Everybody has a 9/11 story; some are tragic and immediate, others subdued and distant. Mine is a little bit of both. I was on a Manhattan-bound bus that morning and noticed smoke puffing (not streaming, not billowing) from one of the World Trade Center towers, black against a bright blue sky. Sleepy passengers had just begun murmuring about a fire at Windows on the World when we dipped into the Lincoln Tunnel. By the time we came out the other end, the world had changed.
TV screens at the Port Authority were just beginning to relay that something huge, something awful had happened in the sky above Manhattan. I continued, somewhat blithely, in retrospect, to the Forward offices on 33rd Street, passing through the shadow of the Empire State building.
The rest of the story is familiar. Like everyone else, reporters and editors at the Forward were glued to the television, when we weren’t trying to call friends or family or actually put the paper out. Although the disaster was unfolding just a few miles away, I felt strangely detached from the reality, the nearness, of it. The Onion, the brilliant satirical newspaper, would capture this disconnect only a few weeks later, with a “story” headlined “American Life Turns into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie.”
I also learned, or relearned, my limitations as a journalist. Where my instinct was to call home and hunker down, one of the young women on staff decided to hop on her bicycle and get as close to Ground Zero as she could, pedaling past dust-covered survivors headed in the opposite direction. Her reporting was compelling. Not surprisingly, she’s now a bureau chief for The New York Times.
I don’t think it was a lack of courage that kept me from heading downtown, but a fear of acting the voyeur (exactly the fear any good reporter must overcome). I have only admiration for the people who rushed downtown — not to gawp, but to help, to bear witness, to record the events for posterity. At some level I knew that the army of Samaritans who descended on the site in those days and weeks had more to offer than I — an essential skill, a bigger heart. My job, I felt, was to be with my wife and young kids.
But I even failed at that: There was no way to cross the Hudson into New Jersey that night, and I ended up staying at a colleague’s apartment in the Bronx.
Of all the sights I would take in over the next few months, none would have as much impact on me as the “Missing” posters that sprouted on the subway and PATH platforms. These appeared within hours of the attacks: Hand-made and photocopied, they included photographs of loved ones gone missing in the towers, brief identifying messages, and a plea to “please call this number.” They turned out to be futile, but they served a deeper, more spiritual function. Each message was a cry of pain from the region’s beating, bleeding soul. Each one was a stark reminder of the personal tragedy behind the grim statistic of 2,985 dead.
These impromptu memorials summoned up the verse from Isaiah that inspired the name of Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority: “I will give them in My house and in My walls a place and a name (yad vashem) better than sons and daughters; an everlasting name I will give him, that will endure forever.”
Over the next decade, so much would be said and done in the names of those people. We’d launch two full-scale wars, which for all the heroism of the combatants continue to strike me as gross miscalculations and a burden on our sons and daughters. We’d change the ways we travel, gather, and even build, in ways that occasionally made us feel safer, but too often seemed ill-considered and even counter-productive. For the most part, we showed respect to our Muslim neighbors — while at the same time entering into illogical debates over quite reasonable attempts to monitor those who might spread Al Qaida’s genocidal ideology in our communities.
In the name of the 9/11 dead, we’ve allowed too many ideologues too much traction. Politicians want to legislate against the manufactured “threat” of Sharia law. Pundits call for Americans to embrace the kind of intolerant religiosity that inspired the attacks in the first place. Like the dreary advocates of bogus anti-Israel and anti-American conspiracy theories, proponents of these views seemed to have read the names of the dead and drawn exactly the wrong conclusions.
What many people seem to remember about those days after the attacks was the feeling of unity and empathy among strangers. I can’t seem to forget how quickly that moment of concord was squandered. Instead of embracing the very things that the terrorists hate us for — our openness, our tolerance, our vibrant democratic traditions — we became angrier and stingier with one another.
But if the light that shone briefly after the attacks has dimmed of late, I don’t think it has disappeared. America still has a capacity for greatness and compassion. If we rise to that potential, we will truly have given the victims of September 11, 2001, “a place and a name.”