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From Vietnam to Ground ZeroDavid Alexander is king of action adventure, master of intrigue. Read Threatcon Delta and Snake Handlers. His new global action thriller Chain Reaction called "a thrill-packed reading fest for spy, cop and thriller addicts" and "the best new thriller of 2011 and a must-read for action fans." Available from Amazon. See for more info.

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A Short Essay

I kept a 911 diary from September 11th, 2001 to May 26th, 2003.

I have not seen it again until now, some ten years after 911, but am making portions available in commemoration of the event.


From Vietnam to Ground Zero


       The rookie cop with the juvenile face pounded his fist at the side of the car. The Vietnam veteran behind the wheel slammed the brakes. The car screeched to a halt. This was the second police roadblock in ten minutes. As Lenny, the driver, again fished for his license I could see he was truly rattled and I knew why. Lenny had survived truck convoys on the roads of Vietnam and almost a year at the Hanoi Hilton. He had seen his platoon buddies beaten by sadistic guards. He’d been tortured himself.

      I also knew that Lenny was reliving a portion of those dark times at that moment. It was unreal for me too, part of the nightmare that began near the attack scene on September 11th where, under an incredibly calm, almost luminously blue sky, stood the smoke-wreathed towers of the doomed World Trade Center.

       Had it not been for this nightmare I would not have been in the car at that moment. I would have been in my loft, working on my latest and greatest. But only vehicles with two passengers or more were permitted over the bridges into Manhattan and my friend had business in Midtown that could no longer be put off. He’d asked me to come with him and so I came. He had no one else. No family, no children, and no friends worth a damn.

       In retrospect I should have said, “Lenny, have your license in your pocket so you can just pull it if the cops stop you,” but I didn’t. Not even as we were diverted onto the gridlocked Prospect Expressway when the Battery tunnel entrance was closed, a sign ahead pointlessly announcing that, “proof of identity is required for all vehicles using the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel,” did I think about anything like this. The expectations of decades are sometimes hard to change overnight, even in the face of reality.

       At the hairpin on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, from which we would take the FDR Drive into Yorkville, a Chevy sedan full of passengers just ahead of us behaved oddly. It stopped for no apparent reason, inched forward, then stopped again. Not even Lenny’s leaning on the horn made it move. Just a few score feet shy of the turnoff to the bridge, the Chevy stopped again.

       Two cops waited at a security checkpoint by the turnoff ahead, their car on the greensward, lights flashing. They glanced our way. Finally the car ahead sped up, passed the turnoff and shot up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As we rolled onto the ramp, past the watchful police, I turned to look at the car that had been blocking us. I caught a glimpse of its passengers. Bandanas tied around heads and ball caps worn backwards. Now I understood.

       But this was before, on our way in. Now, barring our way home, the green cop, the rookie working traffic, harangued the combat veteran for not stopping.

       “What are you, blind? What do I look like, a lamp post? I tell you to stop, you STOP!”

       Lenny stammered out a reply. The rookie kept on baiting him. The fact was, the cop had appeared out of nowhere as the light had changed. There had been no sign, no indication of any kind whatever that we were in fact approaching a police roadblock. Vietnam was a metaphor for everything that my friend Lenny said and did. I knew he was now, in some part of his psyche, back at the Hanoi Hilton.

       But I had reached my limit. Someone else might have chosen different words, might have said something about my friend’s Vietnam War experiences, about how we were not terrorists, and that this should have been obvious. Or maybe I might  have said something about it being wrong to hassle a retired man who had worked all his life for the American dream. Others might have even tried being polite about it. Or said nothing at all.

       But I came up in Bensonhurst, and in times of trouble the kid who knocked around those deceptively middle-class but actually knuckle-bustingly tough streets emerges, and throws off the veneer of the adult’s painfully acquired culture and education. What came out of my mouth was delivered in the accent of my youth, which is that of Palermo and Naples transplanted a thousand miles.

       I looked the rookie straight in the eyes.

       “Hey, show some respect,” I advised him.

       The phrase may need some explanation to those who did not grow up where I did, because its meaning is rich in nuance.

       In Bensonhurst, there are, and have always been, three or four key phrases; “Show some respect,” is one of them. It has a plethora of meanings. With the Wise Guys, to be warned to show respect is to be issued a stern rebuke. It means more than, “You are out of line.” It means that you have passed limits of tolerance and you have put yourself beyond the pale. That you have ceased to act like a human being and become -- another Brooklyn phrase -- an “animal.” It puts you on notice that the guy you have disrespected is on the edge of violence, even if he who has shown disrespect happens to be a police officer.

