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9/11—Tilting at Windmills

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2000... And the Emperor Still Has No Clothes

 

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Home Page > Articles in English > Tilting at Windmills

Reminiscing 9/11
Tilting at Windmills

By Tekla Szymanski

remembering

[…] "What times are these, when to speak about trees is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors." [...]

—Bertolt Brecht
From:
To Those Born After, 1939



Let's go on talking about such mundane things as trees. Let's talk about the relative quiet, now, more than a decade after September 11, 2001. Because this is the only way to live: to keep on going with your head held high.

It has been more than a decade. When we inched closer and closer to the first anniversary, we were anxious, but it stayed quiet. By the second, third, fourth and fifth anniversary, other disasters — man-made and natural, and an economy gone mad — occupied our minds.

Nevertheless, New Yorkers are still hurting, still waiting to be hit again. Two wars have been launched as a consequence of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden has been killed. But none of us in this crazy city feels any safer. Far from it.

A sudden blackout once caused us to freeze for a second, in anticipation of worse things to come, a terrifying feeling of déjà vu. The Republican convention in August 2004 brought security measures to the city not seen since the days immediately after 9/11. Anticipating the worst, we feared that all hell would break loose. Mass rallies would engulf the city in a sweeping anarchist storm, so we thought. Would the subway be safe? It was. At the end, however, the biggest threat seemed to come from a toddler wearing a "Bye Bye Bush" onesie on the Great Lawn in Central Park. We let out a breath of relief.

Then came a foiled terror attack in Times Square, an earthquake, then a hurricane and even tornadoes — and again we had our "Go Bags" and hand-cranked radios ready.

And each September, when the crisp autumn air arrives as it did on 9/11, each day with a cloudless blue sky and abundant sunshine reminds us of that day when we walked north, when the weather was so beautiful, the deep blue sky dizzying even after all hell had broken loose and the smell of death and toxic fumes penetrated every inch of Manhattan.

Since 9/11, many have left the city; others, who live far from New York, question the impact this event still has on our lives. Surely, we've moved on by now. But New Yorkers are stressed out, still very saddened, wonder if the subways are safe. We miss the towers. We miss our skyline. And we hold on to our jobs with tooth and nail, or try to cope with unemployment; we continue with our daily grind, while wiggling through a stalled economy that has affected us all. We want to stay afloat. And many of us can barely afford the rent.


Reminiscing

September 11, 2001. 9 a.m.: After I watched on television the first plane crashing into the Twin Tower, I had the feeling that this was not an accident. No, I was sure of it. Having lived 14 years in the Middle East, my senses were heightened. I took the last subway downtown to work, below 14th Street, blocks away from Ground Zero. My colleagues did not share my initial reaction: "Until the second plane hit, I was sure this was just a freak accident," they told me in disbelief. Something had been violently taken away from them: their "lightness of being," their belief in good, their belief in the Greatest Country on Earth.

Then we were ordered to evacuate the Southern part of Manhattan. Like a funeral procession, we walked north, crossed the bridges to Brooklyn and Queens by foot. I was impressed by the mature somberness of the New Yorkers, the quietness and their determination. I saw people walking in their torn stockings without shoes; some were covered in white dust. They had never witnessed anything similar in their lives. Never thought it could ever hit home. They could grieve, they could cry.

But I walked the 100 or so blocks home dry-eyed, a small radio held up tight against my ear, thirsty for news. I only felt numbing sadness, because I have been through similar times: During the first Gulf War in 1991, I had experienced the fear of death living in Tel Aviv; the feeling of slow paralysis that creeps over your body, makes you shiver and at the same time angry at your own vulnerability and weakness. Now, this belonged to a distant past, overshadowed by more recent tragic events.

This usually decadent city held mass prayers in sports stadiums. So many pictures of the Virgin Mary were on the sidewalks, propped up against postcards of the Twin Towers, next to a color copy of a missing person. All neatly arranged behind a Yahrzeit candle from a kosher deli. A simple, touching display of grief that you could find all over the city. Friends had lost friends. Incredible, horrifying stories came to light. Life changed. But the city rebuilt.

Back to Normal?

New York was under fire — our city came under siege. Martial law. And with it came the well-eschewed cliché that the world would "never be the same" after the attacks. The world didn't change, however; it had always been a battlefield, cruel and merciless, where children were blown to pieces and people evaporate, never to been seen again. But never here.

Our feeling of complacency had been dealt a blow. We changed. All those who believed that the world was not as bad as it seemed from their vantage point, had been proved wrong. The "war on terror" was not a "new war," rather a war that we painfully became aware of. It was not the "new war of the 21st century" but had been brewing for a while, conveniently ignored here for years because it was fought far away. So many lives lost. So much pain. Only after a direct hit did we wake up.

Is this really a war against terrorism? Terror is a means not the enemy. So, is it a war against fundamentalism? Against Islam? A war against our naivety, our innocence? A war in order to make us feel better, to take a stand against a common threat? Or, is it just another political manifestation, a conflict that will divide the world even further? Turning it topsy-turvy, the fronts ever shifting, its players changing, a convenient tool in every feverish presidential race?

This war was meant as punishment. Not revenge, but punishment. But did we punish the right people? Are we fighting a just war? What now, after Osama bin Laden has been killed?

In our world — where thieves, rapists and drug dealers all too often get locked up only for a short time, where women have acid thrown into their faces, are stoned to death and where widows are burned alive — in this world, ideological and political mass murderers will never really be brought to justice.

For a while, New York was covered in red, white, and blue. Flags popped up everywhere, in apartment buildings, on cars, cabs, in storefront windows. Some gigantic, some as mere background for slogans, which reminded me of the pathos-filled patriotic banners of the former Eastern Germany. New York's buses and subway cars are still adorned with flags. But most flags have been taken down.

Terror Level, Up and Down

Life goes on. New York again spews exhaust fumes; the smell of smoldering buildings, of death and destruction, is gone. We snap at each other. The number of rapes in the city is up.

The terror level is constantly raised and lowered, raised and lowered. Young children and old people in wheel chairs take off their shoes at the airport and the pregnant woman next to you dumps her pumped breast milk bottles in the garbage before she boards her plane. Do you feel safer now?

Yes, life is still a bit more precious here in New York, less taken for granted. At least for now. But overall, the lack of compassion has remained.

Lack of compassion is what we should fight against. That's tilting at windmills you say? But always worth a try.

 

For Further Reading:

The September 11 Digital Archive—Saving the History of September 11, 2001. A collection of essays, images, video- and audio clips, and background info submitted by the public.

Sept. 11, 2002: One Year Later A special report from World Press Review.

Battle Without Borders. The War Against Terror. How the world reacted to the Sept. 11 attacks. Archived material gathered by World Press Review.

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