I happened to be in NY for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It wasn't planned and I didn't take part in any of the memorials. I didn't want to. Just as I never wanted to watch footage of the planes hitting. I just don't see the point.
I saw it from the top of our building in Brooklyn, directly across the river where I stared in shock at two massive burn marks seared onto the side of the Twin Towers.
Sandra, our neighbor, emerged from the stairwell as we stood atop that old schoolhouse-turned-condos on Hicks Street, “The second tower just fell,” she said, explaining the cloud of grey-white dust that billowed out from the buildings and toward us. So matter of fact, it seemed, reporting what she heard from radio, just letting us know.
Then it was a quick succession of burning asbestos, sirens, people crying in the streets, singed papers and ash wafting their way from Manhattan to Brooklyn leaving by our feet a charred memo reminding Michael M to file his expense report by the end of the week. The radio told of six suspicious passengers removed from a flight at JFK. A truck thought to contain explosives was stopped near the George Washington Bridge.
We decided to go indoors as the dust cloud began to envelop us.
Ten Years Later and Things Feel A Bit Too Normal
Here I am in NYC after not living here in almost five years. On and off the subway. Great food. The weather has been perfect. Tonight I'm taking a yoga class taught by friend. But I expected things to somehow be different, an obvious mark in the air that this big disaster happened a decade ago.
Something to mark the day I stopped believing.
This Is What I Can No Longer Trust Or Believe
September 12, 2001, I listened to the radio to hear journalists speaking live from the scene, their media veneer stripped clean. “Oh my god. It’s falling. I can’t believe it. The building is falling.” There was panic, fear and a complete loss of control, something I had never before or since heard from the media.
I searched online looking for something to answer why this had happened. I read back issues of the New York Times, read the histories of Afghanistan on CIA World Factbook, my favorite site for basic information on any country in the world.
But all clicks lead me to realize that nothing can explain it. Nothing can explain with any true sense of satisfaction the level of destruction and pain we saw on the streets. And the news media didn't help at all.
After those early days, the sheen of a well-oiled media machine glossed over the first response as Terror At the Towers and A City Under Siege filled the airways to introduce repeatedly new reports of the same information.
Stories told in the first days disappeared. The six passengers on the plane became four then evaporated. I never learned what happened with the truck of explosives at the bridge, but reports of the buildings falling and man-on-the-street first hand accounts proliferated, singing the same song with pre-prepped intros, outros, b-roll yet provided nothing useful.
I felt deceived by a media that seemed to only want to present that which would garner the most eyes and largest number of clicks, and the surreal nature of reaccustoming myself to a constantly changing post-9/11 world left me grasping for something solid and real.
Until finally I decided, solid and real is an illusion.
Prior to 9/11, the news was all about shark attacks. Every other day, it seemed, another child, man or woman had been being mutilated by these beady-eyed creatures.
Surely we could have found a corner of the world with a story worthy of telling. It’s not as if the Taliban popped up in Afghanistan overnight. Qaddafi wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops until a couple weeks ago when he was ousted. Mubarak of Egypt didn’t suddenly turn sour a few months ago. But they weren’t yet looming, a fearful and direct danger to our lives, our children and our futures.
At the time of September 11, I was teaching composition at Stern College for Women. When classes resumed after the attacks, I revised my curriculum completely. Instead of Langston Hughes and Hemingway, we pored over news articles, examined them and tried to answer the questions people asked.
Case In Point: Bush Officials Try To Calm Fears Of Anthrax
This article acts as if it's going to calm our fears about anthrax. Instead, it introduces Tom Ridge as the Bush administration’s new domestic security chief. His appointment, suggests the article, is meant to directly address concerns of terrorist threat in the United States as well as streamline methods of addressing those threats.
Mr Ridge describes his new role as such:
I may need some statutory authority down the line if I'm going to rearrange some of the responsibilities and give cleaner lines of responsibility to the agencies," he said.
Mr. Ridge said, for example, that he would not be the official to decide whether the military should shoot down a commercial airliner that behaved suspiciously. "My role, if there is time, would be more as an adviser," he said.
But, asked in the morning if he was "the boss here or are you a coordinator," Mr. Ridge replied, "The coordinator, it's like the conductor of an orchestra. The music doesn't start playing until he taps the baton.
