Here in New York City, we are preparing for the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is officially a celebration of the opening of the September 11 memorial, but any sense of celebration seems unreachably distant to me. I will be spending Sunday morning in a different ceremony: a silent vigil at my house of worship.
It has long felt odd to me, year after year, to commemorate being on the receiving end of history’s most grandiose act of international terrorism. Commemorating victory – I get that. Commemorating sacrifice – I get that even more. But commemorating a morning when a terrible perversion of faith sent aircraft blasting through two skyscrapers and felled them, killing nearly 3,000 people just going about their daily business? Some corner of my heart rebels.
It calls to mind a conversation I had with a psychiatrist specializing in children. He talked about a phenomenon familiar to parents, in which young children have a favorite movie they want to see over and over again, until their Mommy and Daddy are ready to set it on fire. He called it a sign that the movie contains things upsetting to the child on some level, and the child goes back to it again and again in an effort to work out the anxiety the movie creates. If you have ever picked at a scab or been unable to stop obsessing over a hangnail, you know what I’m talking about. The right answer for the child is to give that movie a rest. Find some other diversion. Come back to it when time has given the mind and emotions time to comprehend.
According to an article in today’s New York Times, not a few of my fellow citizens feel that way.
I prefer to remember something else about September 11 than the destruction, the rage, the breathless fear – even something other than the devotion and self-sacrifice of the rescuers, which should long be honored. I prefer to recall that, for weeks after the 11th of September, the 18 million people in the New York metropolitan area felt themselves to be part of one community.
We are known as a loud-talking, fast-moving and cheerfully cynical people. When we drive our cars, we are vigorous in defense and enthusiastic in seizing the advantage. But for those few weeks, we spoke and moved and drove as though we were surrounded by neighbors and friends. The taste of mortality was in our mouths, and we exhibited a strange and poignant courtesy to each other.
It did not last, of course. We regained our emotional footing and returned to our customary ways. But ever since that day, I have been mindful of the deep and interconnected humanity that lies just beneath our brusque exteriors. The spirit of community is an enormous asset, whether your citizens number in the millions or in the hundreds. With it, almost anything is possible. Without it, we are only strangers in a strange land, powerless to make our community a better place.