Six Degrees of 9.11

Note:  It’s not just me.  It’s you.  It’s you and most everyone you know and have known and don’t know.  How did your timeline change?   This is not an Off Topic from Japan, India, China essay.  For me they’re all intertwined.  Certainly over the past 10 years.  


The 2001 Osaka conference was to cover several days during the third week of September. The horrors of September 11 canceled the conference that year. But we had our tickets and had people to see . . .   As we had a few extra days, what with no conference going on at the Hotel New Otani, I decided to cut short our time in Osaka and head over to nearby Kyoto earlier than I had originally planned. . . .  From the story, “Auction.”

.               .               .

Six Degrees of Separation

Many, if not most of you are familiar with the “Six Degrees of Separation” concept.  And “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” parlour game (as if we still had parlours or played games in them).  Of course the crimes, horrors, pain and heroism of 9/11 were no game.  But when combined with the Six Degrees notion, it does provide a mental exercise, even and emotional one, for considering one’s place in the world and against the backdrop of world events.  In this case, a tragic one.

Six Degrees of Separation. From the Wiki.

In law, I’m a lawyer, by the way, there’s this doctrine, a way of evaluating a chain of events to determine causality — and, often, liability or the absence thereof.  It’s called the ” ‘But For’ Test.”  But for this event would that event have, or not have, happened?  But for the mechanic’s incompetence would the car’s headgasket not have blown?  But for the battlefield-spawned PTSD would that returning soldier have committed that crime, wholly at odds with his pre-deployment personality?  We’re talking “chain of events” and determining where the first, or significant, or causal, link lies.  But for . . .

Not the “Butterfly Effect”

Please note that what I’m talking about here is the opposite of the so-called “Butterfly Effect.”  The Butterfly Effect contends that a seemingly insignificant event can trip thousands, or millions, of tiny levers (figuratively speaking), with cause-and-effect increasing in its significance, as each domino knocking down the slightly larger next one — apologies for mixing metaphors.  The Effect’s namesake comes from the speculation that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could, eventually, cause a hurricane to form in the Atlantic.  In the present case, though, I’m talking about where man-made cataclysms erupting up and down the East Coast of the U.S. echo- and ripple-out around North America, and eventually around the world, to influence, to change, individuals’ lives in ways unknowable on that day of destruction.  We’re talking about how a person’s life, a life seemingly unrelated to 9.11 — other than relating to the sadness, anger, anxiety and shock of watching events unfold on their television that day — can, after days or weeks, be changed and set on a new course owing to what happened on September 11, 2001, in New York, in Pennsylvania, in Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.  It happened to me.  I would wager that it happened to many of you, too.  Alternate universes, alternate realities, became reality because of 9/11.  But for . . .

Six Degrees of 9/11

I’ve developed a Six Degrees of 9/11.  A Zero-to-6, spiraling-outward list, matrix, table, chart, a conceit of sorts.  Anyone else undertaking this task would arrange things differently, I’m sure.  Of course this is all a fiction of sorts — not a fiction of influence or how chains of events occur, but a fiction of categorical discernment and neat, bright lines between the ripples of time and place and events.  There are many shades of gray and the ripples overlap in incredibly intricate ways.  Between Degrees 1 and 2, or 3 and 5, situational fluidity is more, well, elaborate, even elegant, than neat 1, 2, 3, 4. . . “boxes.”  But it’s a convenient way to understand things in a basic way, so we humans do that.  Lists and flow-charts assist us in defining amorphous and ethereal things.

Kinosaki, Sea of Japan. October 2001. The trip where things changed.

The Question to You

So I put this question to you:  what is your Degree of Separation from the Events of September 11, 2001? I find myself at Degree 3.  It’s neither “good” nor “bad.”  It is what it is.  I wrote a story about it a little over a year ago.  The story’s actually about many things and the theme is not about 9/11.  However, 9/11 is embedded in the story as the catalyst that put my life (and those around me) on one road when, but for 9/11, it would have gone down another road.  Perhaps, just perhaps, where I’m sitting now, both literally and figuratively, is near to where I would be sitting anyway.  That’s something I’ll never know.  What about you?  Did 9/11 change your life directly, indirectly, to this or that degree?  After you reflect on it for a moment, after you’ve taken a look at the Degrees of Separation I set out below, maybe you’ll find that there was no great change or influence in your life, that your path now is pretty much the same as it would have been.  Or not.  But for . . .

Six Degrees of 9/11

  Zero.  No degree of separation:  those who died, were injured or traumatized by being in the planes, the Towers, the Pentagon.

