There was an article in the Times about how in the aftermath of 9/11 it seemed inconceivable that people would ever work in skyscrapers again; that Ground Zero wouldn’t be instantly rebuilt; that Times Square wouldn’t be attacked by suicide bombers. What I remember most about the aftermath of 9/11 isn’t the fear (though I suppose there was plenty of that)–it was the tenderness. For a few days, there was no pushing on the subways, people made eye contact, and everybody’s voices were pitched lower. The morning of September 12, we went to Cobble Hill park with our kids. It was filled with parents that we never saw during the day, many of them with stories about missing neighbors and friends. It was awful–I mean, really awful–but at the same time I’ve never felt so safely swaddled in community.
I wrote something on the anniversary of 9/11 in 2005, the year of Katrina, that I didn’t publish. Now that I have a blog, it seems appropriate to post some of it:
It was terribly sad and dislocating, but for people like me who’d escaped without a scratch, who didn’t have funerals to attend and life insurance claims to deal with, who hadn’t witnessed the carnage first hand (what I’d seen was spectacular and bloodless, like a scene in a big budget action movie) it was also a little bit of an adventure. Before too long, I was riding my bike to work again. American flags flapped on the antennae of passing cars; homemade missing persons posters were plastered to lampposts. I’d nod at the guardsmen manning the checkpoints as my tires crunched through the gray silt that still coated the empty downtown streets.
We were filled with voluptuous intimations of our mortality, with the heady sense that we’d been swept up into history—we never lacked for something urgent and interesting to talk about. We were living in a war zone, but we suffered none of the deprivations of war; we had survived a great catastrophe, but most of us had never been in any immediate danger. Ground Zero was a mass grave and an apocalyptic wasteland, but it was only 16 acres in size. In the rest of this vast city our telephones and computers and cable TV were still connected; the supermarkets were fully stocked. Our sense of the community around us was palpable and warm and nurturing.
A few weeks after 9/11, I attended a business lunch in the Time Life Building at Rockefeller Center (where one of the first anthrax letters had just been discovered). There was much talk around the table about Bush and Afghanistan, dirty bombs and bio-terrorism, and especially about how we were all dealing with our fear. The woman next to me said quietly, “This isn’t new to me. This is what it felt like when I learned I had cancer. Only I had to deal with that all by myself.”
“Isn’t it better that we can share this?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure,” she answered. “It’s pretty personal.”
At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. I think I do now.
Perhaps now that an American city really has been laid waste, we can begin to re-think the lessons we thought we learned from 9/11. If nothing else, it is a salutary spiritual/intellectual exercise. If we are sufficiently honest with ourselves, it just might do wonders for our national character.
9/11 taught us that there are people in the world who hate Americans so much that they’ll stop at nothing to kill us. But shouldn’t we have known that already? America has produced its own share of haters and killers, after all. September 11 taught us that death can drop out of the sky like a thunderbolt, that a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a brother, a sister, a wife, a husband, a lover, can leave their homes in the morning, never to return. We should have known that too. Our hospitals have never lacked for patients; our cemeteries and funeral homes do a booming business every day.
9/11 taught us that, in a time of fear, people hunger for heroes. And it literally gave us hundreds of them—the firefighters and policemen and civilians who sacrificed themselves rescuing strangers, the passengers on Flight 93, the workers who cleaned up the mess and searched for the bodies. But it’s not just heroes we long for—we want a father figure too, someone who can scare the monsters back under the bed.President Bush sealed his bid for reelection by promising to defeat terror. But isn’t terror a basic fact of life—isn’t death, in fact, the ultimate price we all must pay for the privilege of being alive?
Yes, yes, I know. 9/11 was wrought by vicious men—it didn’t have to happen. I would never say that fatalism, an existential shrug of the shoulders, is an appropriate response to a terrible crime. But neither is grandiosity and paranoia. After the Tsunami, after Katrina, doesn’t it seem a bit unseemly how maudlin we all were? Not about the victims, who suffered the full measure of horror—about ourselves. We were the lucky ones. All of our numbers will come up some day, but they didn’t then. Even so, we wallowed in our fear. We were so outraged, so flabbergasted by the thought that we weren’t invulnerable.
I think I finally understand what the cancer survivor who sat next to me at that business lunch four years ago was trying to tell me. It’s a highly personal thing, this coming to terms with one’s own mortality. It requires solitude and time and it doesn’t come without pain. But if we truly wish to honor our dead, it’s past time that we begin the hard work of reflection.