Monday was September 11. Again.
“America attacked! Planes in buildings!!”
This was the first time I ever read it.
Read, not heard. Read, not saw.
It was a Tuesday evening turning into night in India, and I was logged on to the weekly quiz on eGurucool.com. And so in this chatroom filled with school kids, college quizzers, online lechers, and a very hardworking volunteer admin — there was this crazy message. That kept being pasted over and over again.
Rediff had just added the headline. And so I turned on the news. And did not turn it off again for the rest of the night.
My father was in Arizona then, and he reported back sporadically on happenings there in the following days. The first day was shock, people huddling around TVs and not knowing what was going on.
Shock was followed by fear. Some people not knowing when and where the next attack would come from. Other people having to hastily hoist flags on their porches and stick flags in their dashboards.
And then inevitably came anger, followed on its heels by its more virulent cousin, hate. A Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot in Arizona. Ugly incidents sprang up all over the country.
Why would someone fly planes into buildings? Why would someone cause this level of pain, and death, and destruction? Why?
It was September 11, 2001.
In 2008, I visited the world’s greatest city for the first time. My first inglorious experience of New York — like perhaps many others’ — was a cramped and overpriced motel room in Jamaica. The gateway to traffic and urban hell, the part of Queens that is neither cultural nor quaint; never cheap and never convenient. Nothing to redeem it.
But over the next few days, I walked and took the subway and rode the tourist bus and took the ferry — but mostly I walked, and walked some more. And towards the last part of the trip I found myself downtown, in the Financial District. Almost as if the city were saying to me, “You’ve seen everything else there is to see, and now it is natural and decent that you should be brought here.”
Cranes. Construction. Endless orange cones. Ugly canopies everywhere the eye could see.
And that gaping hole in the heart of it all.
It was quite impossible to hear anything, search for any sense of memorial, find any meaning in the middle of all the noise and the dust and the activity. So I walked across the street to St. Paul’s.
The Little Chapel That Stood.
George Washington worshipped in that church. He came there on the day he was inaugurated, in 1789. The chapel pre-dated the country it stood in by ten years.
And as if to send a message to the entire world and to the hateful and the aggressor, the chapel made it through that dark day on September 11, 2001 unscathed. It served first as a witness to the horror; then it served as a rallying point for the responders that followed into the depths of the horror; and then in a final act it served as a solemn, sad vessel for the tributes that followed them. Tributes that followed those who went in knowing that they would never return.
And again, in the darkness and the quiet of the church, in a corner shaded from the bright light and away from the throngs of the visitors … that inevitable question. Why?
It had been seven years.
I live in one of the innumerable towns and villages that dot Westchester County, just to the north of New York City. Memorials are all over the place here — at the base of a dam in Valhalla; at the shores of the Hudson in Croton; across the train tracks and abutting a nuclear power plant in Peekskill.
They come in all sizes — some are big affairs, with lots of public money spent on them. Others are smaller, more personal. Many of them contain pieces from the towers: shards of the metal, some masonry. Some bear names, others just simple dedications. To volunteers, firefighters, policemen and women, emergency responders, business executives, computer programmers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters…
It has been long enough now that most of these memorials have receded into the background. You won’t find them unless you’re looking for them.
Or unless they’re looking, and they find you.
And at those times it is impossible not to be caught up in the moment. The rest of the world watched this as a vicarious news event. The biggest of all time. Princess Diana’s death, only multiplied a million times over.
Yet these towns and villages, they didn’t just watch it. To them, it wasn’t something that went away at the click of a button. They lost friends and family that day. I work with people who lost colleagues that day. One of the people I work with, a distinguished scientist and a genteel man, speaks of the day he lost some of his closest friends and colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald. All the way up at the top of that North Tower, alone.
I want to ask him about it, but I do not have the courage. I don’t think I ever will. It feels voyeuristic, demeaning, disrespectful. Yet to hear him speak, enough time has now passed that he speaks of it matter-of-factly. It is something that happened, just like any other thing that happened last week. Or in the 70s. He is very much like those memorials; he remembers the events, the memories of the people are etched in his mind — yet unless you are looking for it, you will never notice.
Some beautiful, crisp winter days, I still find myself looking over at the New York skyline. Sometimes it is from up north, on a hike. Sometimes it is from the base of these very tall buildings, from Midtown down Madison Avenue or from Greenwich Village down Seventh Avenue. And I always imagine that but for the malevolent and the hateful, parents would still be with their children and families would still be together. New York would be different, more innocent. So would America. The world even.
That but for the malevolent and the hateful, those two towers would still be standing proud; the exclamation points on this, the greatest city in the world.
And at those times, you cannot help but wonder — why?
It has been sixteen years.
Post Script: I was listening to this 9/11 Fresh Air episode with first responder John Feal, and you should too. Feal was one of the many non-uniformed responders who showed up Ground Zero to help with the rescue and then recovery operations. He suffered a horrible injury that almost took his life, and then was denied compensation to cover for his medical expenses. He started a foundation that would eventually help many other first responders fight for compensation.
The interview got me thinking about the nature of tragedies like this, and heroes. Tragedies almost always create heroes. Some, like the innocents on the planes and in those buildings and on the ground — those are heroes that don’t know they will be heroes, people going about their daily lives whom we consecrate because there is nothing else we can do for them. For their families, and their memories, and their unfinished lives.
Then there are other heroes, people who walk in knowing full well that they may not get to walk out. These people don’t ask to be heroes, yet the label is thrust on them — almost as if the label were compensation enough.
But it isn’t.
The measure of a society and a civilization and of our collective humanity is how we treat those that have less than us, those who lose more than we ever did. Perhaps there is very little that is constructive in remembering events that happened years ago; perhaps there is even something not so constructive about it.
Yet surely we can channel these tributes and these memories into ensuring that we take care of those that turned up on that fateful day to run in and try to rescue those that were past taking care of themselves.
The best of ours must always see the best of us.