More than 500 planes were on their way to the US from overseas on the morning of 9/11. As my wife and I stood on the deck of our suburban Vancouver home watching the in-bound flights from Asia make unprecedented emergency landings in Canada our doorbell rang and a courier handed me a contract with an offer of a one year contract with the United Nations.
It was as clear as the blue sky above that morning the global zeitgeist had shifted. All bets were off. The opportunity to work for an organization that stood for the greater good seemed worth uprooting a family of 5 and a putting a small business on ice. That one year posting has turned into a decade.
UN headquarters had already been evacuated by the time my contract arrived in Vancouver. Stunned staffers had poured on to the streets of Manhattan, joining the throngs of New Yorkers trying to walk their way to safety. Little did those staff members realize how much things were about to change.
The UN flag - the globe embraced by olive branches - a symbol of neutrality and an icon for peace, human rights and development would become a blue bulls-eye. More than 50 UN staff members plus countless support personnel and UN peacekeepers have been killed by terrorist attacks since September 11, 2001. The latest 11 victims gave their lives just last month in Nigeria when a bomb blasted UN headquarters in Abuja.
The UN agency which I represent in New York – the International Telecommunication Union - has helped build the global network that enabled the world to share the horror of 9/11 in real time. It’s also helped usher in an age where information technology enables citizens from the most authoritarian regimes express their shared frustration and embrace action to empower their fundamental rights.
And as the hope of the Arab Spring turns into Fall my faith in the UN and New York are being renewed.
I have spent more than 6 years as a resident of Lower Manhattan. I’ve watched the ‘pit’ turn from an acrid smelling graveyard in a barren neighbourhood to one of the most vibrant communities on the island. I have also seen that terrorism – born of a toxic mix of poverty, ignorance and despair can best be countered by the fruits of a knowledge-based society.
Global communication networks built on the promise of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; a guarantee of freedom of expression across ‘all media and all frontiers’, will always strengthen us in the long run.
People not only have a need to communicate, they have a right to communicate. Ask any New Yorker – they’ll be more than happy to tell you exactly what they think. After all, 9/11 didn’t change everything that is the United Nations of New York.