Changed Forever 9/11
Twenty years ago, 9/11 changed the world. People struggled to make sense of the terrible acts, and to rebuild their lives in its aftermath. After the death of his father, David Filipov goes to Afghanistan where a Pop-Tart takes on a whole new meaning; psychology professor Michael Sargent confronts his biases on an airplane; and Jude Treder-Wolff finds seeds of hope to fuel her work as a therapist.
MICHAEL SARGENT: I heard the click of a seatbelt
being released to my right,
my head swiveled and I saw him on his feet
rushing into the aisle.
JUDE TREDER-WOLFF: And I start to feel this wave of dread
and my heart is heavy.
This is why I didn't want to come here.
DAVID FILIPOV: It's five weeks after 9/11.
And that means 15 days after the memorial service for my father,
who was on the first plane.
FILIPOV: My name's David Filipov.
I grew up in Massachusetts,
studied Russian, went to the Soviet Union,
became a journalist and worked at the "Boston Globe"
and the "Washington Post" for 25 years.
I've been to all the conflict zones--
Russia, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan.
Now I'm back in Massachusetts,
working for Northeastern University
as the editor of their news site.
After all of these years
of writing about war and conflict,
what do you feel like you have
learned from experiencing and writing about
Every single place, everybody--
minus the small percentage of people
who are belligerents--
people want to hear your story.
They want to feed you.
They want you to listen to their story.
And they want to send you on your way
happier than when you met them.
What elements do you find are present
in the stories that you most like to tell?
Well, you get up in the morning
and funny things happen, serious things happen.
Just as you're laughing, someone calls and said,
"You lost something important." - Mm-hmm.
That's what my stories, I try to do.
I want everything in there. - Yeah.
I want you to laugh, and I want you to see.
Because the thing about war and conflict
is that it's tragedy, right?
But everyday things still happen in it.
And so I want the stories to show that.
It's five weeks after 9/11,
and that means 15 days after
the memorial service for my father,
who was on the first plane.
I'm in Khoja Bahauddin, Afghanistan,
a northern Afghanistan forlorn outpost
where a few rebels are holding out against the Taliban.
And I'm supposed to be
an experienced "Boston Globe" war reporter
who's come here to cover
the conflict that America has entered
in order to defeat the people who killed my father.
And I'm starting to realize
that I might not be up to the task.
It first hits me when I crossed from Tajikistan--
where everybody speaks Russian, which is my second language--
And at the border, our new Afghan friends
greet me and put me into a taxi,
and we go speeding off into the night.
Suddenly, we come screeching to a halt.
Two guys get out
and start firing their rifles into the darkness.
And I'm like, "Okay, here we go!
"Get the notebook!
This is it, war with the Taliban!"
And then, one of the guys comes back and
takes the bullet-ridden corpse
of a dead fox and throws it on the seat next to me.
And I thought to myself, "Yeah, I'm not ready for this."
But, then, I realized
I had a lot more in common than I thought.
Afghans would tell me, "Oh, you lost your father.
"I lost my father, and my sisters, and my home,
and my uncle, and my farm."
Now, America had come, and we represented hope.
When the B-52s would circle overhead,
dropping 500-pound bombs on the Taliban positions,
Afghans would cheer and point at the planes and say,
"The plane, the plane, the enemy is dead."
And they'd point at me and smile because
I was the Americans.
One frontline commander took me to this wall
where his men had done a primitive stick figure drawing
of a plane flying into a building.
This, he told me, is how we know
the rest of the world is with us.
But there was only so much camaraderie that,
you know, could be derived.
I couldn't understand Dari without a translator, and,
in this place where everybody had lost so much
in 30 years of constant war,
I had trouble putting my own grief behind me.
Then there was the problem of the food.
Northern Afghanistan was a hungry place,
and it was very difficult for me
to find something that wouldn't make me violently ill.
Pretty much the only thing I could keep down
was this delicious bread
and really delicious, ubiquitous lamb kebab.
Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, morning, noon, and night.
It was killing me.
Till, suddenly, literally, salvation fell from the sky
in the form of food parcels
being dropped by the United States of America
with the stamp on them:
"People's food gift from the United States of America."