  1st.    Family, fiances, close friends or colleagues of those killed, injured or traumatized.

  2nd.  Those whose lives were directly changed by or from the attacks, whether politicians, business persons, soldiers (or those who would become soldiers), multitudes in Iraq, killed or maimed during the war — thousands of soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of civilians.

  3rd.   Those whose lives wound-up going down a different road owing to a change of circumstances directly traceable back to 9/11, either by their relationship to a 2nd Degree person, or by another event — change in travel plans, change in schedule, etc. — putting their life on different path.  This was and is my Degree of Separation.  See the story,Auction,” excerpted at the beginning of this piece.

  4th.   Those whose lives changed or were influenced by their direct relationship to a person or persons in the 3rd Degree.

  5th.   Those whose lives changed or were influenced by their indirect relationship to a person or persons in the 3rd Degree.

  6th.   Only a tenuous, very indirect relationship or influence, but nevertheless traceable back, through the chain of causation, to 9/11.

.               .               .

There are so many people I’ve met whom I would not have met, or would have only met in passing, but for the events of that tragic day.  That goes for millions of people around the world.  The timelines our lives were on were diverted onto different tracks.  So the question is, and will remain, “What have I so far made of this different journey and what will I make of it in the days, months and years to come?”  Assuming I have days, or months, or years to make it worth while.  That’s not meant to be maudlin.  On the contrary, it’s meant to remind me, to remind you the reader, of the preciousness of the moment.  Ichi-go Ichi-e. . .

  1. Interesting blog and an interesting question. It’s really hard to say, especially as a NZer in Japan. On some level, just about everyone in the world has been affected by 9-11, either by having to airports with heightened security, or being affected directly or indirectly by changes in US government policy.

    One aspect of the aftermath of 9-11 that is little spoken of is the economic recession that took place afterwards. This recession drove a lot of people here to Japan, and I know people here now who came in that immediate post 9-11 aftermath.

    The impact on media I think was also marked. The immediate impact was the way that 9-11 spurred growth in online news, to an extent that outstripped the capacity of many news service servers to cope – the cost of the upgrading of online news infrastructure post 9-11 was cited as a justification for massive layoffs in the news industry not long after. This affected me directly in that I was hoping to change jobs into journalism exactly when this happened. I believe that 2001/2002 were the only years in decades that the Japan TImes did not offer new hiree positions or hold the exam for potential hires, which caused me to focus the change of my job hunt and led to me ultimately going to a policy research job, that led me to my current job.

    Working with many New Yorkers, I have several friends in and around the WTC during the attacks who were evacuated and experienced the day as closely as any survivor, although I don’t directly know any victims. I think it’s also worth pointing out that the 9-11 attacks had a huge broad impact because of the economic significance of the WTC, and the global nature of NY. Of course many times more civilians lost their lives in the NATO campaign in Afghanistan that followed, and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians lost their lives in the invasion of Iraq – if all people and places were of equal impact on others, these should have been much more significant events, but of course were not because of the status of the cities affected,and interconnectedness of New York, and global nature of the victims.

    As shocking as the events were, I believe the best way to show defiance against terrorist acts by a small few, is to pick up and carry on like it never happened. That was obviously impossible in this case, and the economic, political, and global security ramifications have been vast. But I also hope that the US can also use the anniversary to try to shake off the affects and look at restoring things back to the way things were pre 9-11. In the end, it is ordinary innocent people who have been victimized twice – first by the attackers, and then by the disproportionate response to roll back American civil liberties and shrink the global economy while engaging in military adventurism abroad, all of which has had a greater impact on the world than the attacks themselves did. I hope this anniversary marks inward reflection that helps the US, and the world look to move beyond this, and repair the damage done over the last 10 years.


      • letsjapan
      • September 11th, 2011

      Friend Hikosaemon,

      Everything you write, every sentiment you share, is valuable and even powerful. Especially what you say in your last paragraph. I agree and, indeed, endorse it. I would note that, certainly, and as I note in the piece proper, I understand the deficiencies of categorizing uncategorizable, multitudes of waves, or ripples, of influences and events. You properly underscore that in your narrative above, by citing specific examples. I appreciate your putting a finer point on this. Back to your last paragraph — it was my parents’ generation, the WWII generation, who experienced, either first hand or through the radio, what London (and other British cities, but notably London) went through during the Blitz and subsequent raids. I certainly remember the IRA bombings of the 70s and 80s. The British attitude of “Stiff Upper Lip” and “carrying on” — in circumstances many, many times more difficult than 9/11 should give Americans (I’m one) pause. One of my favorite books is Evelyn Waugh’s _Put Out More Flags_, which he wrote in 1941 (on a troop ship) during some of the darkest, most precarious, days for Britain. It’s a riot of laughter, a send-up, a satire of the idiocies of the British military and society and various stages of ennui and panic and disorganization that were occurring in London, Stiff Upper Lips notwithstanding. It became a best seller during the war. That the Brits could laugh at themselves while the war was in the balance, well, it makes me admire them (or at least what they used to be) so very much. I’ll say no more, lest I say too much.