       The cop caught my meaning. I was sure of it. Caught it to the full. Maybe he was from the old neighborhood. It’s possible. We did have some who’d become policemen there.

       The rookie bristled. Then he did something strange. He yanked on the handle of the passenger-side door, and it flew open. He stood there gaping at me for a moment or two with his hand on the door as I glared back at him. Then he sheepishly shut it again. I don’t think he’d known what he was doing, or expected the door to have been unlatched. I think he’d simply been acting out. Then he recovered, and once more donned the mantle of authority.

       “Just for that I’m not letting you through. You turn the car around and go the other way,” he shouted at us both. To me, “And you better learn to show some respect to a police officer if you wanna be smart.”

       “When you stop playing Gestapo.”

       We were already rolling, down Church Street, rushing north, straight past the police checkpoint, ignoring the young cop’s orders to go the other way.

       In the driver’s side rearview, I looked back at the rookie. He had turned toward the fleeing car. He was gesturing wildly, flailing his arms, probably ordering us to immediately halt. But my friend Lenny didn’t see the cop. The former Army truck driver who’d made runs under fire along what they’d once called the Trail of Tears had his pedal to the metal. He was intent on putting distance between us. I said nothing. Let whatever would happen, happen. I half-expected the caterwaul of sirens, but in the end it never came.

       Later, on Canal, we heard an ambulance wail behind us, and I’m sure that Lenny thought the same as me: the cops had sent the paddy wagon to come and get us after all. It would be an episode of “Cops” on Canal Street. Up against the side of the car. Handcuffed. Detained. Charged with running an NYPD roadblock and for looking like terrorists. They don’t take any guff from felons on “Cops.” We were now worse than history. We were about to become an episode on a series rerun.

       But it wasn’t the law on our tails. It was only an ambulance, on its way to someplace else. We turned right on Canal Street and headed for the Brooklyn Bridge. There were no more checkpoints, just police directing traffic and some National Guard off to the sidelines, looking on, assholes from upstate as out of place here as the footprints of brown bears.

       Crossing the bridge toward Brooklyn, I again thought back to the morning of September 11th, when I found myself staring at Apocalypse.

       Our freedoms would be challenged in the aftermath of the atrocity, of this much I was certain. Later, I flashed on another image, that of bacterially multiplying rhinoceros heads, the cental image from the Ionesco play “Rhinoceros, ” a play about a society on the edge. Like crystals forming in a shock wave, like microbes on a glass slide, ordinary people were being transformed into rhinoceri, day by day. They had lost their identities as humans, traded them away for conformity in the surreal police state portrayed by Ionesco. Become, as the Bensonhurst phrase goes, “animals.”

       There’s a lot of unfocused, surly anger in this city today. It is ready to lash out at anything that might present a target of opportunity. That which doesn’t conform to expectations can become a target. Since September 11th, I have experienced several rage incidents, ranging from the gray-haired man in Bermuda shorts who glared and snarled a curse as he deliberately shouldered past me at a supermarket, to drivers seemingly bent on suicide by intentional head-on collision, as if attempting to stage a martyrdom mission by automobile instead of jetliner. Some manifestations have been subtle, others disquietingly obvious.

       Maybe it’s my own fault for doing my shopping and even buying my gas in Marine Park instead of my own supposedly hipper and artier neighborhood. But I haven’t led any life outside of physically living there in years. I never liked or trusted yuppies, never felt part of their scene. I’ve always been the “half-Italian” kid from Bensonhurst, feeling more at home with straighter types. Out in Marine Park the air sometimes smells of the salt of the Atlantic ocean and you can hear the gulls. The fruit’s better too.

       But it’s also a kind of Fort Apache, one of the last outposts of white, middle-class, nonimmigrant New York, and further on, in Gerritsen, the cops and the firefighters live. It won’t ever be gentrified the way the Manhattan-side edge of the boro was. What will happen -- what is now happening -- is that one group of middle-class New Yorkers will be replaced by another group, and in time, yet another group will replace those newcomers. Today it is still -- literally -- a place that is divided in to blacks and whites, with few shades of gray. And so it should come as no surprise that in Marine Park, where I buy my groceries and gas, where I have gone to smell the salt air of the Atlantic that I cannot smell in South Brooklyn, and to escape the pretensions of yuppiedom for the still “real” Brooklyn, that I should find myself looked at as the resurrection of 911 terrorist hijacker Mohammed Atta.

