Ten years ago, as I checked the list of victims for the 20th time…

I’ve been hearing about 9/11 all weekend on NPR and I thought I’d share a tiny bit about my experience. I usually post about geekier topics so I hope you’ll excuse a bit of a tangent – though this might be one of the geekier experiences of the tragedy that you’ll read today.

From NYC 2011 Shots

In 2001 I was out of college and working for Cleveland.com. It was a pretty good job coming out of school with a major in journalism and a minor in computer science, though it didn’t involve as much journalism or programming as I had hoped. I got to help out with some man-on-the-street interviews, write headlines, etc. but most of my time was spent doing things like layout section pages, manually scrubbing errors from XML files, and deleting profanity from the forums.

I was off that day, I worked weekends. I was still living at my parents’ house, and when the news started pouring in I was glued to CNN just like everyone else. I called the office to see if they wanted me to come in, but my boss told me to stay home, since there was talk of evacuating downtown Cleveland (Cleveland, can you imagine it?) – so stay home. I have nothing interesting to add about that day – go listen to the survivors’ stories on NPR – I watched TV and checked news on the web obsessively just like everyone.

My story gets a little more interesting the next day. I came in and was given a few tasks:

1. Keep an eye on wire reports of victims lists for locals.

This might sound a bit weird if you haven’t worked in regional or local journalism, but people become much more interested when something happens to a complete stranger who grew up in their hometown than when the same thing happens to a complete stranger who grew up in Kalamazoo. I was used to this. Still, continuously scouring the victims list was a grim way to punctuate my days for the next couple weeks. I never got used to it. As I checked the list of victims for the 20th time, though, I started to wish everyone had to read this list over and over just as I did – that way they would see names like Mohammed, Ahmed, and Abdoul, sprinkled through the long lines of Adams and Smiths. The US is a nation of immigrants, and the WTC was a hub of international business. It seemed like trivial, uncontroversial facts like this started to slip away from the national memory on that day.

2. Help cover the wire for photos.

This was another duty I wish the whole country had to share, but for different reasons. The wire was not filled with “death to America” chants, it was filled with an international outpouring of grief and support we are unlikely to see again. It’s hard to imagine it now, but there was a brief moment where almost everyone really was with us, from Europe to Asia to the Middle East (though not quite everyone). It was hard to imagine it in those days as well – I would see thousands of photos of Palestinians holding candlelight vigils over the wire only to come home and hear about nothing but American flags burning in streets, real and imagined. There were clearly two stories to tell in those days and one of them, the hate-provoking story of the minority of reactions, got all of the coverage.

3. For the love of god, try to keep things under control in the forums.

There’s a bit of a debate over requiring real names online right now, but at the time Cleveland.com forums didn’t even require a login to post. Other than a few helpful answers to gardening and wedding questions they were usually filled with pages of schoolyard name-calling lubricated in boastful logorrhea. The attacks put things into overdrive. Racism, conspiracy theories, accusations against everyone’s patriotism – eventually we gave up trying to really moderate and started deleting any threads that had devolved into nastiness, which was almost all threads on some boards. I didn’t have to wait for “Loose Change” to try to “wake me up”, all of the scapegoats and crackpot theories were already there.

It would be nice to think I was above all of this but I knew how the forum posters felt. One moment I will never forget was just a walk from my car to the office – I parked in a very cheap lot down in the Flats, so I had to walk up hill to the Warehouse District every morning. One of my least favorite duties was occasionally manning the front desk – but that morning I started really looking forward to it. We had been getting threats against one of our staff from some nut, and I had heard he even showed up to the office once. As I walked up that hill, I found myself wishing he would show up again, so I could do something physical to someone who deserved it. Before I realized how crazy the feeling was, I’m not sure I ever wanted anything that badly before.

By the time I got to office I had calmed myself down, like an adult. Ready to clean the forums and scour the list of dead for another day, though I wouldn’t be there much longer. Cleveland.com had weathered the dotcom bust fairly well until the advertising spend decline following 9-11, and I was laid off.

In two ways, 9-11 was the event that turned me away from a career in journalism toward programming. For one thing, I couldn’t find a job in the field. The tech job market was bad for a long time, but it was possible to eventually feed yourself as a programmer or web developer. At the same time, that post-9-11 news coverage, and especially the coverage in the lead up the Iraq war, made me lose interest in the field. War is not something to enter into lightly – regardless of whether you were in favor of invading Iraq or not, shouldn’t someone have been asking really hard questions? For the past decade, I have had a hard time finding anyone asking hard questions, unless they were doing a comedy show.

I’m posting this late, on the West Coast, so the anniversary is basically over. My story is small and peripheral to the really tragic stories of that day, but I learned something from it. So now, back to your regularly scheduled geekery.