Friday, September 11, 2009

Talking About 9-11

It's been eight years. And somehow, this year, I've heard more people talking about how that September day changed their lives than I ever have before.

I've met a couple who lived across the street from the World Trade Center. They saw the plane hit; their windows were blown out when the towers collapsed. They're part of an effort called, an attempt to get a question on the November ballot calling for a new, independent investigation into the events of that day. They just won a round in their fight against a city that wants to invalidate thousands of signatures: the city has accepted that they have the 30 thousand valid signatures required to petition for a referendum.

I've spoken with a woman who was on the other side of the country the day of the attacks. But as she watched it all on TV, she knew she had to go to New York. She had to be part of the healing. And she's been here ever since.

Another woman lived in lower Manhattan. She said her sense of danger has been so profound since that day that she first moved farther uptown, then out of the city altogether. She's never lived anywhere but New York City, but now she lives in a cottage in the country.

I've interviewed medical experts studying the endless list of health problems suffered by people who were there, who breathed in that toxic cloud of dust, debris and death. I've spoken to first responders, many of whom have watched their comrades die of exotic, lingering diseases in the years since they all worked together at Ground Zero.

I watch "Rescue Me" - and underlying the main characters development is the way their experiences on September 11th distorted who they used to be. They are like trees on top of a promontory - they're stunted, they're twisted, but they're alive.

The words keep coming up in conversation: when 9-11 happened...after 9-11...since 9-11.

Some people are convinced we're not being told the whole story of how and why it happened. Others want those people to shut up and let them move on with their lives. But we're all marked somehow.

For me, the day is a blur. I was already walking in a zombie trance from my mother's lingering death two months earlier. I was a teacher; many of my students were children of successful business people in and around New York. We gathered as a school and watched the coverage, doing our best to help students living at a school too far from their families find out what was happening, trying to assure them it would be okay.

9-11 has defined our generation just as the bombing of London has defined a generation in the UK. But for us, the enemy is still unclear and there has been no closure, no retribution, no sense of justice.

I think the president's call to make this tragic anniversary a day of service is a constructive one. I hope it takes hold. Sometimes, the only way to deal with sorrow is to get busy. And reaching out a hand to someone else is, I believe, the best cure for our national grief.

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