Sean Lynch was a friend of mine. Not a close friend, but still, a friend. He dated the girl across the hall from me freshman year of college, and although the relationship didn't last, when he and I would run into each other at parties or in bars, we'd hang around and drink beer. We had a lot in common: big Irish-Catholic families, sports, the sense of being just a tiny bit uncomfortable in the halls of Ivy. Later, after we graduated, we'd run into each other at social events or Rangers games, and I'd always be struck by how affable Lynch was, even after all that time.
Sean and his brother Farrel worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. They died in the September 11 attacks. I went to Sean's funeral and the wake afterward at the Dublin Pub in Morristown, where Sean lived with his wife and little kids. I did my best to offer condolences to his parents, who grieved for two sons in one week but buried empty coffins.
Sean was the only person I knew who died on September 11, and in the ensuing weeks, as we faced the inevitable invasion of Afghanistan, it was his face I saw when I had my thoughts of vengeance. Every time I saw footage on television of B-52s dropping bombs on the Taliban I wished I could be with the Navy SEALs who were guiding the bombs onto the heads of the flat-earthers who had allowed Osama bin Laden to train in their country. As our soldiers chased Osama and the other bad guys into Tora Bora, I followed every move I could, wondering why they didn't just close the loop and get the bastard and bring him back to New York for a trial.
But they never got him. And we decided to forget about Afghanistan and fight the wrong war. We could have caught the guy who killed Sean and his brother and almost 3,000 other people, but we didn't. And with each mocking tape he sends, bin Laden seems to confirm that we never will.
But the slog through Iraq, rather than harden my desire for revenge, seems to have eased it. Rather than wanting to drop bombs on the Taliban and send mocking letters to John Walker Lind, I just wanted the whole thing to be over. Killing someone who isn't bin Laden isn't going to solve anything, or bring back Sean.
So when a colonel at NATO emailed to ask if I wanted to deliver some bikes to an orphanage in Afghanistan as well as some to the Afghan Cycling Federation, I was taken aback. Oh yeah, I thought. Afghanistan. There's still a war there.
Today my team and I built 57 bikes, most of them donated by Specialized, an American bike company. The bikes are called Globes, and they're hybrids, designed to ride comfortably but not terribly fast, over pavement and packed dirt, and a middling mechanic such as myself can put one together in about 15 minutes.
Our day started early, with the sound of a muezzin waking us around sunrise. We built the bikes with the help of American soldiers who seemed eager to have a positive interaction with Afghanis. Troops from other NATO nations stopped by to ask what we were doing, and many thanked us for our efforts, which seemed crazy to me, given that many were away from home for months at a time and lived under a constant threat of war. We should be thanking them, not forgetting them.
Over us loomed the Yellow Building, former global HQ of the Taliban and now an administrative office for NATO's force in Afghanistan. Just down the street, by the way, is the Tora Bora bar, where Coronas cost a couple of euros and Marvin Gaye blasts from the speakers hung above the hockey jerseys on the wall.
And then the Afghans came in, a few guys from the Cycling Federation, others from the orphanage that would be receiving the bikes. Brad Schroeder gave them lessons in repairing and maintaining the bikes as the kids leaned in and a bearded man in a dishda translated from farsi to English and back. The kids were solemn but eager to learn, and very eager to ride, taking crazy laps around the basketball court where we were working.
After lunch and under a relentless sun, we gathered by the base soccer field as buses and cars filled with dignitaries rolled across the dusty parking lot. The Afghan National Cycling team assembled, on ancient bikes and clad in jerseys and sorts and sneakers donated by foreign soldiers, on equipment no American weekend rider would go near. "I rode 200 kilometers last Friday," a rider named Muhamed told me, adding, like any self respecting knucklehead road rider, that he had beaten his friends back to Kabul by an hour. "I don't have a job. I have lots of time to ride. Can you help me find work in the west?"
During the ceremony, Soraya Abdullah Hakim, the president of the Afghan Department of Orphanages, thanked us lavishly and illustriously for our gift, while also reminding us that Afghanistan was very poor and that when we come back we should bring more bikes for her children, and medicine, and books, and skin lotions and shampoo and pens.
We were on a military base, but I saw only one gun during the ceremony, and no body armor. Shields had been laid down on both sides.
Mrs. Hakim took my hand as the ceremony ended, and placed her other hand across her heart, the surest sign an Afghan is trying to tell you something important. "You," she said, "are an ambassador of peace. You and your bikes. America brings peace. Thank you."
I used to think that the bumper sticker/T-shirt slogan of Bikes Not Bombs was as silly as the one that urged us to Envision World Peace. But after seeing what happened today in Kabul, I'm starting to think I found the perfect way to remember, rather than avenge, Sean Lynch.
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