Even after three separate descriptions of Ridge's new role, I still don't know what he's intended to do. I also wonder what exactly is this statutory authority he seeks down the line.
And then I look forward to now, post development of the Department of Homeland Security and wonder if those authorities are the ones that allow the department to wiretap, intercept mail and monitor our e-mails, blog writings, phone calls. Was this Mr. Ridge softening our desire for personal privacy in the hope that opening our lives to the government would protect us from anthrax and whatever else might arise.
Fear Is A Fantastic Motivator
As I told my students in the weeks after 9/11, if a piece of news tweaks the fear strings in your body, take a step back, analyze it and pull it apart.
That is not to say fear is useless. It protects us. Humans are more suggestible and more likely to listen to direction without question when under the influence of fear.
That is a fabulous thing when you’re caught in a flaming movie theater and someone tells you to remain calm, don’t run in directions and follow the aisle to the brightly lit EXIT sign.
It is dangerous and destructive, though, when the fear stimulus is prolonged and has no directed goal. Then, fear leads to random and useless action, often rife with violence and ultimately the mind and body breaks down into disorder.
I don't want to make my choices based on fear. Instead of allowing that belly twinge of emotion to guide my choices, I looked at my life and said "What am I waiting for?"
So many things I'd always wanted but never did because of fear, obligation, not wanting to do the wrong thing. Without fear, I am able to put aside the you-shoulds and what-ifs.
And, for what it's worth, it's easier to give up fear when you live through an event like 9/11. Because that's when I saw without a doubt that staying in one place is no more secure than moving.
Last Week I Finally Saw the Airplane Footage
I chose not to watch the moment the planes hit because what good does watching a past event that cannot be changed. It's a spectator sport, and I prefer to live by my actions and my own memories.
It happened by mistake when I passed by a TV showing Tenth Anniversary coverage, and I was surprised at my response.
My chest tightened, breathing quickened. I went directly back to my apartment that no longer exists in a life that only lives in photos and memory. I was there again in all that pain and unknowing and indecision.
Again, I felt the fear vividly. I re-experienced the wild look in the eyes of people around me, when they weren’t filled with tears, and then recognized the same wildness in my own face in the mirror. I thought I'd moved past these feelings, and I suppose I had. The image of the plen hitting brought me back.
For days, I closed my eyes to see those few seconds of footage repeating in my head on loop, watching helplessly as the flight speeds up in those last moments, as if the pilot relished the thought of all the damage he’d cause. Or was that my imagination?
The mind is powerful. It is up to us how we choose to use that power.
And Yet I Do Not Say No To Media
I often criticize the media for being self-interested and false. At the same time, I remain acutely aware that I am clearly part of the media. Am I being hypocritical? I certainly know I'm not immune to representing facts in a light that might misrepresent them or including mainly parts of stories that I know my readers will find most interesting.
Aldous Huxley says in Brave New World Revisited that all media is propaganda. It is impossible to present any experience in its entirety or as an absolute truth. The best we can do is write what we believe to be accurate with the goal of improving what exists in the world around us.
I try to keep Huxley's words as my guideline. I may not present absolute truth, but I do write what I believe to be true, given my own slants and prejudices. I try to think for myself. I make my best decisions with whatever information I have at the moment.
That is the best any of us can do.
This First Day Of the Second Decade After
I don't know what I expected to see on the streets of New York this week. Something palpable to mark the horror I saw? Sitting on the subway yesterday, with the credible threat of a new attack looming, a voice came over the loudspeaker reminding us to report any suspicious packages or people. I felt more vulnerable surrounded by so many people, because, were something to happen, it would be harder to escape.
I'd forgotten the anthrax threats, tucked away in my mind images of two massive plumes of smoke pouring upward where the Twin Towers used to be. I realized I no longer notice the proliferation of police, blockades and metal detectors. They, too, have become normal, and I accept them as helpful.
I Have Chosen To Forget
My most vivid memory of September 11, 2001 is watching a flock of pigeons flying their rounds from my side of the river to the other, circling the smoke as if it wasn’t there.
It was a beautiful day, much like today. The sky rings clear azure, not a cloud, and the sun shines brightly. It's the kind of day when moms take their babies to the park to play and people sit outside chatting with their neighbors over a coffee.
How can the sun shine when the world is falling apart? But then, here we are, ten years later.
Photo courtesy of David Barrie's Flickrstream.