Neil Newton: Blogger and author of the novel “The Railroad” on Amazon.com
It’s getting to be that time again. My reaction is already a foregone conclusion as my wife and family will tell you.
911 is coming.And whether or not I want to, I will be forced to relive it.
I understand, now, all those people who would reach an anniversary of the loss of a loved one and go into a depression. I’ve come to believe that this sort of depressioin is due to helplessness. Helplessness to reverse the situation, helplessness to change things already cast in stone. Each anniversary brings regret for things not done and the same feelings return, imprinted on the mind.
Like most of us, television has allowed me to bear witness to tsunamis, earthquakes, space station explosions, assassinations…the list goes on. We hear of domestic violence, human trafficking, child abuse, and horribly violent crimes. The difference between us and the victims of these tragedies is that it happened to them and not to us.Sounds simple until you suddenly find yourself at the wrong end of an epic confluence of awful events. Of course we never think anything will happen to us; it’s part of human nature and it spares us from pain that we don’t need in our lives. In the end this means that until the moment we are unlucky enough to be proved wrong, that disaster can become part of our lives, our understanding of reality is blunted by a medium that shows us only second hand images and sound bytes.Television and the internet can’t show the vast sense of displacement you feel when the bedrock of your life shifts and breaks apart. For those of us who are still innocent and lucky, we are affected as much by a beer commercial as by fleeting images of a flood or a tornado. Being jaded is the legacy of being a middle class American in the modern age of media.
What I didn’t know, I didn’t know because of the apathy that I’d learned from being safe in my small world. As the towers went down on 911, I was in the subway. It was the four train to be exact and we were perhaps two blocks from the world trade center. We were not moving at all because the transit crews knew that in seconds tons of glass, steel,and insulation might hit the ground above us, crashing through lower Broadway and crushing us. Wisely, we were never told what was only two blocks ahead of us.
We stood in our subway car as it filled up with what seemed like smoke, fueling the growing panic. It was a half an hour before someone up the chain in the Transit Authority came up with the revolutionary idea of moving our train backwards, away from the towers as they crumbled to dust. And back to the sweet haven of Wall Street Station and safety. As far as I know, this had never been done with a subway train before or since.
A somewhat numbing account, I know. I normally don’t tell people where I was on 911 because the reaction is usually a stiffening of the body and a look in the eyes as though they had just seen a ten car pileup with maximum carnage. Though a few brave souls have been happy, even relieved, to be able to ask someone some questions about that day and what happened, the majority are overwhelmed. I suppose it must be like hearing that I’ve been to the moon or perhaps Mount Olympus. Ordinary mortals are not really supposed to be present for what eventually become iconic disasters. For most of us the victims are locked away in our minds in photos and video; that are a few steps away from reality.
I am proud to say that I spent most of my life in New York City. For each of us who were able to spend their formative years in the same place, home becomes more than a place; it is the basis of how we interpret the world. Once that view of life is shattered the resulting vacuum can take years to fill. And for some of us the void remains as empty and painful as it was on the day of the tragedy.
Not long ago I watched coverage of the Arab spring in Cairo in its earliest stages. There was an American reporter doing what reporters do, helping the people back home gain perspective on something hard to grasp. Because as Americans, we have a right to know. Or so we tell ourselves.
While the reporter was speaking to us from a quiet residential neighborhood miles away from the protests, a woman walked up to her and began screaming in Arabic. It was minutes before they could find someone to translate from Arabic to English. At first she seemed like nothing more than a a victim of unbearable stress, traumatized and frightened. But after a few translatedwords I began to understand what she meant. “This is not your business,” she told the reporter. She shook her fist and told her in no uncertain terms that she was the one who lived in Cairo, that the disaster meant something to her that was personal. That the reporter didn’t belong there.
I felt chills going up my back. I was listening to a woman who, in many ways, was antithetical to everything I knew; her spiritual, political and world view were probably miles away from mine. It is very possible that she might have hated me if she met me. And I also knew, paradoxically, that we could sit down and speak with empathy for hours about the one major thing we had in common.
People believe that disasters will never happen to them. But when they do happen the experience is so personal that the sudden and inevitable invasion of the press from rest of the world makes the misery and the death of countless people seem cheap and commercial. You are a prop in a drama, witnessed by millions of viewers. Reporters, coming from every continent, seem like voyeurs, sensation seekers and blood-suckers. The result is a few sound bytes and fragmented, fleeting images to represent the worst day, a real day, in the lives of millions of people.
Before I experienced it, I never would have understood it. Of course reporters went to the sites of disasters and wars. It was part of television and it was part of my culture. It was important that Americans knew what was going on across the world.
