Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 Memory: Grieving and Celebrating Valor, Leaving Vengeance Behind

This fire helmet is one of the objects depicted in
The Stories They Tell: Artifacts from the National September 11 Memorial Museum

I was back in New Jersey to visit with high school friends in July. It gave me the opportunity to visit the newly opened 9/11 Memorial.

Not surprisingly, what I saw made me spend days and weeks thinking about the memorial itself, and the larger issue of 9/11 in our national life.

Out of all that I have seen and heard and read and thought about, several thoughts keep rising to the top.

Aerial view of twin fountains at the 9/11 Memorial.
We need to eliminate the noise so that we can grieve

More than anything else about the 9/11 Memorial, I was impressed by how profound the twin fountains are as a memorial to all that was lost on 9/11.

I don't think that a photo can do justice to the sensation of standing at the edge one of these massive deep square black pools, water cascading down all four walls, seemingly bottomless, the people around the edges dwarfed by distance.

Especially for those of us who spent time in lower Manhattan and were familiar with the "footprint" of the two towers, the contrast to the past is shocking.

The names of those who died on 9/11 are engraved into the granite rims of the two pools.

We saw valor that meets a deeply-felt need

It is impossible to ignore the way that people everywhere -- yes, those touched directly by it but also people who were only observing from a very great distance -- keep circling back to 9/11, remembering it, calling it forth, dwelling on it. More and more, I've noticed that more than anything this seems to be connected to the memory of the courage, selflessness, valor, community-mindedness of the rescue workers involved.

New York City Fire Department
Members Who Made the Supreme Sacrifice
in the Performance of Duty
at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001
at Manhattan Box 5-5-8087

Probably the single sentence that sums up 9/11 for me is this description of the firemen: "On the stairways, as the occupants of the towers struggled to descend dozens of floors in order to get out, they were passed by the firemen running as fast as they could up the stairs to try to save more people."

It's heartbreaking.

In the 9/11 museum, there is a short video, with remembrances from some of the people involved. Rudolph Giuliani recalls seeing people jumping from the top floors, and rushing over to Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen and saying, "We've got to get helicopters there!"  Von Essen said, "My men can get everyone below the fire out." 

 That is called living with purpose.

Pew at St. Paul's chapel - bearing the marks of first responders.
There is a church -- St. Paul's -- a block away from the Twin Towers site. It acted as a relief station for rescue workers at the time of 9/11.  The pews, where exhausted rescuers collapsed for a few hours of sleep, are now marred and dented with the marks of their heavy boots and other equipment that they didn't even bother to remove when they rested. The church and its sanctuary now stand as a kind of reminder of the community-mindedness of so many people during those days.

What these people did represents something that is all too often missing in our lives, and that we yearn to recover.

Revenge? Or reconciliation?

I become very uncomfortable when the focus turns to "getting" the people responsible for 9/11.

Part of the reason is that I see how many people around the world the U.S. has killed since 9/11 in the name of "payback." The last decade has certainly demonstrated that the only thing that is accomplished by violence is the perpetuation of violence.

"Impact Steel"
Another part of the reason is that revenge is simply not satisfying. It is pursued in the misguided belief that it will turn anger and pain into pleasure. As we all know, revenge only succeeds in guaranteeing that the anger and pain remains permanent.

For those interested in one exploration of this idea, I recommend the film by Martin Doblmeier, The Power of Forgiveness.  Part of the film is a profile of the mother of one 9/11 victim. It helped me understand that anger and vengefulness is a kind of hell, and that many people have been trapped in that hell as a result of 9/11.

Some of the most impressive peace activists I know are members of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. "Peaceful Tomorro­ws is an organization founded by family members of those killed on September 11th who have united to turn our grief into action for peace. By developing and advocating nonviolent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, we hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism. Acknowledging our common experience with all people affected by violence throughout the world, we work to create a safer and more peaceful world for everyone." I know and have worked with a number of members of this organization. Their grief is real. But they are also clear about the importance of peace, and of their personal power to bring about good.

What will we do with "the pain that made us"?

Years ago I read a story called "Without Blood" by Alessandro Baricco in The New Yorker.  It involves a woman who tracks down someone who hurt her a long time ago, someone who is now old and weak. She makes absolutely certain that it is, in fact, the person from her past, and then . . . one expects the that the woman is about to have her revenge. Instead, she stops right there. And the author comments that we -- all of us, in large or small ways -- are drawn inexorably back to the pain that made us.

"She understood only that nothing is stronger than the instinct to return, to where they broke us, and to replicate that moment forever. . . . In a long hell identical to the one from which we came . . . . "

What can we learn from this?

Twin Towers on 9/11 - seen from New Jersey
A personal note: On September 11, 2001, I was in New Jersey. I had given a business presentation the previous evening -- to the Northern NJ Chapter of the American Foundry Society -- and then stayed overnight at my mother's apartment in Madison, NJ. On the morning of September 11, I got on the Erie-Lackawanna train in Madison to go to Newark, where I would catch a plane at Newark airport for Detroit, where I was scheduled to address the Detroit Diecasters Association that evening. As my train came through South Orange, someone got on the train and announced that a commuter plane had crashed into the World Train Center. I remember imagining a propeller plane. After arriving in Newark, I rode a bus down and on to Newark Airport. From that vantage point, it looked like the Twin Towers were just a short distance away. (It looked like a lot of smoke for a propeller plane.) It wasn't until I passed through security at Newark Airport and started to hear the loudspeaker announcements "the attacks today in New York City and Washington" -- Washington? -- that I realized everything was getting out of control.  From the gate area, we had a clear view toward Lower Manhattan; people stood watching in silence. "That's funny," I finally said to the person next to me, "but from here it looks like there's only one tower." "That," he replied, "is because there IS only one tower . . . " 

Nothing was the same after that . . . .

Related posts

We eventually made it to our hotel . . . but Munich and the Olympic Stadium have forever after, for me, stood for the proposition that going around in circles, stuck in the same rut and fighting about it, is a peculiar Hell that only humans could be capable of contriving.

(See "Munich and the Ring Road to Hell "on Compassionate Nation)

Beyond recognizing the inherent contradictions of "pre-emptive violence," we must confront an urgent problem related to technology: the automation of "pre-emptive violence" -- e.g. via drone technology -- is leading to a spiral (or "loop" or "recursive process") that we may not be able to get out of.

(See When "Pre-emptive Violence" Is Automated ....)

In the film "The Response," as military judges are debating the fate of a detainee at Guantanamo, one of them says, "Okay, if 9/11 is the measuring stick, are we a great nation because of the blow we took? Or because how we, as a country, respond to that blow? The response matters. Our response defines us . . . . "

(See Why Have We Built A Monument To Bin Laden?)

GAZA: Israel has a story about how all these people are there enemies, and the people of Palestine have a story about how all these people are innocent bystanders. Could both stories be true? . . . 9/11: "How could one set of people think that the towers and the people in them were legitimate targets, when others saw them as innocent victims?"

(See Gaza and 9/11: Innocent Bystanders? Legitimate Targets? Acceptable Collateral Damage?)