      Cheers to you. Cheers to your country. Cheers and がんばろう! to Japan. Cheers to the U.S. and to all the nations and people of the world. Let’s put it all into perspective, grieve as we should, but not let the grief change who we should be, as you so eloquently and appropriately note above.


    • Kaye Norris
    • September 11th, 2011

    I think everyday about how the world be a different place if the 9/11 attacks had been prevented.

      • letsjapan
      • September 11th, 2011


      So simple, so beautiful, so biting, so shattering — what you wrote.

      Thank you.


  2. Whoa! I guess I’m like yourself a third degree. Though I witnessed it first hand and knew people who were close to peoPle that passed. Interesting concept and makes me wonder how many people are 4 or 5s Behind me. Hmmmm thanks for sharing yOur ideas!!

      • letsjapan
      • September 11th, 2011


      Thanks so much for weighing-in. You were, indeed, much *much* closer than me, and it certainly has an emotional impact on you that it can’t on me. It is interesting, though, isn’t it, contemplating how that generational event knock so many millions of us, maybe a couple billion… off the timeline and Life Vector that we otherwise would have had? Even those of us not immediately impacted by the shock of that day (I say “us” meaning me).

      All the very best to you –


  3. A very interesting post, particularly in our new context in the US, where a (small) portion of our own citizens seem intent on fomenting terrorism, or at least encouraging the kind of fear that accompanies terrorism. I am waiting for the statement that surely will be forthcoming from the White House, declaring that bounty hunting is not an approved human activity…

    As for 9/11, there are three experiences I still think about. My aunt, who was living on West 16th, was out taking a walk that morning. When I finally reached her that morning, I asked if she were all right. “Why?” she asked. She had no idea what had happened, until I told her and she turned on her tv. I’d thought she might move, but she didn’t. Her exact words? “I don’t care who they are or what they do – I’m not moving. This apartment is rent-controlled.”

    Later that morning, not knowing what else to do, I went to work. I varnish boats in the marinas around Clear Lake, very close to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The sudden absence of all air and water traffic left a remarkable silence. I’ve never known such a silence before or after – even the fish stopped jumping, and the birds ceased their singing. It was unnerving.

    And finally, a couple of years later, I was selling some things on eBay. I had a set of what I assumed to be fancy C-clamps. They were wrought iron, with beautiful finials. As it turned out, they were clamps for old-fashioned adjustable quilting frames. They were purchased by a man who had moved back into his office, over looking ground zero.

    As he said, “I’ve put a small frame up in my office, that I can size according to my needs. I do mostly small pieces, but the act of quilting calms me. Now and then, when I can’t stand to think of it any longer, I just begin to stitch. That’s the way we’ll have to put our lives back together. One stitch at a time.”

      • letsjapan
      • March 30th, 2012

      Dear Shoreacres,

      I just can’t thank you enough for sharing those stories here. All of them.

      A confession of sorts: one thing that’s disappointed me a bit about this site/blog are the too few comments here, comments that really share and expand this site’s worth. This post has been one of the exceptions, of course. There are a few more, too, where the comment threads have really well-served this or that person who’s stopped by. My point is that, sure, I enjoy putting my own observations and experiences “out there” (out here) in the cyberworld; but I know that I’ve truly succeeded when some post or another has been a catalyst for others — like you and the others who’ve contributed here — to do that.

      Thank you.


  4. Comments do add value, don’t they? When I began my blog, I went for months and months with only occasional comments. Not to put too fine a point on it, it could be frustrating.

    I do have an idea or two for giving LetsJapan a little exposure. I’ve thought about highlighting an assortment of excellent blogs on another site, and yours would fit very well. Also, there is a large contingent of readers who indulge in a Japanese Literature Challenge every year. It would be great fun to participate this time by reviewing blogs focused on Japan.

    In any event, I enjoy your blog greatly, and especially thank you for this post. As often happens, my comments on other people’s blogs can lead to posts on my own, and I suspect that will be true here.

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