What that Egyptian woman and I had in common was an understanding of our homes being violated, morphed into a series of photo ops and magazine covers. The safe familiar reality that is the foundation for everyone’s day to day lives was shattered. For me it was living in city I understood, full of its own quirks, and suddenly seeing it only as a freak show, a crippled friend that was once larger than life, unstoppable, unsinkable. For that woman in Cairo, she had seen her world fall apart. The question I think we both asked, I American, she Egyptian, was “who had the right to do this? Who had the right to decide to change my world?”
For months 911 was all anyone could talk about. At that time even people not prone to patriotic gestures wore American flag pins without shame. On every free bit of wall space all over the city were the most tragic byproduct of the disaster: the handbills. On each was a picture of someone that had disappeared and above each picture were the words have you seen this person? There was a description of a life, a real life, that this one person had. They were loved and they had hobbies. They sang in their church choir or they were rabid sports fans. They had people who were looking for them. They were simply part of the fabric of someone’s life.
The most brutal line in each and every handbill was a short description of where they were when last seen on the morning of 911. The 87th floor of tower two. The PATH train on its way into Manhattan. The 15th floor of the south building. The worst part for those of us who couldn’t help but read each small 8 by 11.5 inch cry in the darkness was the thought that none of us wanted to consider. That most of these people were not with us anymore. They wouldn’t be taking the train back to Queens and they wouldn’t be at the local bar on Saturday night. They wouldn’t be at their nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. Their children would never see them again.
For many of us in New York nothing was close to normal. I couldn’t return to my job for two weeks because it was too close to ground zero. The parks were filled with impromptu musical groups. Small shrines were created on the sidewalk for people who were known to have been lost that day, each adorned by a candle. In thousands of places, candle wax flowed around a thousand shrines and made it’s way out into the street, combining to create a river of wax. There was a look in everyone’s eyes that couldn’t be clearly defined. Sometimes I thought I saw defeat. But mostly I saw fear and grief.
I wonder sometimes what that Egyptian woman lost. How many small familiar things were taken away from her, how strange were her days as civilization eroded across a handful of nations in North Africa and the middle east. How separated did she feel from her own life. Did things ever return to normal?
And what is 911 to Americans today? I could resent the fading knowledge of one of the worst days in American history, but really, I can’t. I never met anyone who had been at Pearl Harbor. I understand, now that I’ve seen my own disaster, why those who were there will never forget it. And why they want to keep it alive.
But, in the end I have to wonder if our legacy to our children should be blissful ignorance, to keep them from knowing what happened those awful days.Part of the joy we feel when we are with children comes from an appreciation of their innocence. As parents and grandparents do we want this innocence to be lost to our children?
In the thirteenth year after 911, we can look back on its aftermath. For those who watch the news there is disappointment: ten years of wrangling over petty political beefs, preventing the rebuilding of the World Trade Center and the creation of something new and vital on the ashes of the past. And, more recently, we were shocked and disgusted by a patent bureaucratic denial that first responders were succumbing to horrible diseases and dying, due to the toxic touch of that amalgam of dust, atomized metal, concrete, glass and things that no sane person wants to think of. Only recently has the government tied these ailments to 911; only recently has the government taken the first step to fund medical care for these men and women. It never ceases to amaze: as much as true bravery and selflessness, covering your ass seems to be a hallowed American tradition. To quote the song, “Same as it ever was”.
People asked me years ago, how I felt about 911. The answer was complex and much of the time I couldn’t quite express it. But there was always an awareness of the fleeting nature of life and the things we do as humans that tarnish its sanctity. Not terrorists, but Americans who are cruel and miserable and more than willing to share their misery with those that are weaker or uninterested in power and control. Like all of us I watch as some people pose and strut their way though life. I watch petty grievances being played out and small but bloated egos work themselves across the landscape, destroying other lives for no good reason. Winning is important, even if the prize is incredibly small and people get hurt in the process.
Most would call that human nature and say it’s simply a part of life. I see this against the background of the horrific deaths of over 3000 people, of first responders dying of strange diseases, of thousands of people wandering, lost, through a white world of dust and confusion. If life is so short, so fragile, is treating people with disdain and cruelty an obscenity?
How do I make peace with 911? I don’t, and perhaps I never will. But as the images play through my mind of people stumbling through a white world of dust and desolation, I also don’t suffer fools and bullies gladly and I realize that there are things that we do to each other that are not acceptable. It makes me wonder what I can do to change it. Perhaps that is all I was meant to learn.
Can people learn from disasters? One of the memories burned into my brain was an image of two standard suited Wall Streeters standing standing in front of a small grocery, giving out paper towels and bottles of water to people as they passed by, the water being provided for free by the shop owner. Only the day before it is likely that these two were worried Wall Street raiders, thinking of their deadlines and their bonuses. In New York, where this type of generosity is a rarity, a small miracle had occurred for two men who were thinking only of other people’s welfare. Though they may have gone back to their Wall Street ways the day after, for a moment, they saw through the need to make a buck and gained a clear perspective on the important things. I’d like to think that moment changed them forever.