Looking Forward

Looking Forward

Most everyone in trade and transportation has a connection to the World Trade Center, if only because it’s named after what we do and was owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Many worked there, and almost anyone with a role in trade visited the Twin Towers. We all have a connection.

Although I grew up in Manhattan, my relationship with the Towers began with a summer job as a Wall Street messenger during high school. I rushed colorful stock and bond certificates around the financial district for Bear Stearns and was in and out of the World Trade Center regularly. The Journal of Commerce headquarters and newsroom was on the 27th floor of the South Tower, 2 World Trade Center, when I began working there in the early 1990s.

My colleagues and I will always remember feeling the building buckle under our feet the morning of Feb. 26, 1993, and the confused descent down dark, smoky staircases to the snowy streets below. We worked out of homes and borrowed offices for several weeks after that first terror attack using an explosives-packed truck parked in the basement garage.

The Journal of Commerce worked out of the World Trade Center until the end of 2000, when the company moved to Newark, N.J. When the first tower was struck on September 11, I was in a plane approaching Newark International Airport from Halifax, where I had attended the Port Days event. As the plane headed south along the Hudson River on its final approach I could see smoke pouring out of the North Tower. After landing and once in baggage claim, I saw the fireball of the South Tower being struck.

Only later did it occur to me that a flight to Newark from the north would have been sharing airspace of three of the four hijacked jets.

I write this as much to jar loose long-suppressed emotions about that day as to understand my rather unmoved response to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Even now, those emotions don’t easily come out. Although I knew several people who died that day, it wasn’t sadness that consumed me then or now. More than anything else, it was anger, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to set that aside a decade later.

Even though I bought a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report a few years back, it still sits almost new on a shelf. Every time I pick it up and start reading, I risk throwing it through a window. Many of us have personal connections to the September 11 attacks, memories of people gone and the terrible images of that day. And those connections define my feelings toward the event and its perpetrators.

My best friend was traumatized for years after walking out to West Street to see what was going on after the first plane struck, only to step over the gruesome remains of victims on the street, and then to see United Flight 175 fly over his head and into my old building. Why did he have to endure this?

When I woke last Monday morning, I checked the CNN headlines on my Blackberry, as I always do, and saw one that said “Bin Laden Dead.” My reaction was, did he simply die, or did we kill him? I was relieved to hear it was most emphatically the latter. Good. Good that he’s dead. Good that he was buried at sea in a fashion that reflects the dignity of our nation rather than this man’s inhumanity.

Still, I have been in no mood to celebrate these past days. You wouldn’t have found me whooping it up at Ground Zero, pumping my fist, chanting slogans.

Far too much damage has been done. Too many lives lost. Too much has changed. Too much work still to be done to defeat terrorism and maintain security. If there is any comfort, it’s that we’re no longer in denial about the threats we face. We in the U.S. have come a long way in securing the country against the threat of terrorism, and the many far-flung corners of the transportation industry have played a huge role in making that happen.

There was no argument from this industry that containers in 2001 represented a gaping hole in security, but as the 10th anniversary of September 11 approaches, you seldom hear members of Congress rail against the ports as open doors for terrorists, as they once did.

That’s because the public and politicians have gradually come to appreciate the sum total of C-TPAT, the 24-hour rule, advanced targeting, Importer Security Filing, cargo intelligence and many other programs designed to strengthen port security.

But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the debate won’t come roaring back in an instant if an event were tied to the container system. That is why we all must remain committed through our own individual roles to maintaining the security environment so painstakingly built over the past decade. That way we can keep Osama bin Laden at the bottom of the ocean where he belongs.

Peter Tirschwell is senior vice president of strategy at UBM Global Trade. Contact him at ptirschwell@joc.com, and follow him at twitter.com/PeterTirschwell.