Breathing in the Dead: a visit to the US a month after 9-11

by Jim Forest

In the early evening, a month and a day after the twin towers of the World Trade Center suddenly became dust and rubble, I gazed down through the window of a small commuter jet slowly descending into Newark Airport, watching Manhattan unfurl north to south. At the island’s upper end, rising steeply over the Hudson River, there was the dark patch of Fort Tyron Park containing my favorite New York museum, the Cloisters, a healing place that must have cured many people of suicidal thoughts; then the light-pricked darkness of the Upper West Side and Harlem; the long rectangular blackness of Central Park; next, Times Square and the theater district, glowing like a fireplace; then the Empire State Building rising steeply in Midtown, once again the city’s tallest building, its upper tiers illuminated red, white and blue, a nighttime flag in stone; then the smaller, dimly lit structures of Chelsea and Greenwich Village; and finally lower Manhattan and the Financial District with its own collection of skyscrapers, but now a maimed landscape.

It seemed as if a giant meteorite had hit the southern tip of the island, leaving a smoking cavity where the World Trade Center had stood. The klieg-lit crater had become Manhattan’s brightest spot. I knew there were men hard at work in the artificial light, like players in a football stadium, but couldn’t see them. Finally there was Battery Park and the glistening water of the harbor with the Statue of Liberty still holding her golden torch in the sky, still offering her silent greeting to newcomers who had crossed the Atlantic. But it was mainly the wound in Manhattan that held my attention as our plane descended toward Newark.

I had seen the same view twice while in the US in June. Now not only were the city’s most dominant urban landmarks no longer there, but it was a very different America in October.

The September 11 attack had focused on primary symbols of America, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The White House was the probable target of Flight 93, which instead crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers battled the hijackers. When symbols are destroyed, it isn’t surprising that part of the response is also at the level of symbols: the national flag. America has long been one of the most flag-displaying cultures in the world, but even on the Fourth of July in earlier years I had never seen anything to match the outbreak of flags that greeted me once I was on the ground.

Those first few days in the US were spent in Red Bank, New Jersey, a town linked to New York City by rail. This is where I grew up and is now the home of my oldest son, his wife and their two young children. In the course of a leisurely walk to the center of the town and back, I counted more than two hundred flags, not including flag pins of various kinds that many people were wearing, or the small flags in a park by the river which had become a spontaneous memorial site for local victims of the events of September 11. More than a hundred people from Red Bank or nearby had been among the three thousands killed when the towers of the World Trade Center imploded. One of the dead had been a passenger on Flight 93. Here, amid many candles, were their photos as well as displays about them — wedding pictures, medals, prayer cards, poems, drawings and quilts. A smaller memorial was set up outside a nearby firehouse. Since September 11, when so many fireman and policemen sacrificed their lives rescuing others, Americans see heroes when they see people in either profession.

Visiting an Orthodox parish in Princeton, I was given a flag pin by a retired black woman whose son had narrowly escaped death at the World Trade Center. For her, she explained, the flag had become a different symbol after September 11 than it had been before. For her, it represented people trying to protect diversity in the face of ideologies that demand uniformity. But another member of the parish found himself uncomfortable with the flag. “Before the bombing of Afghanistan started, I saw it as a sign of mourning, but now it might be taken to mean that I support the [Afghanistan] war, which is mainly lengthening the list of victims of September 11.”

Traveling across the US giving lectures and leading retreats in seven states, from Massachusetts to California, I became aware of other changes that were not as visual as the flag.

There is the much greater care taken in searching passengers at air terminals. (A British bishop, Kallistos Ware, I know was searched with care three times on his way from London to Louisville because, as one searcher confessed, “you look like an imam.”) I also noted a greater tendency of strangers to talk to each other while waiting for flights. People seemed more inclined to reach out. Perhaps it had to do with the extreme nervousness everyone feels about flying after September 11. Again and again I heard people remark that not since the Wright brothers got the first plane off the ground has it been so safe to fly as it is today, given all the precautions, but now everyone anywhere near an airport feels a certain dread. With passenger traffic down sharply, there are fewer flights, but these tend to leave on time.

