When I realized that this week’s column would initially appear on September 11, I knew that I should address the terrorist attacks and their aftermath, especially from an investing perspective. This week’s regular installment of my column, “Jane Welch’s Sour Grapes,” will appear here tomorrow, with the usual cast of heroes and villains who scurry around corporate headquarters, law firms, government offices, Capitol Hill, divorce courts, sporting events, and TV shows.
For today, I want to tell you everything investors should concern themselves with regarding terrorist attacks on the United States.
The terrorists accomplished nothing, even by their own measuring sticks. They created personal tragedies on a large scale, but failed to disrupt any American institution in any fundamental way.
Look at how much damage the terrorists thought they had wrought on our system: murdering thousands of citizens in an instant; wiping out the two largest office buildings in the world, in the heart of the financial district, just blocks from the New York Stock Exchange; shutting down commerce and closing financial markets; creating unprecedented burdens on the city of New York; annihilating the airline industry; and threatening insurance and leisure industries.
But the markets reopened. The financial institutions rebuilt themselves. The city didn’t miss a beat, simultaneously grieving for its fallen, cleaning up, and planning for the future. The airline industry will undoubtedly be changed forever, but in its current structure it was doomed regardless of these events. People resumed their lives, including their economic activity. The weakness in the financial markets since then, though occasionally caused by uncertainty regarding the attacks, is generally conceded to be more the result of the recession we were slipping into before September 11, 2001.
I didn’t cry on September 11. I struggled with how to explain the tragedy to my children, but I was selfishly lucky. With the nation, I grieved. But because I didn’t know anyone in those buildings or on those planes, I didn’t cry.
When the New York Stock Exchanged opened for business the following Monday, I watched the opening ceremonies. Through the two minutes of silence before the opening bell, I thought about how sad it was that so many people lost their lives, but I didn’t cry. During the singing of “God Bless America,” I watched as the TV cameras panned among the floor traders, many of who lost colleagues and would go to work every day haunted by the empty skyline just blocks away, rerouted to and from work away from the ghastly wreckage where the towers once stood. But I didn’t cry.
Then Richard Grasso, Chairman of the Exchange, flanked by police, fire, and rescue workers, said ten words that brought me to tears: “Ladies and gentlemen, our heroes will now open the marketplace.”
I cried, not because of what we lost, but because of what we discovered. The terrorists created a giant personal tragedy, but that was not what they set out to do. They wanted to harm, and eventually bring down, a nation. They wanted to damage our biggest city, topple our largest buildings, and shut down our financial institutions.
But it didn’t work. Goofy as it seems, we really are that tough, resilient nation we imagine ourselves to be. Despite Vietnam, Watergate, Whitewater, and hundreds of other examples our flaws, we are collectively just too strong to bring down.
In the bargain, we also all turned, at least a little bit, into stereotypical wise-guy-chip-on-the-shoulder New Yorkers instantly identifiable around the world.
By opening our markets and resuming our lives, we said, “Is that all you got? Fuhgettaboutit.”
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