Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society
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The 9/11 terrorists and me

It's true that I was in Boston in the days before September 11, 2001, but why was the FBI calling me at my home in Jerusalem?
The unimaginable. Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center, as flames and debris explode from the second tower, September 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Chao Soi Cheong)
The unimaginable. Smoke billows from one of the towers of the World Trade Center, as flames and debris explode from the second tower, September 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Chao Soi Cheong)

I remember the three standing by the pool in early fall. They were dressed alike, all in white dress shirts, black pants and gold chains. What made it stranger was their morning meeting by the motel’s outdoor pool, which was not used in early September. To me, they looked like mafia men, up to no good. I could not help but staring at this non-sequitur, especially in the early morning hours before I had my coffee. In fact, at first I thought I was seeing things, but was rattled by their cold stares toward me, something that an FBI agent named Sullivan later expressed in one phrase, “Mr. Horenstein, it’s not as if your name was Murphy” (referring to my obvious Jewish dark-haired countenance).

That very moment was unsettling. Later, I checked out and went to Logan Airport to the American Airlines check-in counter. A tall lanky agent seemed negligent when he did not request my passport, whisking me through to the boarding gates. He repeated the exercise to those behind me. As I was trained as an observer of strange departures, the moment rattled me.

I returned home to Jerusalem for Shabbat still feeling uneasy, and relieved to be home. Several days later, the papers were plastered by rows of pictures revealing the presumed terrorists who were for all intents and purposes dead. I glanced at the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, and suddenly was struck with a knife-like feeling in my gut, as the three white-shirted gold-chained dudes by the pool were smack dab in the picture’s center. I turned to my wife asking “What should I do?” She remained silent, as did I.

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I thought that my experience didn’t matter. “Why get involved?”

I told my story to Professor Jonathan Sarna, who was then visiting Israel and sitting at our Shabbat table. He said in a very pointedly way, “You must tell them what you saw! You are also an American citizen and have a responsibility.”

I cringed. I was afraid. I did not take his advice.

That night, my wife Ruth and I saw a movie (can’t remember which one, my thoughts were elsewhere). We returned home. The babysitter told us that someone had called. I looked at the note: “K.B. (full name omitted) from the FBI called. Please call her back.” What threw me over was the note’s matter-of-fact tone. On the note was a number. I called. She answered.

She said, “Mr. Horenstein, we have been looking for you. We routinely were questioning all those who stayed at the Park Hotel at the time the terrorists were there. We questioned everyone but you! You disappeared and our records showed that you took a flight to the Middle East. We went to your former address in Newton, and the woman said, ‘I don’t know anyone with that name.’ We went to the Jewish school where you consulted, and they said, ‘Oy. What did Stephen do now?’ So we finally found your number and called.” My Israel number was unlisted!

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Two weeks later, I was in Boston and invited FBI agent K.B. for breakfast at the Marriott. She walked in dressed elegantly in a grey suit. She asked me what I had seen. I gave her the detailed account, from soup to nuts. She then showed me a bank ATM picture of the three, all dressed as I had described them. “Did they look like this?” I fell back in my chair, gulping my orange juice.

The rest of the interview went relatively smoothly, until she said, “Mr. Horenstein, I have one more thing to tell you. You mentioned that you heard knocking sounds coming from the radiators above you. Do you know where the terrorists were staying?” She motioned with one upwardly pointed finger and said, “In the room directly above you.” I felt pangs of nausea riddling up and down in my body. “What were they doing? Making bullets? Sharpening their box-cutters?” I was glad I hadn’t complained.

At the end, I asked her, “Will my testimony be used?” She answered, “Mr. Horenstein, all the defendants are dead. But if Bin Laden comes to trial, yes, your words will be used against him.” I cringed again (needless to say, Bin Laden’s later capture was a relief).

I think back to those days. They were beyond belief. They were strange. They were terrifying. Nothing really has changed, for truth is stranger than fiction. We live in crazy times where unimaginable things happen daily. Our assumptions of the “good” and of the “just” are challenged every day.

I see 9/11 as the opening salvo of a chain of gut-wrenching experiences still haunting us to this day. It was a time when the surreal became real and when I was shaken to a cold shudder, always looking over my shoulder and driving within the speed limit. When I fly, I still recall that Boston boarding, and say a silent “Bravo” to the security agents who question me. The process is no longer an inconvenience. To this day, I thank them.

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About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA) and recently a Mifhal HaPais prize to produce a new album “Sounds of Siday: Side B” (orchestra).. Horenstein's teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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