My Memory of September 11, 2001
As I focused further on my role on the Kmart team, I gradually started making important contacts with senior managers in Cincinnati, becoming part of a network of senior marketing managers at the headquarters. It was in this capacity that I was invited to help with and attend a weeklong Senior Marketing Director Training Seminar at Disney Institute in Orlando, scheduled for September 2001.
Jim Stengel, chief marketing officer of P&G, was leading this training seminar for 30 or so senior marketing directors from across the P&G world. I was on the team helping develop segments of the seminar, as well as an attendee. The participants started arriving in Orlando on September 9, 2001. There were marketing directors from just about every part of the world, from Latin America to Western Europe to the Middle East to Asia, and of course many from around North America. We spent much of the day on September 10 in teambuilding activities. All signs were that it was going to be a great week of learning, network building, and fun.
Jim Stengel kicked off the formal seminar, which began at about 8 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11. We had just finished introductions of all attendees and trainers, and Jim was sharing his hopes and expectations for the week, when someone from Disney management came in and asked Jim to follow him out. There was some urgent matter that he had to be apprised of. We all thought there might be an issue with the facility – water, electricity, whatever.
After five or ten minutes, Jim returned and informed the group that an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York, and that it did not appear to be an accident. He did not have any more information. We didn’t quite know what to make of it. The entire group stepped out of the training room for a 15-minute break, and we all started calling our families. I called Naila at home in Michigan. She had just turned on the TV and was watching in horror. Just as I was speaking to her, she started to scream – another plane had flown into the second tower. I’m not sure if she was watching it live, or if it was a replay of what had happened a few minutes earlier. Naila and I had been to the observatory at the top of the World Trade Center when she first moved to the U.S. almost 20 years earlier, so we both immediately understood the enormity of the event in terms of the scale of devastation and the significance of the location. Before our eyes, an event was unfolding that would live in infamy.
After an hour or so of watching live news coverage on TV, during which both towers collapsed, the attendees all returned to the training room. No one knew how to proceed. Jim started to talk slowly; about things like the need for steady leadership in times of crisis. There was no way to calm everyone down. We couldn’t see how we could proceed with the seminar as planned.
Then came a surprising comment. A Taiwanese marketing director stood up and said, “A terrible tragedy has happened, which will have far-reaching impact. However, there is little that our group can do about it at this time.” He was concerned that if we all remained paralyzed by the event, we would waste a valuable week for which many of the attendees had made time in their busy schedules and traveled from around the world. Even in these circumstances, he said, the important work for which we had gathered must go on.
There was silence. No one reacted. We just didn’t know how to react. Jim gradually got us back on track and invited the first trainer to start her session.
Throughout the week, we alternated between training sessions and watching TV reports at every coffee and lunch break in the room next door. There was polite discussion but, given the multinational nature of the group, people struggled to find common perspective and language to discuss the attacks. One of my American colleagues said he was surprised to see that many of our foreign marketing directors were not seeing the attack in the same light of seriousness as the Americans were. I didn’t respond, but I thought to myself that perhaps some of the attendees had been familiar with terrible wars and attacks in their own regions.
We were told that there were no flights anywhere in the country, and that the surest way to return to our respective homes at the end of the seminar on Friday was to drive. Very quickly, the staff booked as many cars as they could find. So it was that late on Friday afternoon, September 14, 2001, I left Disney Institute Orlando with six colleagues in a rented minivan. Some were to be dropped off at the airport in Atlanta, where a few flights had begun to operate, others were going to Cincinnati, and I would drive up to my home in Michigan. I had to return the van at the Detroit airport, where my car was parked. It took us about 15 hours to get to Cincinnati. I thought about stopping there to catch some sleep but decided to drive on to Detroit. Only after I left Cincinnati alone did it dawn on me that I didn’t know in whose name the van had been rented. I looked at the rental car paperwork and saw the name John Mang – one of my marketing colleagues that I had just dropped off in Cincinnati. All of a sudden I worried that it might pose a problem in returning the van. I did not even have John’s phone number.
