It’s been a long year in New York since Sept. 11, 2001. As a former Ashevillean and Mountain Xpress staffer who’s lived in New York since September 1999, I was asked a day or two after 9/11 to pen a commentary on that day’s events and fallout for the paper’s next issue (Sept.19, 2001 Xpress). Writing it proved both extremely difficult and very therapeutic.
Having witnessed the towers falling and having spent the ensuing week downtown during the disaster’s intense aftermath, I was near-epileptic with the acute grief and confusion pandemic among New Yorkers in those TURBULENT, sad, frightening days. Writing that piece was the proverbial stick placed across my tongue to calm the fit: It let me get up off the floor and focus on something other than the peculiar flailing that constituted my emotions just then; in some sense, it let me get on with things.
This year, I was asked — with a blink-and-it’s-here deadline, no less — to write a one-year follow-up piece; I joked with a writer friend about the last-minute request. The unexpected last-minute deadline is one of the journalist’s stock laments. In this case, it was a writer’s fond and quarter-hearted complaint about the sometimes-eccentric workings of a paper she much respects and holds dear.
“But, I mean, for Chrissakes,” I griped, “that’s sort of the thing about anniversaries, isn’t it? That you know they’re coming, and you can plan ahead?” And then the irony of my gibe, considering the subject matter I was about to take on, stopped me still. Because perhaps above all else, Sept. 11, 2001 offered up the inescapable reminder that no amount of planning necessarily keeps us happy, safe — or even prepared.
I realized that even if I’d been given months to prepare my reflections, I might well have scrapped them in favor of a last-minute rewrite, anyway. In the event, though, I’m writing this the week before, and as the 11th nears and the whole city clenches and opens itself toward revisiting that day, I’m flailing a little once again. My heart and spirit seem to have temporarily — and in an altogether untimely fashion — given my analytical mind the heave-ho. But what I can offer, for better or worse, is a quasi-philosophical report from the field — a collection of things that seem important to think about and question, rather than any syllogisms or even conclusive thoughts.
How has New York changed in the last year?
What I notice most is the profound, ongoing effect on individual lives and on how those lives mesh to make community. Living through Sept. 11 and the weeks that followed — filled with ubiquitous and heart-rending reminders of the attacks, intermittent subway and building evacuations, heightened racial stereotyping, a National Guard presence, security checks, anthrax cases and scares, and the contagion of anxiety and even paranoia that these things produced — was sobering on what felt like a cellular level. It was a mortality check in the most horrid, visceral sense; a monstrously delivered reminder of the preciousness of life, of the importance of making life choices that let your spirit sit COMFORTABLY within your skin.
What interests me is that, on a neighbor-by-neighbor basis, so many of the New Yorkers I interact with have used this opportunity well. In the past year, an inordinate percentage of the folks I know of all ages have made recognizable shifts for the better in their lives — resolving to follow their true passions, facing down debilitating personal demons, helping others more, re-committing to physical and emotional health by exercising, sitting in the park more, spending more time alone or with friends, working harder or less, volunteering for some organization that helps those less fortunate, finding and doing what they love. They’re quotidian changes in many cases, nothing particularly grand or eloquent about any of them individually. But the changes add up within a person, and the changed person is added to the community, and the community as a whole is altered for the better.
The mythical notion that New Yorkers are a bunch of self-absorbed grouches has always been quickly debunked by a visit to the city. But this nonetheless remains an environment filled to brimming with stresses, and there’s a natural tendency to seek ways to protect oneself from them. Unfortunately, that sometimes translates into “protecting” oneself against others.
Since Sept. 11, however, I see an increased openness between strangers here — more sympathy for others, and a noticeable patience and tenderness for those who live alongside you. That’s the painful gift offered to us by the tragedy of Sept. 11 — a wake-up call (that and permission to be selfish in the best sense, to be better to yourself and to your fellows). I hope that sticks.
The other side of the coin is that signs of enduring trauma are everywhere. Two therapists I know have told me that they’ve never in the course of their 25-year-plus careers in New York seen so many people so deeply troubled. Friends of mine who own a small restaurant downtown, and who fed rescue workers around the clock for free, lost their Battery Park home and have been bounced from house to house to house; their daughter, who saw people jumping from the buildings as she was ushered to safety, was an exceptional student who’s now doing extremely poorly in school. I met a guy in a rock band the other day whose sister worked for Cantor Fitzgerald in the towers and whose body was never recovered from the rubble. He’s a big guy, and genuinely tough; he looks like he could kick the shit out of an angry rhinoceros without working too hard; if you saw him heading toward you late at night, you might cross the street, even if you’re a toughie yourself. He said he cries at least once a week, thinking about what it must have felt like — and because he misses his sister so much. These are just a couple out of thousands of cases. The pain runs thick and deep.
Painful, too, is the abundant (though hardly surprising) evidence that many people — and many of them people in positions of great political and financial power, such as President Bush, a handful of corporate heads, and others — are all too happy to use the trauma to make more money and more war; to deepen the divide between themselves and those with different views, between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Predictably, folks on both the far left and far right used Sept. 11 as a way to blame rather than to understand, intensifying and aggressively parading their respective dogmas — the right pointing to loose morals and the left to U.S. hegemony and greed. Likewise, the unconscionable greed of some corporations and high-profile corporate individuals — for the sake of brevity, let’s call them the Enron Gang — makes a grotesque statement when their actions, particularly those taken in the wake of Sept. 11, are contrasted with the incredible sacrifices made by ordinary folks, both during and after the disaster. To say nothing of the general and widespread commercialization of the tragedy — everything from small-town newspapers to major airlines jumping on the “Buy 9/11!” bandwagon. It is, plainly, shameful.
Which brings me to the current administration and the alarming national policies it has ushered in in the name of national self-defense, most notably the Combating Terrorism Act (which, revised, became the USA PATRIOT ACT — Uniting and Strengthening America By Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism). Despite the law’s patent unconstitutionality, federal law-enforcement agencies now have a significantly increased ability to acquire information about us by collecting our DNA, demanding information about us from businesses we work for or patronize, searching our houses and property, and putting the magnifying glass to records of our Internet or phone use.
Post-Sept. 11, I’ve got no objection to being subjected to a bag-and-shoe search at the airport — it makes me feel safer, in fact. But I do object to seeing two Arab-American women being harassed in the same airport line, which I’ve also witnessed during the past year. So this year, along with attending some vigils to commemorate Sept.11, giving thanks for all I’ve got, and connecting with my loved ones and my community here, I’m going to ask myself the questions I’ll now leave you with:
When “national security” — imposed by an administration that, for all its high-tech militaristic bluster, hasn’t managed to produce Osama bin Laden — quietly institutionalizes racial profiling and violates our First Amendment rights, what are we protecting, exactly? When personal liberties disappear, what does democracy become? What dollar is worth hurting another human being for? How can I give more and take less? And what can I do — starting right now, even if it’s just for today — to effect even the smallest positive change?
[Former Mountain Xpress writer and editor Danielle Truscott lives and works in New York City.]