jane goodall on the day the world changed

I was in New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center. Like everyone else, I watched the television in disbelief as the towers burned and then collapsed. And I smelled the smoke and watched it darken the sky, and I felt numbed by the pain of it all….”


by marc covert


Like most other West Coast Americans who were in a conscious state on September 11, I enjoyed a short period of normalcy in my first waking minutes. I was up at 5:30; let’s see, that’s 8:30 in New York; the offices were filling with many thousands of workers; here in Portland, 3 hours behind, it was time to make coffee, take a shower, and turn on Howard Stern, a guilty pleasure when I have the apartment to myself.

One shower later I was absent-mindedly listening to Howard and all the same familiar voices were hollering away…only I kept hearing words like “unbelievable…I can’t believe this…we can see smoke but we can’t see the towers…airliner crash…World Trade Center…disaster.” I padded into the living room and turned on the television; this was at about 6 a.m.; I don’t need to tell you what I saw because we all saw the same thing, over and over and over again.

Like most people who were too far from the stricken cities to be able to do anything useful whatsoever, I sat stunned, numbly staring at the television, unable to do much except try desperately not to fall apart and let the terror take hold. The networks scrambled to get their stars in front of the cameras (Rather, Jennings, Brokaw) and the images and information just poured in. I literally spent two days, with the exception of a fitful two-hour attempt at sleeping, watching the television or listening to the radio as I went through the motions at work. Finally at the end of that second day, I said, “Enough,” and turned off the T.V.

Like everything else about this horrific attack, the scale of the media coverage was unprecedented. A lot of people showed their true colors in those first 48 hours—Rudy Guiliani, deservedly considered a bit of a creep by many of his constituents, conducted himself and performed his job in heroic fashion. No amount of praise or sorrow can even come close to what was demonstrated by the firefighters, rescue workers, and police who responded to the attack—what happened to the fireman you see in the video of the first plane hitting the tower, the one you hear saying “HOLY SHIT”? The last you see of him he’s yelling “Come on!!” and running toward the stricken tower. He was probably first on the scene and I shudder to think what happened to him. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson sat smugly in front of rolling cameras on the set of the “700 Club” and let it be known that the ACLU, gays, lesbians, abortion rights groups, feminists, hell, anyone who doesn’t prescribe to their right-wing beliefs was to blame for making God mad, and causing this to happen. George Bush managed to wait for about 48 hours before he started quoting “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters from his favorite after-school Westerns.

The 24-hour, nonstop coverage was pretty much done by the end of the second day, but the media onslaught had just begun. It’s amazing how quickly “independent” television networks can hop on board and scream for unity in this time of crisis, or how little time is wasted by corporations like GM in launching post-attack ad campaigns (“We refuse to let anyone take away the American dream…introducing 0 percent financing…to keep America rolling.”). I haven’t seen much in the way of words of caution, wisdom, or restraint so far, which worries me as I contemplate the inner workings of our man in the White House.

But we didn’t begin bombing in five minutes, commercial jetliners again started leaving their contrails overhead, sporting events went on after a short spate of cancellations. The nation went to work and started moving again, if haltingly. One event I was planning on attending for months was still on: a Portland appearance by Dr. Jane Goodall, probably one of the most recognizable faces in the world, her status as popular icon cemented by countless hours of National Geographic reruns. Anticipating an hour of jungle anecdotes and pleas for the plight of chimpanzees by one of my life-long heroes, I filed into the arena on the night of September 22 along with some 1,800 others of the Jane Goodall faithful. What followed was one of the most inspiring, hopeful messages I have heard yet in this awful, fear-filled time.

Goodall stepped to the podium after a brief introduction and immediately the crowd was on its feet, applauding wildly, something you don’t often see at these events, which are basically college-style lectures writ large. She returned the favor by bellowing out a lusty, full-throated chimpanzee greeting, complete with bobbing motions; the arena took on the feeling of a mad jungle scene as many of the audience greeted her back in kind.

Once things settled down Goodall began her lecture, something she does some 300 days per year on a mission of outreach on behalf of her beloved chimpanzees. But before long she made reference to “these horrible events of late.” At that point she changed her speech entirely, addressing the attacks directly. “And I want to talk about that now,” she said. “I was in New York when the planes hit the World Trade Center. Like everyone else, I watched the television in disbelief as the towers burned and then collapsed. And I smelled the smoke and watched it darken the sky, and I felt numbed by the pain of it all.

“So how do we cope with the grief and the pain?” she continued. “And the anger we feel as the shock wears off? I think it helps to concentrate on the wonderful things that some people did. When faced with a terrible crisis, human beings often show their very best qualities. Think of the fire fighters, the police officers, who sacrificed their lives as they tried to rescue those trapped in the burning buildings as the giant towers crashed down on them. And those who escaped, yet went back into the smoke and danger, hoping to find others still alive. And there were wonderfully brave dogs who worked among the debris, burning their feet on the red-hot concrete and steel, as they joined the search for signs of living humans, working until they were utterly exhausted. Think of the many people who are caring for those who have lost their homes, comforting those who are shocked, in pain, grieving. Think of the endless lines of those who volunteered to give blood.

“Think of the messages of support and sympathy that have come from so many countries around the world—not only America’s usual allies but from countries like Iran and Syria and Libya. It is amazing and wonderful and we must not forget it. And it could lead to a new global network of countries determined to stamp out terrorism.”

“So what can YOU do to help? You can reach out to all the Muslims and Arabs in your communities, and let them know you do not hold them responsible. They need your support desperately—imagine how you would feel in their place. Already there have been reports that innocent American citizens have been beaten just because they are Muslim or Arab. That is the horrible tragedy, that violence leads to more violence, hate to more hate.

“Try to imagine what it would be like to actually be taught to hate people who thought differently from you. It is very difficult for us to understand what this would be like. To be taught to hate, not to love. To be taught that it was noble to hijack a plane and kill everyone on board, and kill thousands of innocent people, and that this would give you a place in heaven. Just think about it.

“You can pray and send out strong, positive thoughts that will help to bring healing to those who suffer. Pray that the world leaders will make the right decisions. We must never underestimate the power of prayer.

“Let us hope that the political and religious leaders can get together and find a way to root out the terrorists, one by one, and make sure they can never kill again. That is what we must hope and pray for.

“The most important message I can give you at this unbelievably sad time, is that we must not let the terrorists get the better of us. No matter how we feel, we have to carry on, do our best to help in any way we can, no matter how small it may seem. Be ready to reach out and give sympathy to those who seem to need it. Especially, I repeat, to any Muslims and Arabs you may know in your community. They need you, desperately.”

Goodall went on to other subjects, occasionally touching on the September 11 attacks and their aftermath, but all of that was lost on me by then. The conclusion of her talk brought another standing ovation, a long one, as she stood at the podium, looking somewhat embarrassed by the applause, bracing herself for a night of handshaking and book signing. I looked around; on every side of me people were either fighting back tears or had long since let them loose. It seemed I was not the only one in that crowd who had unexpectedly found words of hope and wisdom and compassion at a lecture by a woman who found fame as a primatologist, not as a world leader. They are words that I hope will sustain me in the days, months, or years ahead.


Originally published:
Issue Fourteen
October 2001


For more information on the works of Dr. Jane Goodall, visit the Jane Goodall Institute at http://www.janegoodall.org/


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