By Patricia Sabga
This is a guest post by Patricia Sabga. The views expressed in this article are her own.
I learned a lesson about grief recently. While it may recede over time, like hot coals covered in white ash, one breath of remembrance is all it takes to reignite a pain so deeply rooted within you, it will burn until you die.
How do I know? I broke down in tears last month during an interview about my experiences on 9-11. No one was more surprised than me by the show of emotion. I thought enough time had passed for me to speak about that day and what followed with a level of detachment. I hadn’t realized how raw those memories still were, or how my defenses had weakened with age.
My demeanor could not have been more different twenty years ago.
Back then I was all business. Literally. I was the Chief Business Anchor for a US news network and my office was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
At the time, covering business and economics was more paycheck to me than passion. My great love was geopolitics. The Middle East specifically. So much so that I’d earned a dual Masters in International Relations and Economics.
It was my knowledge of economics that earned me an on-air gig in the cutthroat world of TV news. But it was my command of geopolitics that would set my career – and my life’s calling – on a totally different trajectory after 9-11.
I remember vividly every detail of that morning. My alarm was set to music, and my music was a news station. The headline- Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud had been assassinated.
I had been following the Afghan civil war with great interest since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when I worked as an unpaid intern on CNN’s international desk. I wondered how Massoud’s murder would alter the balance of power in the war torn, proxy-ridden country.
Then the broadcast was interrupted with a breaking news bulletin. A “small plane” had hit the World Trade Center.
That was downtown in Manhattan’s financial district. My beat. I jumped out of bed and started dressing. A black business suit – the New York Stock Exchange had a strict dress code – and comfortable shoes. I figured I’d be on my feet all day.
As I rushed to get ready, my boss rang me. “Get down to the World Trade Center and cover the fire,” she said.
All I knew when I hopped on the subway at 23rd street and Lexington Avenue was that a plane had hit a tower of the World Trade Center. When I finally arrived at the City Hall subway stop downtown – the furthest I could travel on the Lex line that morning – I emerged to find the North and the South towers on fire, burning surreally against a blue September sky.
I was confused and totally in the dark. Back then, news updates were not at your fingertips. Smart phones had not yet been invented. I was news blind. Clearly, something had happened when I was riding beneath the streets of Manhattan.
The subway stop was about half a mile from ground zero, but the fires were burning with such intensity, the roar filled your ears. Against that violent soundtrack, thousands of people were moving silently but calmly away from the twin infernos, guided by police officers pumping their arms and telling everyone to “keep moving, keep moving”.
Being a journalist, I swam against the current of humanity, walking toward the trade center, toward the news, searching for more information to file a report.
I got as far as J&R Computer World – roughly three football pitches away from the towers – when a police woman (who I owe my life to) stopped me.
“Turn around,” she said, explaining they were clearing the area.
“I’m a journalist,” I told her, and showed her my press credentials.
She was unmoved. “Mam, you need to turn around.”
Like any persistent journalist, I pleaded my case. I told her I had a crew waiting for me and I needed to file a report. Lucky for me, she didn’t care.
“Mam, we don’t know what was on those planes. There could have been a bomb. We’re evacuating the area.”
Planes. I now had a better idea of what was going on. And a source to cite. I rang my HQ in Atlanta and told them I could file a phoner – a scene setter of what was happening in lower Manhattan.
As I was talking to HQ, the ground started to shake violently, triggering a panicked stampede among the previously docile crowd.
I jumped behind a six-foot wide stone planter to avoid being trampled and screamed into my phone, “take me to air, take me to air now!”.
I was looking up at the fire raging in the south tower, which I gauged to be a thousand yards from where I was standing given the enormous height of the building, when what appeared to be an explosion blew out the windows a few floors down.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The tower started collapsing. It was something I hadn’t expected. Something I never bargained for. And for the first and only time in my life, I thought I would surely die.
Fear is very useful for triggering an adrenaline rush that prompts you to take immediate action. Then it’s best filed into a part of your brain to revisit at another time. Survival takes focus.
I turned and started running away from the melting tower. Seconds stretched into what felt like minutes, as I estimated the distance to the first corner I could round to avoid what I feared would be flying debris that could impale me.
The sound of the raging fire was gone. All I could hear was the pounding of my heart in my chest and my feet on the pavement.
As I was running, for what felt like forever, the now infamous debris cloud engulfed me – dark and so impenetrable you couldn’t see your hand if you held it in front of your face.
Totally deprived of any sense of sight, I turned right when I reached the point where I thought the corner would be.
As I rounded it, I could see a dim light glowing. I ran toward it. It was the doorway of a building, where a good Samaritan was pulling people off the street and into safety.
