hard to throw them out. So when did you finally throw out the clothes that you wore on September 11?

Lynn Simpson

I didn't.

Ira Glass

Oh, you didn't?

Lynn Simpson

No, I didn't. I haven't done anything with them. I'm--

Ira Glass

Are they still in the bag on the floor?

Lynn Simpson

--reluctant to say. They're in the little bag. However, they have moved from the floor in the corner into the top of a closet. So now the clutter's out of my sight.

Ira Glass

That's good. OK, that's a good system.

Lynn Simpson

But I'm a little scared to look in them now.

Ira Glass

And do you ever pull them out and look at them?

Lynn Simpson

No, no.

Ira Glass

Lynn doesn't work now. She doesn't live in New York anymore. She's in Pennsylvania. She finds she can't even visit New York City. She's one of an estimated 10,000 first responders and civilians who suffer PTSD related to the 9/11 attack. The symptoms? They're jittery, they overreact to loud noises, they have trouble concentrating. Lynn says that she has no idea why she is one of the people who reacted this way, and not one of the many people who went on with their lives.

She still has an incredibly hard time sleeping. She's not replaying moments from 9/11 at night, she says. Now it's just a kind of free-floating anxiety. And just last month, a few weeks before the 10th anniversary, she finally sold her old apartment in Manhattan. She'd had renters there, figuring that eventually she'd move back.

Lynn Simpson

I didn't want to do it. I fought selling that apartment.

Ira Glass

Was part of selling the apartment you had to admit to yourself, OK, I'm never going to get over this?

Lynn Simpson

Yes. Definitely. And it's very hard to admit that you're not going to be back to your old self, whether it's something whether you had an accident or hip surgery or whatever it is, you've changed. September 11th changed me. And no matter how much I try and talk myself into the fact that I'm going to get back to it, I will go back, I will be the person that I was, it's not going to happen. And I've accepted that. And once I accepted it, it was OK.

Ira Glass

We spent this hour talking about what has changed in the last decade, and what has happened because of 9/11. 9/11's become a symbol. It's become a rallying cry. But it was also a day, a terrifying day. So let's close our broadcast with Lynn's account from back then of what that day was like for her, in the towers when the planes hit, escaping just a minute before the building collapsed.

Lynn Simpson

Well, there were five of us in the office. We were the early birds. And all of a sudden, there was an enormous crash, and the building actually shook. We could feel it shake. The lights went out. The sprinklers came on. The ceiling came down. The file cabinets fell. Everything started toppling. And smoke immediately filled the entire office.

Ira Glass

On the floor where you were, how many floors were you from where the airplane hit?

Lynn Simpson

I believe the airplane hit either just above or just about the 89th, 90th, 91st floor. The only reason that I'm here, partly, is because the airplane hit on the other side of the building. The lights were out. It was smoky. It was dim. And it was getting very hot. I did try the emergency stairwell, and that door was locked. And we drank water. We covered our noses. And I called my boss, my boyfriend, and my mother.

Ira Glass

What did you say?

Lynn Simpson

I said to all of them, I'm all right. I don't know what's happened, but I'm all right. And I told John, I said the doors are locked. I can't get out. I can't get down the stairway. A few minutes after that, people knocked on the door and there were people, men with flashlights knocking on the door saying, come out, and let's go downstairs.

Ira Glass

The stairwell that you hadn't been able to get into before?

Lynn Simpson

The stairwell that I had tried before. But then we started down. And about the 83rd floor, we had to cross over. And we crossed over. That floor was devastated. It was pitch black, full of smoke. The sprinklers were coming down. The ceiling had come down. We had to hold hands to walk across it. And the only light we basically had was one man's cell phone. And we made our way across that to another stairwell. And then we proceeded down, I believe to 78.

So at 78, we had to cross to another set of stairs. And when we crossed on 78, it was as if nothing had happened. The lights were on, no smoke, air conditioning, carpeting. It was all perfect.

Ira Glass

How strange. That must've been so strange for you all.

Lynn Simpson

It was very peculiar, very peculiar to go from one extreme to the other. But at 78, we had to make a decision. There were two exit signs. And one, I've since learned, that one exit went down to one floor and then stopped. It was just dead. And the other exit, which somebody said, trust me, I know we have to go down this staircase. And we did. We trusted that person, and we went down that staircase. And that led us to the bottom.

And then we continued down. We had to move over to the side, because the firemen in full gear were coming up. And they started-- they met us at about 50-- and they started coming up. And then we simply continued down to the plaza level. They told us, do not look up, do not look out, do not look down, just keep going, and we need you to hurry, run, could you jog?

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, and Alissa Shipp. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from Mickey Meek. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who's up late saying this after every story I do:

Hyder Akbar

I couldn't sleep tonight. It's because that interview was so emotional.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "NEW YORK, NEW YORK" BY RYAN ADAMS]

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.