Monday, September 12, 2011

Remembrance & Reconciliation

9-11, 9-11

What to do? what to do?

This year was the 10th anniversary or as I got to calling it, the 9th anniversary of 9-11anniversary commemorations.

Remember the debate on what to call the first decade of the new century, the “oh-oh’s” or the “oughts,” but we couldn’t escape the inevitable: We’ve lived the 9-11 Decade and it’s been exhausting.

I went to the first 9-11 commemorative ceremony they held in Jersey City. I didn’t like it and I don’t quite know why.

I went to the 10th, this Sunday, down there by Exchange Place, where I spent so many days after the attack just bearing witness.

I wrote about 9-11 on the blog, here.

Words just seem trite, seem what they are, just words... sorrow, uncertainty.. it was awful those days of not knowing who would survive and then the gradual realization that thousands died, the body bags would not be used, and the thick smoke blowing across the river and filling our nostrils and whose chunky grit clogged the pores of our skin, clinging to our hair, contained not just the steel, glass and furnishings of one of the tallest office buildings in the world, but also the ashes of the incinerated bodies of those who happened to go to their job on that fateful day. Just a terrible time, everyone wanting to help and together eventually understanding the drastic limits of the help we could actually provide. The devastation achieved was too complete.

Then there was the worst president in our history, George W. Bush, who took the sincere emotions and national solidarity and used them to make his cronies richer through war and manipulation of the economy, reducing the size and wealth of the middle class and working people of this country and leaving thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of civilians dead or wounded.

So, I avoided any official 9-11 observance. Oh early on, I would listen to the reading of the names, do the moments of silence but even took unwanted effort and I just worked with the radio off. This avoidance was more about my abhorrence of the Bush administration, the politician and his policies than any lack of need to participate in homage. I may not be a huge fan of holidays, but I can appreciate them and their annual rituals. With 9-11, no one really knows what is the right thing to do. Even the discussion of the right thing to do is as annual as the 9-11 observances. I did not want to wallow in 9-11. I mean I did think about it 24/7, like everybody, at least for the rest of ’01; but there came a point where you move on, where you gain perspective or least accept the need to gain perspective.

This year is different, not just because the 10th anniversary marks a decade, and not because it has it has been two, relief-filled years since I’ve had to listen in anger to a speech by “Shrub;” It’s different because the wars and our involvement in them are noticeably winding down. Not as good an outcome as one might have hoped, but in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it is not the utter disasters some have declared.

Obama did accomplish that. His foreign policy hasn’t been as ineffective as his domestic policies. Oh yeah, and he did what Bush’s Saudi cronies wouldn’t allow, he assassinated Bin Laden, who was given sanctuary by Bush’s ally, Pakistan. The Saudis and the Pakistan government were the only two in the world who recognized the Taliban. Oh I could go on but you know, I’ve been thinking of the forces of history. There is really no full understanding of historical forces possible; they only appear beyond our control in retrospect. At the turning point moment they seem nothing like fate, just a door number one or door number two decision. Chose wisely, but those who make or witness the choice are often long dead before the extent of the wisdom or lack thereof can be ascertained. Only after years pass and current events slip into history do things feel planned.

Fate, freedom of choice and randomness, all contradict each other yet coexist within the human condition. They are unable to explain ourselves by themselves, and yet in spite of their paradoxical meanings, no explanation of existence is possible without them.

Bin Laden was a result of cold war politics, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, our covert backing of those fundamentalist guerrillas fighting the Soviets and then our abandonment of Afghanistan involvement after the Soviet withdrawal. Or was it the industrialized world’s thirst for oil growing each year during the 20th century; the British’s abandonment of its supervisory role during the 1948 UN accords that gave birth to Israel and Palestine; or does it go back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of World War One where the victors divided up spoils regardless of the pain inflicted on the populations who owned the spoils. Or is the Shia/Sunni rift that began less than 100 years after the death of Mohammed. Shoot, I left out the division of India and Pakistan. Now we have the Arab spring. Hundreds of turning points, hundreds more to come. Bin Laden emerged within a context, and 10 years later, we have a better understanding of that context. It’s never-ending but the fact we suffered on 9-11 – a victim of the terrorist tactic of direct attack on civilian population – in the scheme of things has become more understandable with time.

Now, it is something that we can now interpret with reason and perspective. Lies that life is black and white Dylan once sang. Bin Laden is dead and while that may not end the Al Qaeda martyrdom-as-weapon theology, the death of such a charismatic and successful leader is a significant set back. No one can immediately fill those sandals. That’s good. Where it is all going to wind up, what’s the next turn in the road, who can say(did Egyptians just attack the Israeli embassy?). But in these last 10 years, we’ve had some resolution – not all that is needed or all that we are likely to eventually get – but there has been some. We possess a better sense of things now than we did then, or even then we did on the fifth (or third or seventh) anniversary of 9-11.

Life goes on, and in spite of say, the Tea Party, there is more togetherness in our nation than there had been. May not be enough – and it may only be this apparent on 9-11 memorial day – but there is enough there to make it worth noting.

A large American flag suspended between the extended ladders of two fire trucks. Bag pipes opened the ceremony at Exchange Place. Amazing Grace, a song performed again later in the ceremony by a young African American man. He was good, but I give it to the bag pipes. I love this song, as I do the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was sung towards the end of the two hours or so service. Amazing Grace on bag pipes, when I heard that, I knew coming was a good thing. The song is always awesome and never as awesome as when it is played by bag pipes. They call it a landing, the end of York Street abutting the river.