He waved me in. Once inside the building, I asked him where I could find a phone. I needed to file a report.
He told me there was one in the basement. The building was being renovated, and it was the only land line in the place.
The basement was empty when I got there. The lone phone – a beige office handset – was sitting on a dusty folding table.
I started dialing. And dialing. And dialing. The lines were jammed. I didn’t even bother trying my cell phone.
Slowly, the basement started filling up with people seeking refuge from the horror outside, their clothes and shell-shocked faces covered in white dust.
I finally got through to Atlanta. My boss’s secretary answered the phone. “Oh my god,” she said, “we thought you were dead.”
“I’m not dead,” I told her. “I can file a report.”
“Hold on, I’ll transfer you to the control room.”
The line went dead. Instead of transferring me, she’d disconnected me by accident.
I started dialing again. And again. A few minutes later I got through.
The secretary apologized and transferred me to the control room. I was certain at least 45 minutes had passed since I had fled the collapsing tower. When I later reviewed an aircheck of my report, I discovered I’d filed it at 10:14am. The South Tower had collapsed at 9:59am.
I faithfully retold the sequence of events that had just transpired. The ground shaking. The explosion. The dark cloud of death. As I was reporting, a man handed me his business card. I knew what for. He wanted me to read his name aloud on-air, to let his family know he was OK.
Unfortunately, not everyone in the basement had the same idea. As I was reporting, a deeply traumatized group surrounded me and ripped the phone out of my hand.
I left the basement and went back up to the lobby. I could see daylight through the glass doors. I went outside to a lower Manhattan transformed into a nuclear winter. Everything was blanketed in thick, white dust that was still raining down from the sky. The only sign of life were two first responders in the distance, wheeling a gurney through streets that had turned so silent I could hear the wheels squeaking.
I tried my cell phone, but quickly gave up on the idea I would get through. I moved on to a payphone.
As I was dialing, I looked up at the debris, falling like snowflakes. That’s when it hit me. It was raining dead people. And I was covered in them.
My efforts to get a report out were suddenly interrupted by a police officer running toward me. “Get inside!” he shouted, “the other one’s going!”
He was talking about the North Tower. It was collapsing.
I managed to file one more report that morning as I wandered ground zero. Snapshots of that day are still etched in my memory. Office workers turned white walkers. A fire-singed pink memo slip with a note for an office worker who may or may not have survived. A mother pushing a pram, frantically adjusting a rain cover to protect her child.
The next day, we would all learn more information about what happened on 9-11. Profiles were published of the 19 hijackers – 15 of them Saudi nationals – who slammed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. The names “Al-Qaeda” and “Osama bin Laden” claimed their place in the modern Lexicon, synonymous with violence, terror and evil.
I would also learn how easily racism and intolerance can rear their ugly heads. I was in make-up – a mandatory requirement for on-air staff at the time – when the artist painting my face started ranting about “Arabs” and saying how she hated “those people” and “wished they’d all die.”
“I’m Arab-American,” I told her.
She avoided me after that.
But the attacks also brought out the best in New Yorkers. The acrid smell of burning debris that hung over the city for weeks was an ever present reminder of what had happened. People were kinder to each other. Patient. Understanding. The city was grieving and no one’s pain was taken for granted, least of all the families of the “missing” who had plastered pictures of their loved ones on subway walls and makeshift memorials, asking for information.
It is the memory of those pictures that caused me to break down in tears during that recent interview. I was remembering that even back then, I knew those faces on the wall were never coming home. Because they were on my suit, which I hadn’t had time to clean yet. They were in my lungs. I’d breathed in their remains, and through no fault of their own, those innocent people who had gone to work to earn a living and provide for their families were now my passengers for life.
A few days after the attacks, a friend of mine had invited a group of around 20 people over to her place to commiserate and share their thoughts on what had happened.
This was a very highly educated group of people. Doctors, lawyers, MBAs. The best that US universities can produce.
Two of the guests – men in their thirties- started sharing their theory of what had prompted the attacks.
“This is about Jerusalem”, one of them said.
The other concurred, saying that America had been attacked because of its support for Israel.
I could not stand by silently. “This is not about Jerusalem,” I told them. “This is about Saudi Arabia.”
I gave them a brief history of Saudi Arabia and how the ruling Al Saud family had consolidated their power with the help of the Ikwhan who championed an austere and deeply conservative interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism.
I explained that the Saudi royal family maintained their religious backing by funneling billions of petrodollars into exporting Wahhabism all over the world, and how Wahhabism had served as the rallying cry for the Afghan resistance against the Soviet “infidel” invasion – a resistance that attracted a Saudi recruit named Osama bin Laden.
