Jim and I were good friends. We’d met because he’d married my sister, but our friendship somehow survived their subsequent divorce. In fact, when Jim remarried a few years later, I was the best man at the wedding. Yes, you read that right, but that’s quite another story.
Jim was a Steel Guy working in the automotive industry. This meant that he was often sent to far-flung corners of the world to visit steel plants in person. So it was that 9/11/01 found Jim in Beijing, China on business.
It was nighttime in Beijing and Jim was in his hotel room surfing the TV channels. The viewing options were pretty limited. Most of the channels were broadcasting in Chinese, but occasionally, one would come across a Western movie that was subtitled in Chinese, yet the actors were speaking English. And there was one English language news station.
As Jim was flipping through the channels, he came upon a scene of the just-collapsed Twin Towers. At first, he took it to be some sort of disaster movie and he kept on flipping. Soon, though, he came back to that station and realized that this was no movie; it was a live broadcast of the events that were unfolding in New York.
Jim decided that he needed to get out of his room, so he went down to the hotel bar and convinced the bartender to switch the TV over to the news channel. After the bartender did so, a couple of other English speaking patrons came over and began watching with Jim. He told me that it felt good to able to share this event with someone he could actually talk to about it.
As you may recall, air travel was severely restricted in the U.S. for days after 9/11, so Jim was stuck in Beijing for the better part of a week after his business there had concluded. This meant that he had a lot of time to explore the city, and he availed himself of the opportunity. And this leads me to what I think is the most significant part of Jim’s story.
Jim tended to stick out in a crowd. He was a large man with a bald head and a full beard and mustache. In a place like Beijing, he stuck out even more. A little scene played out many times for him over those next few days. A Chinese person on the street would see that Jim was obviously a Westerner. They might ask whether he was an American. Time after time, these strangers would then offer their condolences over what had happened on 9/11 and express their shock and sympathy.
To me, this says a couple of things that we don’t always think about. First, that this was a day felt around the world. Second, and more importantly, it underscores the difference between governments and people and should serve as a reminder not to conflate the two. It might be easy to imagine the government of China taking a dispassionate, cold-blooded view of 9/11. Maybe that’s an accurate view of their government and maybe it’s not, but even if it is accurate, it says nothing about what an ordinary citizen is thinking and feeling.
It should serve as a reminder that we humans should be united by our commonalities more than we should be divided by our differences. Oh, emphasizing those differences can give one a good old adrenaline kick if one enjoys working up a little bloodlust… but I’d much rather see us at peace, embracing our finer emotions and our higher aspirations. As long as so many humans retain their taste for war, this message will never cease to be timely.
I never found out exactly what killed Jim. He’d been recovering from a stroke that had hit him a couple of weeks earlier, but he was in rehab and his prognosis seemed excellent for a full recovery when the fatal event occurred. I never sought to find out any more details because… well, because they don’t matter. What matters is that Jim isn’t here anymore. The rest is just paperwork. If Jim leaves any legacy behind on this earth, I hope stories like this one will be a part of it.