Clarion spoke with five PSC members about their reflections on the September 11 attacks and the aftermath, looking back from a decade later.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH
The morning of 9/11 Salar Abdoh was teaching a class in BMCC’s Fiterman Hall. “There was a very loud noise, but not so loud you’d think something had blown up,” he told Clarion in 2001. “You hear loud noises a lot in New York City.” Out the window, “We saw paper being blown down the street, but it didn’t register.”
When Abdoh and his students were told to leave the building, they entered a crowded and confusing scene outside. “When we saw people falling, that’s when some students really started to lose it,” he recalled soon after. “They just started weeping.” Abdoh took one student, particularly upset, and turned her to face away from the scene.
After the second plane hit, Abdoh found himself thinking, “You have come to live in the time of your own fiction.” That’s because his 1999 novel The Poet Game had imagined a second attack on the World Trade Center, a sequel to the bombing attempt in 1993. The novel’s premise, he said, was “a group of Muslim radicals trying to draw America into a protracted war in the Middle East.”
An adjunct in 2001, Abdoh is now an associate professor of English at City College. He recently completed a political novel and is considering writing a nonfiction work about the Middle East and North Africa. Ten years after 9/11, Abdoh says most Americans only dimly understand terrorism and its underlying causes.
“One only has to travel a bit in place like the Persian Gulf, where the glut of oil money has brought in Westerners in a feeding frenzy, while you have laborers in a place like Dubai essentially toiling in modern-day slavery. How is a man in such a situation supposed to feel? These situations are real and they exist and they are far from the consciousness of the average American. And for these reasons terror will not go away any time soon. I don’t condone it, obviously, but I’m aware of this as an observer.”
Abdoh published another terrorism-related thriller in 2004 but says he is done with the genre. After a while he started declining interviews related to 9/11, not wishing to be defined by his sudden reputation as an oracle on the subject of Islamic extremism.
“There was a whole army of people who suddenly became ‘experts’ about Islam or terror or the Middle East,” said Abdoh, who was a teenager when he came to the US from Iran. “I was loath to be a part of this bandwagon. So I’ve tried to keep a low profile in that respect.”
Rebecca Weiner has taught English at BMCC for more than a quarter century. For many years, she enjoyed a familiar sight when she left the campus at night.
“I used to love to come out of class and see the Twin Towers all lit up,” she recalled. “It was beautiful, in a futuristic way.”
BMCC was closed for three weeks after 9/11. When classes resumed, Weiner and her students were breathing Ground Zero’s smoldering wreckage daily while walking to and from the Chambers Street subway stop. On the other side of BMCC, directly across West Street, clouds of dust rose up as tons of World Trade Center (WTC) debris were transferred from trucks to barges. “You could see the wind coming up and blowing it back at us,” Weiner told Clarion.
The polluted air affected Weiner and many others at BMCC. Students in her classes dropped out because coming to class aggravated their asthma. Weiner herself had problems with throat and eye irritation. Her doctor found she had reduced lung capacity for a couple of years following 9/11, and for a time she had to take anti-asthma medication.
“There was something invisible affecting us,” she said. While those working in recovery and cleanup efforts on “the pile” had far worse exposures, Weiner still wonders if the pollution she inhaled during that time may take a greater toll in the future. “I feel like there are effects that will come up because we were down there every day,” she said.
PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY
Long after the toxic dust cloud from the collapse of the Twin Towers subsided, one group of cleanup workers remained largely invisible in Lower Manhattan – immigrant day laborers cleaning office buildings and apartment towers, who often worked without proper safety equipment. That began to change after Professor Steven Markowitz and staff from Queens College Center for the Biology of Natural Systems joined with community groups to establish a mobile testing center, which provided free checkups for potentially affected day laborers. In five weeks, the mobile unit screened 418 people. More important, said Markowitz, the project drew widespread media attention to the plight of day laborers working on or near Ground Zero.
“The need was there,” he told Clarion. “We felt we should step in and help.”