Along the way I stopped a couple of times at rest areas, worried how people there might react to my “Middle Eastern” appearance. By this time, the Arab connection to the attack had been widely reported in the media. In fact, nineteen attackers had been named within a few hours, and the passport of one of them had been found in the massive debris of the collapsed towers. But thankfully, my solo drive from Cincinnati to Detroit airport remained uneventful. As I pulled into the parking lot, a National Car Rental employee walked up to me and said, “Mr. Mang, there’s an extra charge of $30, due to this being a one- way rental.” He asked if that was okay with me, and I readily agreed. He printed the receipt, made out to John Mang’s Visa card, and handed it to me. No signature was required.
I got home sometime Saturday morning. The kids were home, and we were all glad to see each other and to be together. I was told that on Tuesday the school had closed early, and the kids had come home. There had been no specific threat to anyone, but the atmosphere was very tense. At fifteen and twelve, Aman and Lena were old enough to understand the enormity of the situation, and mindful of the possible repercussions against us and the Muslim American community in general. Over the coming days, a great many of our American friends stopped by or called to reassure us. They told us not to worry, and that they were going to be there for us should we face any threats. This was tremendously reassuring and thoughtful, an act of compassion and caring for which we remain thankful.
On Monday, September 17, I walked into the P&G office in Troy, not knowing what to expect. I wasn’t sure if there would be much conversation about the 9/11 attacks, or if people would want to keep to themselves. I was immediately deluged by many colleagues. They had been waiting for my return, hoping I could help them understand what had happened. In particular they wanted me to help explain the attackers’ possible motivations. At first, I was taken aback. Could I really have any better insight into the attacks than anyone else? After all, during the past week every single possible theory about the attacks had been discussed and debated throughout the 24-hour news cycle.
But I started to think about it more deeply. The attackers, I thought, were surely from the remnants of the mujahedin who had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and were now searching for new battlegrounds. They were zealots and warriors from a war in which the U.S. had been deeply involved. Between the conclusion of the first Afghan war and 2001, the influence of religious extremists had grown in Afghanistan. I felt, though, that the attacks had been motivated more by a desire to exact revenge for American policies, or from a sense of betrayal by the U.S. government, than by any religious doctrine. Being a Muslim myself, I could not think of any basis in religion that the attackers could use to perpetrate such terror against innocent civilians. I felt it was undoubtedly an act of political terror or revenge.
“This is the unfinished business of the Afghan war,” I told my colleagues. I got blank stares back. Nobody understood what this could have to do with the Soviet-Afghan war that had ended a decade earlier. That was when I realized how little Americans knew about the war in Afghanistan that had lasted most of the 1980s, and in particular about the role the U.S. had played in arming and supporting the resistance to the Soviet occupation. Armies of religious zealots from across the Muslim world had been stood up, largely with U.S. funding, to fight the Soviet invaders. Then, with that mission accomplished, those armed zealots had been left to fend for themselves, or to go find another enemy. Pakistan, of course, had also played a big part in ensuring that these mujahedin remained a viable fighting force to help in Pakistan’s regional conflicts.
I spent hours talking to my colleagues, usually one on one, sharing my perspective as best I could, providing some historical context. I was taking educated guesses, just as the TV anchors seemed to be doing. But it was also true that, having worked and lived in Pakistan in the early and mid-1990s, I had knowledge that my American colleagues lacked. The many long conversations with my colleagues felt more like therapy sessions, for myself as much as for them. Throughout these discussions I never felt any anger toward me from anyone. For several weeks colleagues continued to seek me out, and I continued to share my views candidly and honestly, as best I could.
The world has only become more volatile in the years since then. In the face of an unending string of headline-dominating attacks and atrocities, it has become increasingly hard to explain what is motivating the various actors. The Middle East, from where the 9/11 attacks emanated, is a total mess. The sense of having been wronged that many of its people feel is worse than ever before, as it likewise is among many in the West. I just hope I will no longer be asked to explain any of it. I don’t have answers, any more than anybody else. To this day my children, now grown, say, “You don’t understand how tough it has been for us in the post-9/11 world,” referring to American Muslims of their younger generation. We usually leave it at that. I don’t have a way of responding, other than to think to myself that it could have been much worse.
S. Qaisar Shareef
Excerpted from my book
When Tribesmen Came Calling: Building an Enduring American Business in Pakistan
July 2017, Blue Ear Books, Seattle