Here it comes. Like it does every year, the dreaded annual ordeal, but this is Year 10 so everyone is pulling out all the stops. Plastered in all the shop windows and delis across town: "we will never forget!"
Like I could ever forget. Like any New Yorker could forget any of it without brain surgery. Like they'll ever LET us forget.
I was in a basement office on West 72nd Street with my co-workers and we sat frozen at our desks all day listening to the whole thing unfold on the radio. We knew people who worked at the twin towers, some of whom were lucky enough to escape. An old friend who worked across the street at Lehman Brothers had taken the day off – and actually saw the second plane hit from a car in midtown traffic.
After work I went to see my father who lived on 23rd street and I stopped at Union Square park at 14th street along the way. I remember the hellish yellow glow on the horizon from Ground Zero, miles away, the hideous smell, the anguish of the people gathered in Union Square, the anger and dread knowing that somehow Bush and the neo-cons would use this tragedy as currency to start a war in the middle east.
When I finally visited the WTC site months later I wept, remembering all that had been there and all the people who were now gone. Years before, living in New Jersey and working near Wall Street, my commute took me through WTC plaza every day. I will never forget the scale of those buildings, how the immensity of them was breathtaking, approaching them on the street.
Make no mistake, it was a terrible day – but it was also just one day – and we lost just about 4,000 civilians. By 2004 roughly 100,000 civilians, many of them women and children, had been killed in Iraq by coalition forces. And that was 6 years ago. The death toll in Iraq is now over a million– with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives – and babies are being born in Fallujah with no eyes and two heads from the use of chemical weapons like depleted uranium. Is our suffering more important than theirs? Is what we lost somehow more special or exalted because it happened here?
So how are we supposed to act? What are/were we supposed to do? Well what do people do after any atrocity is committed against them? What did we do after Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz? What did we do after Hiroshima? Or Wounded Knee? Or the massacres in Rwanda? Or Darfur? Do you celebrate it ever year like a holiday? Do you have 3-day sales and sell picture books and show documentaries replaying the tragedy over and over so you can relive it all over again in full color? Or do you pick up the pieces and try to go on with your lives? And maybe you ALLOW yourself to forget – just a little bit each year – just enough so you can recover and find a way to start over again. Because to do otherwise is to consign yourself to the world of the dead – to the people whose lives truly have ended and who have no control over how the memory of their last hours will be used.