The Jersey City memorial features three beans from the towers, twisted and tarnished. Quietly poignant. Those towers filled our horizon, they were our northern star. Now, the Freedom Tower is visible, unfinished like the capital dome in Civil War era photographs of Washington D.C. Several speakers referenced the work in progress structure, another sign of hope, replacing some of the emptiness.

Sandra Cunningham, our state senator, then the wife of the very popular mayor, Glenn, in her remarks talked about going over to the Ground Zero site three days or so after, walking around and feeling lost because she couldn’t look up and see the towers. I still feel that way sometimes. We lost a guide post. I’ve never seen her in speak before, she was skilled, compelling, very impressive. She’s obviously a formidable politician.

At 8:46, everyone there raised their flag, for the first moment of silence. That’s the ritual here. The moment’s of silence at the two times. The second moment, 9:03 as the little flags were held above our heads, out in the Hudson, the Jersey City Fire Department boat spouted red, white and blue streams of water. Corny and moving at the same time.

I met an old buddy, Stephan who was also at Gold Coast Gym on that fateful day. We saw it on the TVs then went upstairs and saw the reality. He spent weeks helping with the dig at Ground Zero. He’s moved out of town and it was good to see him.

A survivor of the collapse, she worked in an office, spoke of some of her health issues, said “to survive is a chance, to endure is a choice.” Self determination and empowerment, pretty good messages to interweave into the ceremony.

Another speaker, a physician who coordinated rescue efforts spoke of how Exhance Space, how this exact spot on Exchange Space saw 1,500 refugees that day. The subways were closed down. You either walked away from WTC or took a ferry to the Jersey Side. People covered in soot, traumatized. That building he pointed at just been built. I remembered the lobby filled with people, their office clothes covered by the thin film of gray soot, just dazed and waiting. The doctor also said that the ferry dock had been closed, it has since been replaced with a new one, but then it was old and creaky and shook every time a ferry docked.

Some poetry, original songs...then classics like Imagine... Winds beneath my Wings...the sun broke through for a while, before turning cloudy and cool again... such a beautiful, warm, late summer morning was heard a few times... nobody knew and the weather of that morning was just another contrast to what would unfold that morning. It was really sort of nice, the Mayor spoke, a congressman... genuine, appropriate remarks and reminiscences. No cynicism, no arrogance, a tad mawkish here and there, but so what. Totally absent was the saber rattling and jingoism of the Bush era, and it’s not just because J.C. is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic but we as a nation, are war weary. It is time to bind up our nation’s wounds and we no longer are in denial about having those wounds or the fact they are in need of binding.

Across the river, at the Ground Zero site, had the President and other luminaries. It gets the TV coverage, all the names are read aloud, moving and poignant. 9-11 Commemorations occur throughout the land and Jersey City’s version, with its funky fire boat spouting colored streams like the dancing waters of Disneyland, probably resembles more the small town services across the land that I love best than the commemoration hosted by the capital of the world across the river. The difference though is that we had a unique role in 9-11 and the J.C. remembrance echoed that uniqueness. The names of all the Jersey City residents who perished at 9-11 – their names are inscribed on a granite monument near the metal beams – and a bell was chimed for each name. Really touching, and like the crowd, like those crowding the dais, our multiethnic city was well represented, so wonderfully apparent. I love this about our town and never tire being reminded of this fact. I know so many people from different cultures, different creeds, from many countries of origin, from every hemisphere. I love being reminded of our diversity again and again. Hearing all the 3,000 names being read can make one feel overwhelmed. Hearing the local deaths (and even this sampling spreads the globe) is a more understandable experience. You recognize this and that country; they were all your neighbors. That acknowledgement really means the attacks failed. The WTC building wasn’t some abstract symbol of an evil other. Bush’s hijacking of the tragedy, turning our grief and inclination to love our country into support for his oil company enriching war in Iraq wasn’t the only outcome of this act of terrorism. Bin Laden attacked humanity and his suicide/murder ethos is purely nihilistic, and nothing puts the real truth to that fact than hearing the names of our neighbors whom he killed, those names that originated from all around the world. We called the same city home. Thus their deaths were not in vain. Their names won’t be forgotten and that must provide some comfort to their loved ones.

Hearing each name, followed by a dignified single chime, brought some focus to my mind plagued by sorrow, anger and apprehension. Limiting the recitation to Jersey City names was actually a better way to honor all the dead because it made the scale of this more comprehensible. And that’s what we were doing, honoring the victims of the tragedy, and not debating other decisions related to this tragedy.

Life compels us towards the virtue of hope even in, perhaps especially in, death. What this city was doing was not glorifying its role in the event, or wallowing in its renown, but performing the duty of all survivors, to pay tribute, to ritualize and make public the memory of the fallen. There were tears and smiles. An immensely appropriate, often graceful ceremony that helped me feel a lot less conflicted.

Let It Be was the last song. The Beatles! Some of my earliest memories were of my aunts and uncles complaining about their hair and how that wasn’t music while my older sisters spun their 45s and argued about who was the cutest. A counter culture anthem is now a shared hymn of reconciliation. Speaking words of wisdom. The floating fountain spewed red, white and blue as a wreath was solemnity lowered into the Hudson River. People walked up to the railing, tossed flowers into the water.

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