I got pushback against my claim in last week’s post that much of the nation hijacked the September 11 tragedy that befell Manhattan’s Financial District. Superficially, the historical record supports the pushbacker view. Everyone around the country and the world saw dramatic video footage. Our unpopular mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, became an instant national hero. George W. Bush took to the air (I don’t mean TV) for safekeeping. In its wake, Jerry Falwell blamed “paganists,” abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians, in short liberal American decadence, while Susan Sontag and other left-wing critics blamed America’s Middle Eastern policies. The Bush administration saber-rattled.
So yes, the nation and the world noticed. However, these same facts demonstrate that the catastrophe was hijacked for political purposes. That said, I was suggesting something deeper. In the days and weeks following the attacks in New York City and Washington, along with the attack foiled by plane passengers over a field in Pennsylvania, I sensed three levels of reaction.
Those who endured or directly witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center were most likely to be traumatized. So, too, were the loved ones, wherever they were, of those who died or were injured.
The second level of reaction was from the people elsewhere in New York City and in parts of the Northeast who felt the tragedy the way we do when people are killed in an accident a few blocks from our home: sorrow for strangers mixed with awareness that it could have happened to us. I count myself in this group, even though I’d once worked in the World Trade Center for four years and even though my wife witnessed the attack. Likewise, those of us in New York had a relatively detached level of reaction to the attack on the Pentagon. It’s a mechanism for coping; the anguish we feel for the suffering of people close to us is hard enough to bear.
A third reaction around America for the days immediately following the attack was indifference to the suffering in the Financial District. The abstract responses of people like Falwell and Sontag were manifestations. You don’t hector people in pain. For people faraway, a more sympathetic reaction was delayed, if for no other reason than that the events took time to process.
My wife and I encountered it on a personal level when hotel management in Santa Fe resisted our request to cancel a stay we’d previously planned for late September. Although Laura hadn’t been injured, witnessing the event close-up and a tortured journey home, without public transportation, in the midst of smoke, ash and thousands of shocked pedestrians had traumatized her. It was hard to avoid suspicion of anti-New York bias on the part of hotel management. After all, there’s a lot of regional rivalry and even hostility under the surface in America. But had strangers in that faraway place fully appreciated the impact of the attack, they would have been much more receptive. Other New Yorkers talked about similar skepticism they found around the country. The skeptics no longer remember it. Who would want to?
Over time, as ordinary people absorbed the attack’s impact on lives and a city, a more authentic response of grief pervaded the country and the world. I was reminded how strong and widespread it became by a response from my friend Lynne to last week’s post. On a recent visit to Ireland, her husband and she went to the Garden of Remembrance at Kinsale. I’d never heard of this memorial before. I close this post with her touching paragraph about that visit:
We saw a sign for memorial gardens. We had seen one grave site in Northern France and were happy to go to another. We found them beautiful, respectful and peaceful. This was a surprise one. It was a garden built by a nurse from the Kinsale, area who had worked as a nurse in New York for 30 years. She had built this garden for all the fire fighters who died in 9/11. There were 343 trees, all with a name and rank of each firefighter. There was one for a member of the clergy who also had died, a personal friend of hers. Some trees had firefighters’ T-shirts wrapped around them, presumably from a family member who had visited the site. As with all memorials this was a moment of reflection and helps us put our day to day lives in perspective. Sadly she did not live to see it finished.
In a later email, Lynne pointed out that one more tree has been added for the nurse.