Whenever I mentioned that I live in Holland, I would be asked why it is that so many people in other countries hate and fear the United States? I responded that, while criticism of various aspects of the US is widespread, Americans should be aware that the shock and grief they experienced on September 11 circled the globe. Again and again I described the response of the Dutch — how on the day of mourning that stretched across Europe on the 14th of September, everything in Holland came to a dead stop at noon: every truck, train, car and bus pulled over, people stood still wherever they happened to be, transactions ceased in stores and banks, and a deep silence blanketed the land. Though the Dutch put out their flags only two or three times a year, every flag was out that day, all at half mast. Neighbors came to our door to express their condolences as if Nancy and I were local ambassadors of the United States.

In conversations at airports, schools and churches, I became aware of other changes that perhaps are best summed up by noting key words that one hears more often.

The word “war,” heard again and again each day, no longer referred to events in some distant place which many Americans would have difficulty finding on a map, but rather war up close, a war that might at any moment take one’s own life or the lives of family or neighbors, yet not war in any traditional sense. No particular country has attacked the United States. It is a war with people who refuse to name themselves, using methods which make it hard to identify those responsible. The main headlines during my month in America had to do with anthrax. Gas masks and anti-anthrax antibiotics were selling in huge quantities.

Another word I heard day after day was “vulnerability.” Americans were painfully aware that their country is no longer behind impenetrable castle walls. Clearly an enemy doesn’t need an intercontinental ballistic missile — he doesn’t even need a nuclear weapon — to become a formidable adversary to the world’s mightiest power.

One of the words being used far more frequently is “evil.” Though most people have had experiences of doing evil things, and also have been victims of evils of various kinds and degrees, the word “evil” itself was hugely neglected in the past generation or two. We preferred to speak of evil actions in psycho-therapeutic terms.

Inevitably the word “Islam” was being used far more than before September 11. I sensed an embarrassed awareness of how little most people know about Islam, how few and superficial or nonexistent are social contacts with Muslims. We are noticing both our own ignorance and the existence of an invisible wall.

The word “God” is being used far more often by people who don’t often enter places of worship and who think of religion as something for the brainless. It had been an embarrassing word for many people, a word one tried not to use, but the shock of September 11 has made Americans people think again about what life is all about, what is of ultimate significance. Many things Americans regarded as treasures on September 10th seemed like trash on September 12th. Churches couldn’t open their doors wide enough. People who hadn’t been at a church service in a long time were streaming in.

Perhaps the word one hears more than any other when talking about September 11 and its aftermath is “fear.” It is not that Americans were a people without fear before September 11. I wonder if there is another country on earth where there are so many privately owned weapons or so many locks per person? But the concentrated dread many have known since September 11 is of a different magnitude. The sale of hand guns has risen sharply. Stores selling gas masks couldn’t keep up with demand. Practically any product that makes the purchaser feel safer is selling briskly. According to press reports, the sale of tranquilizers, anti-depressants and sleeping potions had risen 40 percent.

While leading a retreat on the Beatitudes at Notre Dame University in Indiana during my last weekend in the US, I talked with a student who belongs to a group of peace activists on campus who have been wearing a T-short with the message “Pray for Peace” while handing out leaflets protesting the war, an activity in the present climate that requires real courage. “I think the bombing going on in Afghanistan right now is in part a political response to a contagion of fear,” he said. “Bombing is the government’s way of reassuring frightened people that we are taking the offensive now, even though it may be a strategy that makes acts of anti-US terrorism even more likely in the future. Bombing says, ‘We are doing something,’ even if the main thing achieved is to draw more Muslims to a pro-Bin Laden attitude.”

Before returning to Holland, I had a meeting in New York with a Greek Orthodox bishop. Taking the train from Red Bank to Penn Station, I walked the several miles to his office on East 74th Street. It was a beautiful fall day, the sky a deep cloudless blue, but every step of the way I was aware that this was not the same Manhattan I had lived in earlier in my life. Flags and signs of mourning seemed to be in every shop and bakery window, every restaurant, every newsstand. Everyone was wearing a flag pin. Faces revealed people still in a stunned condition. But what struck me most of all was the smell permeating the air, a strange burned smell. I recalled a phrase from an essay Dorothy Day had written in August 1945 just days after the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though living in New York, she was aware that the radioactive dust of those two pulverized cities was being carried by the winds around the globe. She was, she wrote, “breathing in the dead.”

And here in Manhattan, a month after the destruction of the World Trade Center, so was I. All of us were breathing in the dead.

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