       Here the flags are draped everywhere, and with them has come the anger. Most claim that the flags are emblems of solidarity and unity. They are that, but they are also emblems of rage, of a collective hysteria that lashes out blindly, like Kronos reaching out to grab his own children and hurl them to his mouth to devour them, and the faces behind the windshields of cars that pass in the streets of Marine Park are often tight with anger. The flag-waving patriotism has its disturbing aspects. When was the last time that we as Americans felt compelled to wave flags around with such hysteric abandon? When did mere slogans become mantras of national identity? Like all slogans, these new ones have formed dividing lines between us, like other slogans of past eras: either dead or red, silent majority, love it or leave it, and other buzzwords of times better left behind. Does national trauma mean we have to suddenly shift into reverse? Look in the rearview, there's a wall behind you.

       I have no plans to change my routine. Nobody will bully me. I am allergic to bullies. I will do as I see fit. I will not give in.

       I find that I have doubled my workout routine. I'm wary, watchful. I have not been physically attacked and I don’t believe that I will be, but believe I’ve come close since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of September 11th. Yet I have felt, in these last few weeks, that I have sometimes been on the edge of assault, and I need to be ready to defend myself against physical violence. It is grimly ironic that such an attack would likely not come from terrorists, but from those who would regard me as a terrorist surrogate for their blind, unreasoning rage. If somebody wants to get in my face, wants to take out their rage on me, I will not run and I will not call the police. I will turn off my cell phone. I will show them my own rage. I have had enough of this. I have had enough of them.

       Let them show me some respect. Or let them face the consequences.

       Ultimately, a backlash may set in. I believe it has already begun. Our freedoms have been taken; the majority of us, I am certain, want them back, despite the hysteria that drowns out sanity. The threat to our society cannot be underestimated. History is filled with precipitating acts that have profoundly altered societies for better or worse -- shock waves that have crystallized cultural vortices into something adamantine. The Renaissance gave way to the Reformation and Enlightenment. The battle of Waterloo established Britain as the dominant political and cultural power in Europe and with it a germinal representative democracy. The assassination of JFK gave way to an era of polarization and dissent that almost tore America apart at the seams, and repercussions of those days of national trauma are with us yet.

       There are many other such threats we now face. But the new order does not crystallize without precursors. Its formative elements must exist to provide the stellar mass from which it coalesces. America at the dawn of the 21st century, post-911 America, is a nation in which the semblance of tolerance and acceptance of different ways of living and thinking has badly fractured. A streak of conformism has always run through the cultural fabric, allied with a streak of apathy and avarice. That streak has grown into a torrent.

       I cannot help thinking that the terrorists had chosen just the right moment to strike. A time in America when the nation stood on the edge. A time when a precipitating act could tilt it in any direction. Had they known? Had they chosen September 11th for precisely that reason? How deeply had they thought out the consequences of their heinous actions? Were they mere religious fanatics or more than that? As they sat around motel swimming pools in Florida and elsewhere, did they discuss the far-ranging implications of what they were about to do?

       We may never know. But I conjecture that, just as we underestimated their ability to have executed a coordinated action of such devastating magnitude, we may too underestimate their ability to have placed it into a theoretical framework of long-term impact on American and global society.

       If we do this, we can conjecture something even more chilling: Mohammed Atta and his murderous accomplices wanted America to react with panic. They wanted America to turn its rage against itself, to become a repressive society such as the ones that produced them in the first place. To become an Egypt or a Syria or a Saudi Arabia where the phones are always tapped and the population is always watched by secret police. Atta had the face of a vampire. He looked like Dracula. And this dispiriting end is precisely what a Dracula would have in store for us. One where our national soul was sucked dry and replaced with a zombie-like half-life of relentless fear and abiding self-contempt.

       I am concerned that those who would strip us of our freedoms, those to whom diversity is anathema, those who -- until September 11th -- have openly expressed loathing for everything that New York City stands for, will use this horrendous tragedy as an excuse to impose a police state on this nation, just as I am concerned that New Yorkers, in their fear of further terrorist strikes, will agree to its implementation in the false hope of lasting security.

       I am concerned that next week, next month, next year, my talking back to a police officer who was clearly harassing my Vietnam veteran friend may have become, in and of itself, a crime punishable by a jail sentence. I am concerned that roadblocks and identity checks here, in this city, and elsewhere, will become commonplace, even -- I shudder at the word -- normal. I am concerned that a new polarization will take root, and that this city and our country will again find its vital energies drained by contention and dissent. I am concerned about all the many fine variations of what may be done to us in the name of “protecting” us.

       It is bad enough living on the edge. It may be worse should we cross that edge. I hope we do not. Yet I fear that, given time, we just well may.

Copyright (C) 2011 David Alexander