New York: Part 2

Part two in a three-part series of writings done during my two-year stint in the world’s greatest city…

A Letter to My Friends and Family, September 10, 2006

As you, my family and friends, and most American and world citizens are aware, tomorrow is the 5thAnniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.  I am writing this letter largely for selfish reasons—primarily that it may help me make sense of my feelings.  After finding myself improbably living in New York, employed by the City and in the service of New Yorkers, and traveling each day to my office mere blocks away from Ground Zero, I feel it important to pause and reflect on that day, what it meant to me and mine, but more importantly to think about what it has meant to those directly affected and what it has meant to the people of the world collectively.  It is cause to reflect on life, and its joys, pains, and sorrows.

Like the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion, everyone has a story for where they were and how they heard about the planes and towers. I was on a city bus headed to the University of Minnesota when I first heard murmurs that something strange was occurring in New York.  In my first course of the morning, events became clear, and an announcement was made that classes were cancelled, we were welcome to return home, but that if we felt the need for fellowship and shared contemplation a forum had been arranged to discuss what occurred.  When I moved to New York and took a job with the City, I heard the tales of people who were in lower Manhattan that day.  In fact, my office building was used to temporarily house the injured until hospital space became available.  When I heard these firsthand stories, I felt guilty in discussing the event, as if my own sorrows were somehow illegitimate in comparison to the more difficult and complex experiences of my colleagues.  In some ways this may have been right, but mostly I think no; feelings are our own, and it is up to each of us to deal with them, ignore them, discard them, or explore and embrace them as we see fit.  The world can be as close to the heart or as far away as we want it to be.

On a bike ride around New York Harbor today I stumbled across a memorial service in Bay Ridge’s John Paul Jones Park.  Local City Councilman Vincent Gentile was there, as was Borough President Marty Markowitz. Reading the names of each and every Brooklynite who died that day, and referencing of course all of the firefighters, police officers, and innocent civilians whose lives ended inspired a string of thoughts in me that I couldn’t quite organize or arrange.  Overall, and counter intuitively perhaps, I felt thankful, particularly for the safety of my friends and family, and for the gifts that they have individually and collectively bestowed upon me.  I also felt philosophical, convinced that our lives are wholly insignificant and at the same time imbued with deep meaning.  This may be among the most significant and illogical beauties of our lives—in an infinite universe, on a tiny rock, with all those that came before and will come after us—we still believe in the importance of our individual lives and our collective times.  It’s a sham, really, but it is also wonderful, frightening, and meaningful to us as we work our way through it.

We can choose to be as pained by this anniversary or as immune to it as we like, and I say that not as a patriotic virtue of American life, but as a patriotic virtue of human life.  In New York, the most diverse city in the world, we often coexist as much as we get along, but today all New Yorkers look like my brothers and sisters.  And this, it’s true, can be praised as a great benefit of life in our particular country.  Yet I can’t help but think beyond my apartment, my neighborhood, my city, and my nation.  It is the people who died in those buildings, and our still real opportunity to be concerned and peaceful beings that we should celebrate, and our inability to conceive of our world beyond borders of races, ethnicities, states, religions, or other abstractions that we should mourn.

There are two sides to every coin (it’s true, pull one out and you’ll see).  While any reasonable American citizen or human being for that matter would find an attack such as 9/11 disgusting, unjustifiable, and reprehensible, there are those that believe it reflects uneven and distasteful aspects of American policy and action across the globe, and those that perceive it as a wholly unprovoked attack on unassailable American ideals.  Obviously this was a central moment in our modern times, sure to reverberate for a very long time.   But as much as it can be seen as a rallying point for war, or to call out the wars waged by ourselves, it can be seen as a rallying point for considering honestly and openly our place among others.  As citizens of a country, yes, but perhaps even more, and more simply, as people.

Recently, I was walking toward the R train on an everyday workday morning.   A young Muslim girl in traditional garb strolled along ahead of me, and paused while passing a bill posted on a storefront wall.  In profile, I could see her eyes light up, her mouth drop open, and a surprised smile emerge.  She moved on, and I curiously stopped to see what had caused her to pause.  The bill promoted a pro-Hezbollah, pro-Palestinian, and anti-U.S. and Israel rally set to be held at some future point.  My honest, gut reaction was rage.  How dare they come here, enjoy our fruits, and condemn us at the same time?  It took me half a block to scold myself and realize that this was exactly the point of American freedom—the liberty to discuss ideas in an open forum, and, importantly, to be freely critical of American policy.  Do not in any way read this as an endorsement of the ideals promoted by the groups involved with this rally, but do take seriously the concepts of freedom involved.  You believe in them or you don’t.  And you believe that there is good and bad in all stripes of people or you don’t.  And there is both good and bad in all countries, as only fickle, fallible humankind comprises them.

These are just my thoughts, and if they seem distasteful, oblivious, or otherwise that’s okay because I own them.  I am personally very sad heading into tomorrow, not for myself—though that would be fair—or even for my country—which would again be fair and reasonable.   Nor is it because American or other ideals or symbols have been questioned or violated, but purely because people that didn’t have to die did.