History rarely falls between neat bookends. The Sixties didn’t end until 1975 with the fall of Saigon, for example. The New Millennium really started on September 11, 2001 and now, two decades later, is wrapping up with the 20th anniversary of the attacks on New York awkwardly bumping into the endgame in Afghanistan.
I was working for the U.S. State Department on 9/11/01 at our embassy in Tokyo. My job was to look after the interests of private American citizens (ACS work to the informed) and the summer had been abuzz with warnings and threats of some sort of terror attack. Everyone was certain it would be aimed at us overseas, the way the 1998 Nairobi and Dar es Salaam attacks had been.
Because of the “No Double Standards” rule, despite being a fairly low-level staffer in the embassy, I was better informed than many of my colleagues. The “No Double Standards” rule grew out of the 1988 terror bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. Because some members of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had been tipped off to possible danger to that flight, and chose to change their plans and live, and because the public was left in the dark and were destroyed in mid-air, the rules were changed.
The new rule said if the government shares information with the official U.S. community that could also affect the safety of non-official Americans, the info has to be shared with the public. This lead to many complicated situations that summer; if the embassy wanted to tell its staff to stay off flights into the Philippines, it had to also tell the public, with all the resulting panic and media guff.
A lot of the warnings and threats were therefore found not to be credible and thus not released individually even as the growing storm was hard to miss. I was a silent partner, seated in the classified space with the big boys as CYA insurance that they had considered the needs of the American public in their decisions.
Late afternoon on September 10, 2001 Tokyo time I was called to review a highly classified document detailing an imminent attack at a specific location in Japan. The acting chief of mission had already decided to release the information to employees and thus I was required to release it to the public. The warning was sent out publicly via our-then very limited FAX system. By 2021 an archived copy has been removed from the embassy website and even the Wayback Machine-Internet archive can only find a place holder. Believe whatever you like to believe but within eight hours the first plane struck the World Trade Center in New York. The summer was over.
Sometime that autumn we learned some of the widows of those among the 25 Japanese men killed at the World Trade Center were having a difficult time obtaining death certificates from New York and making insurance claims. The bureaucracy was finally catching up on the events of that terrible September Tuesday and despite all the talk about “anything we can do to help” the issue of working with the widows became a third rail inside the embassy; nobody wanted to touch it.
It ended up in my office, specifically in the hands of my local Japanese staff. It was treated as a paperwork problem, same as when more mundane widows needed some help filing for their American spouse’s Social Security benefits. We were told to help where we could, be a point of contact, an office others could refer pesky phone calls to.
I initially stayed away from it all, not as much because I had other things to do but because I had no idea what I could do. I would see them come in to our conference room, the widows, many with small kids. Then one of my local employees would disappear inside, too. Afterwards there would be a near-empty tissue box on the table, maybe some papers for me to perfunctorily sign, and a very quiet office for the rest of the day.
One afternoon I just walked in and sat down. Then again, then again on another day. It had been by this time a couple of months since the attacks, and that awful feeling all this was normal now had set in. Not all of the eligible widows came into the embassy. Some made the journey to New York, some hired lawyers, some received more help from the husband’s employer than others. They did not need to see me, they had to choose. I could pretend to be busy at my desk. I, too, had to choose.
I listened to my local employee ask the questions, and then the routine answers while the elephant in the room whispered “We’re talking about a man burned into nothing, aren’t we?” Sometimes the widows would ask me why I was there. They meant I guess what was my job, me being an American and all, but I could not escape the broader question.
So we talked. Many had never been to New York, they had in the Japanese way stayed home in Tokyo with the kids. So they asked about where their husband had lived. Had I ever been to the World Trade Center? Yes, I have a favorite photo of some old friends and me taken on the outdoor observation deck. Was that on the North Tower where my husband was killed? Yes.
Only one widow grew angry. I was the first and likely only U.S. government official she had spoken to. That line in the State Department job description about representing America abroad bit hard that day. She, demurely and ever-so-politely, hated me. She hated my country. She forced herself to repeat how much she hated everything about me in limited English, then repeated it in Japanese and demanded it be translated even as I understood every word. You, knowing none of the Japanese language, would have understood every word. After that I had to somehow finish the day and go home to hear my own kids tell me about how hard multiplication was and appear like I was still part of the human race.
A problem developed in New York. Never before had the city had to issue thousands of death certificates so quickly without any remains, any actual proof that the person was indeed dead and not just missing. That bit of official paper was the key, however, to all sorts of insurance claims and death benefits and condolence money and the like, never mind being the one document which would explain bureaucratically how Mrs. Tanaka had become a widow and her children now fatherless. It seemed every bank, elementary school, and employer in Japan needed a copy to update their records.
The NYC Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) had begun the very long process by classifying all 9/11 deaths as homicides. No death certificates would be issued for the terrorists and they would never be included in any count of the dead. DNA and other technologies were not as advanced as today so out of close to 3,000 certificates issued, DNA at the time accounted for only 645 identifications, dental records 188, fingerprints 71, and found personal effects 19.
We had been asked at one point to collect dental records and then DNA samples from the widows on behalf of their husbands but this proved of little value; some sort of human remain had to have been found to make a comparison match and some 40 percent of the victims left nothing of themselves behind. The initial explosions, massive compression as the Towers imploded, and the fires destroyed most completely. Those death certificates simply stated “physical injuries (body not found.)”
I have no memory of whose form it was, but one of the widows presented it to me. I was supposed to place her under oath and ask her why she believed her husband had died on September 11 given the absence of evidence — neither his body nor any evidence of it had ever been found. I had come to know this woman and her young children a bit; her claims somehow all were complicated and we had developed an odd workaday relationship. Easier to just get things done at this point I guess. So I asked her the question. How does she know her husband is dead?
She said he was only to be in New York for a few months, and she and the kids stayed behind. But he missed his children and vowed to call every evening Tokyo-time to say goodnight. Tokyo-time night was New York-time in the morning, and so he’d make the calls from his office in the South Tower after he arrived at work. He called every morning/night, sometimes chatting, sometimes in a hurry. He called early the morning of September 11 (the plane hit at 9:03 am.) Now my phone never rings anymore, she said, so I know he is dead. But I still do not know why.
I don’t think I saw the widow more than once or twice after that and I don’t know what happened to her. Her husband’s name is the one I visit when I am in New York at the Memorial. This year, watching the results of our generational revenge war on Afghanistan and having experienced a year in the Iraqi desert myself for an equally pointless war, I still cannot answer her question. I still don’t know why and I’ve been thinking about it for almost 20 years.
Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.