Filled with 2,200-calorie rations of barley stew, rice,
shortbread, peanut butter and jelly,
Yeah, Pop-Tarts. Now, dropped from 30,000 feet,
I want to tell you that those things
don't look really very good.
They kind of crumble.
More importantly, this whole effort was under fire.
Relief agencies noted that Afghan militias
were reselling the food parcels on the black market,
and ordinary people would take the more unfamiliar items,
like the peanut butter and jelly,
and feed them to their livestock.
Nobody wanted the Pop-Tarts, which looked disgusting,
all crushed like that and caked in the dust
that everything covered in northern Afghanistan.
Except for me.
These things represented
not only a foodstuff I could keep down,
but also packed with all that riboflavin and vitamin B-8
that they put in breakfast foods.
But it also evoked memories of my childhood
growing up in the '60s,
as those of you who were there remember,
I lived on this stuff.
I remember when they first introduced
the frosted strawberry Pop-Tart, and we loved that filling!
For many years, I thought that's what
strawberries really taste like...
(laughter) ...and I was so disappointed
when I found that they don't.
We also remember the horror we felt when we realized
if you leave a frosted strawberry Pop-Tart
in the toaster for too long, it bursts into foot-high flames.
Yeah, and then there was the dismal day
when I discovered that my father's favorite flavor
was the revolting and disgusting brown sugar cinnamon.
I'm sure you all agree. (crowd groans, laughs)
So, anyway, in those days of
loss and discovery of 2001,
I learned to distinguish the packages on the ground
that I could eat
from the revolting and disgusting one that I could not.
And, in a way, you could argue
that those Pop-Tarts kept me alive.
Time went on, and, over the years,
I got to where I was almost able to
talk about my father's violent death
the way that I'm doing now,
kind of keeping it together and not breaking down.
I got to the point where I could watch
all those movies about 9/11,
and there are more than you think.
And I could almost watch the TV news
without averting my eyes every time
they showed that grainy video of the plane
flying into the first tower and exploding into flames.
You've all seen it.
So, I thought, you know, what about Afghans?
You know, it's ten years after 9/11.
How are they feeling about this, you know, odyssey?
What has war done for them?
So, I decided to go back
to the places where I'd been in 2001
and catch up with the people I'd met.
But the problem was that the Taliban had come back
to many of these places that I'd seen liberated.
To do this story,
I was going to have to take a couple of risks.
I could only dress in Afghan clothes.
I had to speak only Dari in public.
I had to stay out of places
where I might be picked out, do my interviews inside,
never go to the same place twice,
never stay in the same place for longer than a few minutes.
Because an American traveling alone
could attract kidnappers and people who would kill me.
So, I did all that,
and I met with people who were in the villages,
trying to hold out against the Taliban.
And I found that actually some things had improved.
Everybody had smartphones, cheap data plans.
Even women who had been
cut off from the world in their burkas,
now you can see them tapping away on the glowing screens.
But there were also bad things.
The Taliban had come back, in part,
because people feared them less than they feared
the drug-dealing militias and warlords
who had taken over in their place.
Yeah, so, my last stop on that trip
was at a U.S. military outpost
whose job was to keep peace in the region.
But actually the Americans very rarely
ventured out of their heavily guarded compound,
and we spent a lot of time
lolling in the 180-degree... 120-degree heat.
But it feltlike 180!
120-degree heat, you know, sitting there,
steaming in front of this big table
covered in food parcels from the United States,
from people who wanted to support the troops.
And among them were more Pop-Tarts
than anybody could ever want to eat.
Roasting in the... what did I say?
120? Let's make it 180!
Once again, I called upon my Pop-Tart-whispering ways,
and I was able to discern the delicious flavors that I loved
and avoid the revolting one that I hated.
Yeah, I won't say that Pop-Tarts kept me alive this time,
but they definitely kept me sane,
as did the memory they evoked.
You close your eyes.
You take a bite.
(cheers and applause)
OKOKON: When you think about
the stories that you tell in general,
where do they come from?
Is there a feeling behind your stories
that tends to drive them?
