[Esther's note: This was an email I sent to friends in the early hours of September 13, 2001.]
September 13, 2001 (12:09:27 AM)
I hope this email finds you and your loved ones well in a week marked by terror, fear, misery and sadness. (I apologize if some of you get this email twice.) For those of you outside New York, thank you for your concern. I am fine, having been far from downtown on Tuesday. I am sure all of you have been glued to CNN while trying to contact loved ones and make sure that everyone is ok. I have begun to hear the personal stories that I know will continue to pour in over the coming weeks.
So far, I have only heard stories that conclude with escape; these triumphant survivals do not alleviate the emotional burden that we all bear these days, and I wait for the other shoe to drop, as we learn the
identities of those who have been lost. I have also been inspired by the difficult but essential work done by New Yorkers trying to help: the fire fighters and policemen who rushed into chaos, debris swirling
around them like disintegrated evil; the thousands of New Yorkers who showed up at blood centers citywide; the hundreds of Upper West Siders who factored food and water for Red Cross workers into their purchases; and the social workers and mental health professionals, including my cousin, who spent their day staffing a Red Cross sponsored missing persons hotline. These unbelievable efforts are also the basis of an adhesive that can rebind us as a city, one community at a time.
I wrote the following over the past two days, and have submitted it to the Jewznewz.com website as well as to the Jewish Standard in New Jersey. Please feel free to share your stories with me as well.
With prayers for peace,
The Words of War
In the wake of Tuesday’s coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I am haunted by floating phrases, sound bites provided by the media that repeat over and over, creating a mental state that is at best cluttered, at worst, disintegrating.
“Worse Than Pearl Harbor.” Pearl Harbor was chosen for its proximity to a military installation, a clear act of war by the Japanese. The explosions at the World Trade Center struck at civilians. The oppressor
is as yet, unnamed. Are we at war? And if so, with whom? We don’t know. Are the casualties worse than at Pearl Harbor? We don’t know. What we do know is that Tuesday’s first attack was an attempt to destroy what New York represents: grandeur, capitalism, tourism. The Twin Towers were an identifiable landmark. A destination for tourists. A setting for romantic movies. A center of commerce. The second target, the Pentagon is a symbol of the inner workings of the United States military. Together, the targets were not just postcard panoramas, not just buildings and people: in a one-two punch peace of mind, national security and democracy all bit the literal dust.
“Handing Out Candy.” In the West Bank town of Nablus this was how Palestinians reacted to news of the attacks in New York and Washington. Yasser Arafat later condemned the attacks before the international
media, conveying shock at the events and sending his condolences to President Bush and the American people. But the PR damage had already been done. The world had already seen how Palestinians, the people he represents, celebrated the terrorist acts. Revelers waved Palestinian
flags, laughing and dancing in the streets, distributing candy in honor of the explosions, which they called “sweets from Osama Bin Laden.”
“Are You Okay?” On the streets of Manhattan, stripped of our essential public transportation, pedestrians flowed into the street, trying to get to or from work. Every few blocks, you could hear radio coverage of the news from a parked truck or van. People clustered around it, desperate for information and for community companionship. They stopped to ask friends if they were okay and if everyone they knew was accounted for. My brother Jack called my parents from Jerusalem to find out if we were okay. When my phone finally started working, I got calls from friends outside New York, asking me if I was okay. When it occurred to me that this was a direct reversal of the phone chain that Israelis and their families' experience whenever terrorism strikes the Middle East, I began to cry. I had made such phone calls before; I had never expected to be on the receiving end.
“Barukh Dayan Emet.” When religious Jews hear of death or tragedy, the usual response is “Barukh Dayan Emet” (Blessed is the true judge). During times of trauma, observant Jews seek out the help of God, sometimes reciting Psalms to alleviate feelings of helplessness and to reassure ourselves that God will protect us. But the judgment that led to Tuesday’s destruction and loss of life was not God’s. We still don’t know who is responsible or what their motives were. But, after this week, any illusions that we are safe here, under the aegis of America and God, have certainly been shattered.
“...Condemns the Attacks...” International leaders from Chile to the Vatican weighed in with statements against the attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that, in solidarity with a violated
America, Wednesday would be a national day of mourning in Israel. The war against terror, Mr. Sharon announced on CNN, is an international war, pitting the free world “against the forces of darkness who seek to destroy our liberty and our way of life. I believe that together we can defeat these forces of evil.” With Vladimir Putin, Gerhard Schroeder, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair all expressing solidarity with the US, and with Islamic Jihad and Hamas denying involvement in these attacks (albeit somewhat less enthusiastically) the obvious question remains. So who is responsible? Public assessment of the coordination and scale of the terrorist acts indicates the handiwork of the elusive Osama Bin Laden. His spokespeople, of course, deny his involvement.
As I write this, I have lowered CNN to a murmur in the background of my studio apartment,. But it seems like every hour, there is something new to report: an additional building in the World Trade Center complex collapsed. Explosions of undetermined origin were underway in Kabul, Afghanistan, purported home of Osama Bin Laden. From beneath rubble in and around the collapsed buildings, victims called relatives on cell phones. SWAT teams surround a Boston hotel to take suspects into custody. The Empire State Building, evacuated at the slightest threat.
Thousands of people who worked in the destroyed buildings in New York and Washington are classified as missing or injured. The New York death count, currently at “at least 82” will only climb. Part of the Pentagon has collapsed from the force of the explosion, in which an estimated 800 are missing or dead. The Twin Towers have been erased from the New York City skyline. The smoke still billows forth. Citizens of New York and Washington are still screaming in pain and grief. The fires continue to
burn as the smell wafts north.
The words of war continue to make their impact. Slowly, stories begin to graft faces and identities onto previously anonymous victims. One survivor, covered with a mottled combination of dust and blood, reported on rescue efforts: “They told us to make a human chain, and we got each other out of there.”
It was these words that affected me most. Whether or not we believe in God, or Osama Bin Laden, or capitalism, or democracy, we need to remember that in the wake of tragedy, the human chain is what provides us with comfort. And though Psalms pale in importance when people we know and love are missing, we continue to recite them individually and in groups, trying to find meaning in the words that form a historical chain between the author of the Psalms and our modern selves.
In the coming weeks, we will need to believe in humanity with a whole heart, as general shock gives way to more specific horror, and as the pain of grief’s sharpness yields to thoughts of vengeance. Our fear and anger threatens to enslave us, but we need to break free of them and learn, once again, to believe that it is the human chain that can bring about redemption, that can resurrect both our hope and our peace of mind.