Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Reflections on 9-11

I walked the perimeter of "Ground Zero" for the first time last July. Today it is a busy city construction site. Buses, taxicabs, pedestrians and pigeons surround it. The sounds are those of city life. If you were not aware, not looking for indications, you would never know that six years ago today it was hell.

It was late on a Saturday afternoon and my son and I sat at a table outside a pizza place and stared at the hole across the street. I found myself so busy looking down that I almost forgot to look up. When I did ... the pizza lost its flavor. The sky was blue and the breeze was cool, much like the 9-11 of six years ago. And without expecting to I could see horrors unfold in my mind. Proud skyscrapers, a testament to the tireless men who built them. Racing jets, mere yards from a doom that nobody expected or imagined. Vast fiery infernos, fuel mixed with every imaginable item. Ball point pens and body parts. The shower of papers floating to the ground like so much snow in mid-January. The hollow, nauseating "thud" that kept a sickening cadence as over 200 bodies chose to crash into the sidewalk rather than burn to death.

What did it look like on September 11, 2001 to sit in the seat where I was eating my pizza? Was anybody sitting there? Did he or she live? Is their story being told today?

The next morning I found myself walking down a railroad track in New Jersey with a 19 year old young man. It is not important how this midwesterner came to be in that place with a Puerto Rican immigrant teenager. We had been sitting on a platform of the light rail system when we realized that no trains were stopping. Closer inspection showed that it was closed for repairs on that day. And so that young man chose to help this lost stranger walk the tracks to the next station so that I could catch up with my own son and we could make it to a Yankee's game on time. What is important is the story he told me as we walked. This young man had only been to "The City" twice in his life. His momma will not let him cross the Hudson River into Manhattan alone and he has chosen to obey her. Everyday he looks across the river at the largest city in America and he does not go there because he respects his mother. Is this not a part of a fading Americana that we all miss? I asked him what 9-11 was like for him. He became quiet and we walked many yards before he replied. He had been in school as a 13-year-old junior higher. Suddenly the teachers dismissed the students. He was not told why. He and his friends were just sent home. As they rounded a corner on their short walk home a smoke shrouded city skyline came into view. They could only see one tower due to the smoke from the first explosion. As these junior high school kids stood along their river, looking at their city they saw another jet fly directly into the second tower. The young man grew quiet again. Then he told me that it did not look like it did on TV. They saw it. Then they heard it. Then they felt it. He said that upon the impact of the jet they watched steel girders shoot out the other side like airborne toothpicks pushed from their places by the explosion that took hundreds of lives as they stood and watched. I asked him if the memory has faded since that day. He said that it has not. He said that he does not expect that it ever will. Moments later we were on a train and got separated by the crowd, he on his way to work and me on my way to a ballgame.

I understand anger. I understand fury. But hatred? Hatred at this level eludes me. I do not want to be capable of it. And then I think of that sidewalk that once ran deep with blood and ash. I think of that boy who should have been studying math but was forced to watch the subtraction of human lives. I think of how it will shape his future and I am afraid that I begin to perhaps comprehend in a very, very minute way what hatred feels like. I give regularly to the poor, I swerve to avoid squirrels on the street, and I have volunteered in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. That is what humans are supposed to do. Yet I confess that if I found myself in the mountains of Pakistan or Afghanistan and I came across a certain bearded individual I would neither hesitate nor lose sleep over pulling a trigger.

And I really do not like that in me.