SARGENT: When I tell stories,
I'm trying to evoke feelings in the audience.
I know that different storytellers
have different approaches.
Many storytellers are very emotionally expressive
when they tell, with big gestures,
and big expression,
and wide variation in voice inflection.
I aim for a more understated approach.
In the same way that if you were reading
a novel or reading poetry,
you wouldn't have the author there to express emotions.
You would be dependent upon the words,
and the imagery in those words to transport you to a place
where you feel something.
And that's what I try to do on the stage.
It sounds like you have a very specific style
when it comes to your storytelling.
I do have a very specific style in my storytelling.
As my friends, and as my family,
and certainly as my students would say,
I care about details, and so I have a specific approach
to pretty much everything.
SARGENT: I could see outside...
This is outside.
I could see outside, and I could see
that the morning sky was this clear, deep, striking blue.
But I was inside, and I wasn't struck so much
by the blue of the sky as by the fact
that I had never seen an airport look quite like this.
I had driven down from Maine, where I live,
in order to fly out of Boston because the flights
out of Logan Airport were cheaper than the flights
out of Portland.
I was traveling to the Midwest to go to a wedding.
It should have felt like a routine travel day.
On most any weekend prior to this it would have felt
like a routine travel day,
but on this day, it felt anything but.
I was traveling in late September, 2001.
The attacks had happened less than two weeks prior
to this travel date,
and I was afraid.
The night before traveling I had called a dear friend.
And instead of ending the call by saying "Goodbye,"
or "Talk to you later,"
I told her that I loved her
as if we might never speak to each other again.
By the time I arrived at the airport, it was clear
that other potential travelers were also afraid
because the airport parking lot shuttle driver
had no trouble dropping me off at the curb
because there were no other cars.
And I got through security in record time
because there were essentially no other travelers.
Logan was a ghost town.
Now, in truth, there were a few other travelers there,
but for each of us, there seemed to be
not one, not two, but three security officers,
each one with a rifle,
each one with an index finger near the trigger,
each one with a face locked in a severe and vigilant expression.
I went to my gate, and waited to board,
and eventually we did board.
And as we went onto the plane I saw that it was a Boeing 737,
which, depending on how it's configured,
can hold as many as 200 people.
On this flight, there were three passengers.
I sat on the left side in an exit row aisle seat,
and I noticed that one other passenger
was in the same row
and on the right side of the plane.
And as he walked up the aisle,
I noticed the crisply pressed white dress shirt,
and the dark-- I think it was black-- necktie,
and the perfectly maintained mustache.
But then I noticed, above all, his olive skin.
In truth, he could have been Pakistani,
he could have been Indian,
but through the fog of my overactive,
post-9/11 imagination, I saw him as Middle Eastern--
whatever that means.
Or Arab-- not Arab American-- Arab.
And I'm ashamed to say that I saw him immediately as a threat.
I watched him carefully
as he put his roller board suitcase in the overhead bin,
and then put a brown shopping bag,
whose contents I tried to see, but could not see, in the bin,
closed the door, and he sat down in the window seat
and closed his eyes, perhaps to escape my piercing gaze.
Eventually, I turned to the left and looked out the window,
and watched the tarmac slide in the wrong direction
as we slowly pushed back from the gate,
and then slide in the right direction
after a bit of engine revving as we began to move forward
on a not-very-crowded tarmac.
The flight attendants
went through their pre-flight instructions
and then took up their positions in the jump seats.
And we had just a bit more taxiing to go
before we were preparing to take off.
And then I heard the click of a seatbelt being released
to my right, and my head swiveled,
and I saw him on his feet rushing into the aisle.
Now this behavior, even before 9/11,
would have been a little bit disconcerting,
But on this day, done by this man,
it was utterly alarming.
I wished that those security officers we'd left behind
were there because by their training
and by their temperament, they were ready to deal with this.
I am a college professor.
By temperament and by training, I'm ready to analyze data,
but not, but not to deal with a potentially dangerous man,
or so I thought.
Nevertheless, I put my hand on the seatbelt
and was prepared to, if necessary, unbuckle
and launch myself forward and tackle him if I saw a threat.