A specialist in occupational and environmental medicine, Markowitz has since continued to monitor health outcomes for WTC workers on a larger scale. He now directs a clinic at Queens College that tracks 2,500 police officers, paramedics, laborers and others under the WTC Medical Monitoring Program – part of a larger ongoing study of 30,000 workers being monitored under the program. (The Fire Department of New York has a separate program to monitor more than 10,000 firefighters.)
After catastrophic exposure to pollutants, Markowitz told Clarion, most people either die or fully recover. But an unusually high percentage of WTC workers – 10% to 20% – have had long-term health problems. Common ailments include damage to the upper and lower respiratory tracts, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and post-traumatic stress disease (PTSD).
Whether heart disease or various cancers can be linked to exposures around Ground Zero is a question that’s drawn increased attention, especially in the debate over the scope of the federal Zadroga Bill on medical needs of cleanup workers and first responders. On September 8, Markowitz was named to a 15-member federal advisory committee that will evaluate the scientific and medical evidence and offer recommendations on WTC-related health conditions.
SEEK COUNSELOR, RETIRED
Many survivors of 9/11 who worked at or near the World Trade Center were traumatized by the experience. At the same time they found themselves grappling with practical problems such as loss of work and trouble getting in touch with coworkers or union representatives.
PSC retiree Fran Geteles helped to field phone calls at the NYC Central Labor Council for a week following the attacks. “I was the only psychologist in the room,” she recalled, “so when it was clear the problem was psychological, then they would ask me if I would take the call.”
Geteles’s first goal was to help people relax on the phone “so we could talk about practical things they could do” such as reconnecting with friendship circles or, if necessary, turning off the television and the constant replays of the 9/11 carnage that filled the airwaves. If the caller’s problem was more profound, Geteles would encourage the caller to visit a psychotherapist. Geteles was also among more than 250 PSC members who responded to an early call for volunteer counselors from the United Fire Officers’ Association, though that need was later filled through a more structured program.
While many individuals were able to get therapy, Geteles told Clarion she thinks the US as a society has failed to collectively process the trauma of 9/1l. “The desire for revenge has been the most powerful part of our reaction,” she said.
For many years Geteles had worked on psychological evaluations of torture victims from other countries – so she was especially concerned to see torture become a routine practice of the US government in the wake of 9/11.
Geteles has spoken about the evils of torture to future professionals at law schools and medical schools. She is also active in a campaign to get New York to become the first state to approve legislation that would make it possible to revoke the medical licenses of medical professionals who design, oversee or carry out torture. Supporters of the effort include the New York State Psychological Association and a range of other professional associations.
“The decimation of our values and our Constitution should be on our radar screen,” said Geteles.
PROFESSOR OF SOCIOLOGY
CCNY & GRADUATE CENTER
CUNY’s Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center (MEMEAC) is the only one of its kind in the country that combines the study of the Middle East and of the Middle Eastern diaspora in the United States. Officially approved by CUNY one week before 9/11, the Center quickly found its work in great demand.
A grant from the National Science Foundation allowed MEMEAC Co-director Mehdi Bozorgmehr and Associate Director Anny Bakalian to conduct an in-depth study on how Middle Eastern American communities were responding to the government repression that followed 9/11. The resulting book, 9/11 Backlash: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond, won recognition from the American Sociological Association when it was published in 2009.
“Many people have chronicled the abuses suffered by these communities, but few have reported on how they responded,” Bozorgmehr told Clarion. “After 9/11, these groups moved from using disassociation and ‘passing’ as coping strategies and took the bull by the horns and began organizing to address their problems,” Bozorgmehr said. “That’s a huge leap.”
Bozorgmehr, who came to the US from Iran in the early 1970s, hopes to write another book following up on the study’s findings. Meanwhile MEMEAC, launched ten years ago, now brings together more than 70 CUNY faculty who do Middle East-related studies and holds almost 40 public events per year.
“We’ve really grown,” Bozorgmehr said. “We’ve been very, very busy.”