Fifteen years ago, I came to Canada's border pregnant with my second child. My five-year-old son, Eli, valiantly pulled our suitcases along, heeding his father's request that he not let his mother carry anything.
It was one month after September 11th, 2001 and we had been living 15 blocks from the World Trade Center.
Eli had been at his third day of kindergarten.
When I saw that the Pentagon had been hit, as well, I concluded we were under attack and hurried to pick him up at his school near Avenue B.
The teacher sat in a chair with the kids circled around her. Peering in through the small window in the door, I saw the teacher's hands moving and heard her sing: 'The itsy bitsy spider crawled up the water spout.'
We walked away from the school, and I felt numb, shocked, uncertain.
We passed people streaming away from the towers.
A man in a business suit passed by in bare feet. He had lost his shoes or taken them off to run in the chaos.
A woman I'd never met stopped and touched my arm. 'It's just like a horror movie!' she said in a near whisper.
Another stranger standing at a phone booth shouted frantically into the phone: 'Ma, you've gotta get out of there.'
Others walked with vacant expressions, putting one foot in front of the other.
I wanted to protect Eli and the baby growing inside me, but how?
I hadn't yet learned that my children would have to suffer pain I wouldn't be able to prevent, it's just part of life, and that nothing you can do changes this. Yet each step brought me closer to understanding. Each fighter jet that buzzed overhead. Every dazed person who walked past us looking disheveled and lost, shirt pulled out, tie undone. One man in a business suit walked by barefoot.
As five-year-olds do, Eli asked: "Why?" over and over, repeating it like a refrain.
No one had coined the term 'Ground Zero' yet for SoHo and further south of Houston Street when we arrived at our corner and turned towards home. The yellow tape surrounding my neighborhood, marking it a crime scene for weeks, hadn't gone up.
In the days that followed many of us wore surgical masks to go out on the street. Because our apartment was so close to the disaster site, the air was repellent to breathe even inside when the wind shifted our way. When this happened, I wore put my mask on inside as well.
I hated to think what was in that air. Asbestos, PCBs, parts of airplanes, human remains.
But the Environmental Protection Agency, under George W. Bush, told us the air was safe to breath.
In my fourth month of pregnancy, and my third decade as a journalist, I just didn't believe. Now I know that when it mattered most in the days following 9/11, when we most needed its protection, our government gave us lies. We were literally choking, but, under the guise of science, the US government told us not to worry. The EPA's assurance was repeated by my OBGYN and my family doctor and it echoed by reporters. It's what workers relied on as they began the heroic work of cleaning up the site. And this outright lie was used to convince people working on Wall Street to get back to their offices only 3 days after the disaster, dangerously exposing them to the poisonous chemicals in the air.
I tell you this story, because it is one of the reasons that I am working so hard to build a national media site in Canada that will tell you the truth, that will find the facts, and report them back to you. It's really why I care so much about serious investigative reporting dedicated to making sure that government doesn't get away with lying to you to protect the interests of business, as the U.S. government did during that dark period. Because, there are times, many times, when facts save lives.
I'll tell you another story.
After the plane hit the first tower, people started to evacuate the second tower. But as they were walking down the stairs, they heard an announcement. It told them they could return to their offices. Everything was okay. And so many of them did. I know a young woman who worked in that tower. She was a rebellious spirit and her boyfriend would often jokingly complain that she would never do as she was told. When she heard the announcement that she could return to her workplace on the 87th floor, she said it didn't feel right. As people turned around and went back upstairs trustingly to their deaths, she continued down.
About half-way down, she started to see firefighters coming up and passing her. She realized she'd made the right choice. On the ground, chaos. She could barely see through the smoke and ash. Bodies lay everywhere. A stranger took her hand and helped her along. They held onto each other all the way through the destruction until they finally found their way out of the cloud of dust and then they parted, never to see each other again. When I met her a few weeks later, she was on medication, seeing a psychiatrist for post traumatic stress, and grappling with why they hadn't been told the truth.
Every 9-11 is different for me. This 9-11, I find myself thinking about this problem of 'the truth.' If you're like me, you've studied a little history, and you're aware that throughout time, governments have lied to citizens. In some cases, they've lied using the Machiavellian rationale that ends justify means; at other times the lies are driven by greed, or to obscure all manner of corruption. There have been sustained lies in service of such pure evil, no pretense could really obscure it and yet people still believed, because they couldn't bear the truth. In those extremes, lies placate citizens so that government can steal and murder within its borders and abroad.
Today, we all know that the lies about the air after 9-11 were just the beginning. A systematic drumbeat of lies rallied a citizenry to war against people who had nothing to do with the attacks. Hundreds of thousands were killed and an entire region of the world remains in chaos today.
I'd like to say no government I have lived under has ever done anything like that. But I can't. I've watched my own child choke on a government's lies.
And around the world, at all those Ground Zeros, I know there are kids looking up into their mother's eyes and asking that same unanswerable question my son asked me that day. "Why, Mom, why?"