And I watched him reach into the bag
and bring out a small eight-by-eight box,
expertly wrapped in shiny green paper, with a bow on top,
and ribbon, and he closed the bin,
and he sat back down, and set the present down
in the middle seat next to him, and closed his eyes,
and began to go to sleep, content that this gift--
perhaps for a child, perhaps for a spouse--
was not going to be damaged in mid-air by his suitcase.
We took off and we ascended for an uneventful flight.
And I went through the stages of relief,
and then embarrassment,
and then ultimately shame at my reaction to him.
We landed, went our separate ways.
I enjoyed a wonderful wedding weekend,
and then I returned on an uneventful flight.
And soon I was back in the classroom with my students,
teaching them social psychology,
teaching my class on prejudice and stereotyping.
And in that class, I have always emphasized
studies about the ways in which white people
often stereotype Black people.
And I've justified that emphasis by pointing out that, indeed,
much of the research-- a disproportionate amount
of the research in the field-- has been focused on that.
But I also have my selfish reasons
for focusing on that topic, because I inhabit skin
that marks me as an African American
and makes me a target for those very stereotypes.
And I don't want to be reduced to that stereotype,
even though I know I could be.
Yes, I'm big, and, yes, I'm Black
but I'm not very good at basketball.
And you might think, "Oh, I bet he's got rhythm."
But I'm the same man who was salsa dancing,
and my girlfriend looked up and asked, "Michael,
"do you want me to dance to the beat of the music
or the beat that you're dancing to?"
So, no, I don't fit that stereotype.
And I don't want that stereotype to blind my students
to seeing who I am.
But in focusing on that,
I've run the risk of missing the ways
in which my own stereotypes can blind me
to seeing all of who they are.
And the other people who I encounter in the world.
Including a man just trying to get home
to bring a present to his loved ones.
So, if stereotypes are an affliction then, yes,
I should do my part to try to ensure
that my students are healed.
But I should never forget that dictum:
physician, heal thyself.
And I haven't yet done that, but I'm trying.
(cheers and applause)
Stereotypes can be quite consequential in tragic ways.
And I'm lucky that in my case, even though I misjudged someone,
I didn't act on it in a way that could have made
for an awkward or even dangerous situation.
But not everyone manages in every situation
to stop themselves before wrongly acting
upon a stereotype.
TREDER-WOLFF: My name is Jude Treder-Wolff.
I grew up in Wisconsin.
I live on Long Island.
I'm a creative arts therapist and a social worker,
and I worked in private practice for a long, long time,
and now I train therapists and teachers
using improv and storytelling in their work.
Wow, okay, so I'm very interested, what exactly
does the work of a creative arts therapist entail?
Creative arts therapy is just using the arts
in any way you can,
to help people to express
what's going on with them, to express how they've changed,
how they're struggling.
And what do you feel it is about the arts that
allows people to heal when they work through them?
When you tap into that part of yourself that I,
I can go into something that I don't know how
it's going to turn out,
I'm not going to judge it until it becomes
whatever it's going to become,
gives people a lot of strength and courage
to change themselves, just to tap into the part of you
that knows I can look at things a different way
than I ever did before.
I could look at myself in a, in a way that I never did before
and that I could make something
and then talk about it and claim it,
and show it and express it.
I'm lying on my back,
looking into the piercing blue eyes of Sharon,
my new acupuncturist,
who's taking my pulse.
And she says, "I see you're having headaches
"and a lot of back pain.
"Tell me about what's happening emotionally,"
and she starts putting needles in,
and I say, "Ugh, I feel worried all the time."
I have this heaviness in my chest
that I thought was heart disease,
but it turned out to be just plain old sadness.
And I have this feeling like all is lost.
It's depression, I guess.
Then she puts a needle in my left arm
that sends a jolt of pain through my entire body,
and I feel like jumping off the table.
She goes, "Ah, that is the wounded healer point.
What do you do for work?"
And I say, "I'm a therapist."
I know, a therapist who feels like all is lost.
It's like a ski instructor that's afraid of heights.
