Twenty years ago today, a truck bomb exploded in the underground garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. It destroyed several levels of the garage, killed six people, and injured over a thousand. The bombing attack was planned and carried out by a group of conspirators led by Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti-born terrorist who trained with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
On that Friday morning (the bomb exploded at 12:17 pm local time, which was 9:17 am on the West Coast), I was at work. I had just completed my probationary period as an employee of Intel, and was still settling into my new office on the fifth floor of the recently-completed Robert Noyce Building in Santa Clara, California, Intel’s headquarters.
I liked to listen to FM radio on headphones while I was working — the structure of the building was such that AM broadcasts were almost impossible to hear. Portable CD players were still expensive and skipped if you so much as sneezed on them, the algorithms that would give rise to MP3 sound files were just being defined, and streaming audio on the Internet was, at best, somebody’s pipe dream.
Immediately after I learned of the bombing, I became painfully aware that I was working on the fifth floor of the five-story building, I became painfully aware that I was working on the fifth floor of the five-story building, by far the tallest I had ever worked in. Having visited taller buildings only a few times, it was challenging — and quite frightening — to imagine what it must be like to be in one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center buildings. I tried to get as much news as I could that day.
On the wider scale, I think it was that first World Trade Center bombing that really crystallized the image of the Middle Eastern terrorist as a figure to be feared more than any other in the culture of the United States. It was not, of course, the first time a Middle Eastern terrorist had struck at Americans. But it very quickly gained the title of worst terrorist incident on United States soil, and in so doing, gave the American people something to be afraid of, which we had largely lost in the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of global Communism.
Indeed, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was blown up two years and two months after the World Trade Center bombing, everyone’s assumption was that a Middle Eastern terrorist had done it. There are people who believe to this day that some Middle Eastern group — most often Iraqi — was responsible and that Timothy McVeigh was just a patsy. The fact that McVeigh became known as a “domestic” or “homegrown” terrorist just underscores how pervasive the image of the Middle Eastern terrorist had become. It is a strange distinction to draw; a distinction akin to “racism” and “reverse racism,” a distinction that should not need to be made. But we make it anyway.