The biggest point I tried to drive home was that bin Laden didn’t care about the Palestinians or the Israeli occupation of Palestine. What he cared about was seizing power from the Al Saud family. To do that, he needed to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia’s rulers and the country that kept them in power – the United States.
How did I know so much? Back when I was in graduate school in 1994, a young Saudi named Adel al Jubeir was invited by my late professor Fouad Ajami to discuss the first Gulf war and Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow US troops on to their soil – and to stay for years after.
Al Jubeir, who would eventually rise to the position of Saudi Foreign Minister, described to us a relationship between Riyadh and Washington based not on shared values, but a purely transactional one in which the kingdom sold oil at a discount to the US and the US in turn acted as an “insurance policy” for the ruling family against potential enemies.
When lraq invaded Kuwait, “we cashed in our insurance policy,” he said.
You’ll often hear that bin Laden attacked the United States because he was angry about the presence of “infidels” in Saudi Arabia where the two holiest shrines in Islam reside. What often gets overlooked in that narrative is that he needed the US to drop its support for the ruling Al Saud family so bin Laden and his supporters could take charge of the kingdom – its holy sites – and crucially, its oil riches.
This was not about Jerusalem I told my friend’s guests. Or even Islam. This was a naked power grab festooned in the language of lslam.
Whether that lesson sunk in, I’ll never know. But it served as the lighthouse that would guide my career from then on.
I decided I would trade in my business suit for a flak jacket and inform American audiences by reporting from abroad –quality, nuanced reporting specifically on American foreign policy. My fellow countrymen needed to know that Al Qaeda’s end game was to fulfill bin Laden’s lust for power by fomenting a clash of civilizations to sever the West from the Arab world. Americans needed to know that if they gave into racism and Islamophobia, they would be handing a victory to bin Laden.
I marvel now at how naïve I was.
I struggled to get “nuanced” stories on air as a foreign correspondent for the US network that employed me (I had moved on from the one based in Atlanta). My bosses back home were far more interested in how I looked on camera than what I reported from Afghanistan and later Iraq. They could care less about the vast swathes of Afghan and Iraqi civilians dying as a result of 9-11 or having their lives upended by war. Even US soldiers dying in the line of duty barely commanded a mention on the flagship newscasts after a while. What the network bosses wanted was “bang bang” – shorthand for live fire – from military embeds and a pretty face in a war zone parroting talking points from the Pentagon and the White House.
A dual master’s degree didn’t win me any respect. My knowledge of the Middle East was often treated as a liability (you’re not reporting for PhDs I was told), not an asset. The only asset of mine the news industry seemed to be interested in back then was my looks. Time magazine dubbed me “the satellite dish”.
I turned my back on TV news in 2004. I thought about going into public relations. But my inner journalist and my passengers from 9-11 wouldn’t let me sell out. The next year, I became a parent. While I reveled in being a stay-at-home mum, duty called.
I co-authored a book with my husband – a 20-year veteran of Britain’s Special Air Service turned security advisor – that exposed malpractice in the private security industry. That book, which chronicled the rise of private military companies during the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, became a bestseller. But while it may have changed some individual minds, it never had any influence over policy.
In 2013, I went back to TV news – lured by an offer to become an economics correspondent with a global affairs focus. By then, my passion had evolved from geopolitics to geo-economics. Writing that book showed me the value of promoting economic literacy. Because if people don’t understand economics, they will never fully grasp foreign policy or what really drives it.
That calling is what landed me in my current position in digital journalism. Every day I get to decrypt the global economy for people. It’s a job I feel privileged to do.
But there are many days when I question whether anything I do as a journalist will ever make a difference. Take the book I authored with my husband. It spelled out everything that was going wrong in Afghanistan. The writing was on the wall back in 2007. But few listened. Certainly no one in power did.
This past August was a really hard month. So much so that I’d decided not to write this essay. What is the point when I’ve been slamming my body against a granite mountain of ignorance for the past 20 years. But my passengers just wouldn’t let it go.
Still, it’s getting harder to keep despair at bay. I despair at the general lack of interest in foreign policy until something goes horribly wrong. I despair at partisan news outlets that shamelessly profit from sowing division. I despair at those who focus solely on the sins and transgressions of the US and refuse to acknowledge or appreciate all of the things that are good and right about my country. I despair every time I am “randomly” checked for explosives at airports. I despair at racism. I despair at Islamophobia. I despair at the hatred that keeps handing victories to Al-Qaeda and bin Laden.
And I grieve. Because grief never dies.