And she says,
"Well, you've got a pretty good case of burnout,
it looks like," and that tracks-- it's 2011.
And I've spent the last ten years
doing a great deal of treatment
with people who were directly impacted
by the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Spouses of first responders,
people who were the last to speak to a loved one
that died in the towers that day,
survivors who saw terrible things
and are haunted by these images.
And now what they saw and they heard and remember,
is stuck in my brain and is waking me up at night
and giving me panic and depression.
And I say to Sharon, "The worst thing about it
"is that I feel ashamed and embarrassed
"that I have all these symptoms now
"because it didn't happen to me.
I didn't lose anybody."
And she says, "Well, you lost something
and that's what you have to work out."
And I'm trying, I'm in a support group
for trauma therapists run by a burnout specialist
in New York City,
and, uh, she... her prescription is know yourself,
love yourself, and ground yourself in something
that gives you a sense of wonder
to go into these dark places with people.
So for me, that's a memory I've had my whole life.
I'm 11 years old,
lying on the hood of our parents' Chevrolet station wagon
with my sister and brother
staring at an astonishing display of shooting stars
all night long.
And my brother, who's an aspiring physicist, says
that some of the stars we're looking at
don't even exist anymore, they burned out,
maybe centuries ago in some far away galaxy.
But light travels forever,
and so we see those stars as if they exist right now,
and they'll continue to travel into the future.
So some other kids on some other planet
looking, looking on their parents' vehicle
will see that, that same light as if those stars still exist.
And this fills me with wonder that has always sustained me,
and I cannot connect with it anymore.
And this year, like every year,
I get invited to events on the anniversary
created by an organization called Voices of September 11th
that was created by two social workers
who did lose someone in the, in the towers, their sons,
and they have an organization that offers trauma recovery
and resilience training,
and they invite first responders
to come to these events on the anniversary
and I can't go.
I don't know why.
So I do acupuncture and I do yoga.
I go to a Zen Buddhist retreat
where they teach you how to lose yourself.
I take improv classes where you have to get over yourself.
So I have to know myself, love myself, lose myself,
and get over myself. (audience laughter)
It's like I'm dating myself, but with a co-pay.
In 2015-- maybe the improv had an impact--
I finally say yes to this invitation
to go on the anniversary to the events that they have,
and I get off the subway
and walk toward the newly built World Trade Center,
and I start to feel this wave of dread
and my legs feel like sandbags, and my heart is heavy,
and I'm, I have palpitations and my throat is dry.
And I go, "Here are these symptoms again.
This is why I didn't want to come here."
But I go and I open the door to this event space.
And it's a beautifully appointed banquet room, dimly lit,
candles on each circular table with linen tablecloths.
And on each table
is a little plaque that identifies
who will be sitting there, to find your place.
So over here is a sign that says Sandy Hook trauma team.
And over here it says Boston Marathon trauma team.
Over here, San Bernardino trauma team.
And I find my table,
which is a bunch of therapists like myself
that are here alone, and the hum of people talking in that room,
people who do this work,
I feel an easing in my chest.
I feel like I belong with these people.
And the talks are wonderful, one after another.
And the last one is an FBI agent who was the person responsible
for the final disposition of the plane
that flew into the Pentagon.
And as she was going through these parts the last time,
she saw something sticking out
of the seat back.
And she reaches in there and pulls out a pocketbook.
And in this pocketbook is a wallet and letters
that are folded up into tiny squares.
And she realizes
that these are letters that were written
by a woman who knew what was happening
and she wanted to find any way she could
to communicate with her family what was happening to her
and what she was feeling for them.
And she did everything she could to make that happen.
And they put these letters together, and the FBI agent said
she delivered them herself to the husband
and she said, "I'm so sorry, it took us all this time
to get these to you.
And he said, "It's okay."
"My son is having a really rough go,
"and this is like she's still with us.
It's just the right time for us."
And to me, these letters are what hope looks like,
because she knew that all was lost and she did it anyway.
And I feel wonder and awe.
And I think I'll never again say that all is lost
because you never know.
And you have to do what you can, and do everything you can.
And I think about the shooting stars
and that the light goes on forever.
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