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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

What Price Unity? Reflections on 9/11 and Our Times

Ash-covered survivors of 9/11 attacks in New York City, 2001. Photo by Don Halasy/Wikimedia Commons.

I wrote this essay to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Alas, its underlying call for unity in the public interest may be even more relevant today. The piece originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Sept. 10, 2011 and online under the the headline "Sept. 11 showed that Americans can rise to any challenge - even economic."

I'm fighting a form of nostalgia about 9/11, but it's not easy to resist. As we head into another hard autumn, with debts going north, jobs going south and millions of Americans in a terrible fix while politicians and pundits bicker and blow smoke, I wish we'd been able to bottle up some of the spirit of early post-9/11 for later use. Lord knows we could use it now.

Today, our enemies — the greed and selfishness that have destabilized our economy — are just as shape-shifting and arguably more threatening to more Americans than al Qaeda ever was. What's gone missing is the feeling of solidarity in the face of big, painful problems that was so uplifting in that time of unimaginable emotions 10 years ago.

In 2001, I was living in Manhattan, about four miles uptown from the World Trade Center, and watched on TV as the second plane, United Flight 175, came barreling out of a flawless blue sky to slam into the south tower.

Wagons circled quickly. Streaking overhead, F-15 fighter jets flew air cover, rattling our creaky old apartment building to its bones. We breathed in the acrid, car-battery-on-fire stench wafting up from ground zero while, a few blocks south on First Avenue, men in camouflage rolled in armored personnel carriers to secure the United Nations.

It was hard to take it all in — but easy to see from the start that New Yorkers were going to behave like troupers.

After the buses and subways shut down, First Avenue, usually bumper-to-bumper with cars, filled up with people — hundreds, then thousands of them. Some were covered in spectral gray-white ash, most not, but in the main they followed that deepest of human urges — to make it home where, if we're lucky, we all go after terrible things happen.

Yet you had to marvel: There was no pushing or shoving or cursing or yelling — no arguments about global warming or tax cuts or political theology. There was just that respectful, purposeful, eerily quiet phalanx of ordinarily raucous New Yorkers, a few maybe stopping to help somebody with a bag or a question now and then, as everyone headed for destinations uptown or in Queens.

It was hard to take it all in — but easy to see from the start that New Yorkers were going to behave like troupers.

You could say folks were in shock, and some undoubtedly were, but whatever it was, that long, contemplative line of empathetic marchers left a deep impression.

In the days that followed, TV pundits sounded the mantra that New Yorkers were united in grief — and for once they were right. At bus stops and lampposts around the city, homemade missing-person posters fluttered with photos of friends and loved ones smiling out of happier moments.

For me, the gravity of tragedy hit home when, roaming the streets, reporter without portfolio, I wandered past the city medical examiner's office north of Bellevue Hospital and spied a gaggle of autopsy technicians standing at the curb. Long gowns billowing out in the late-summer breeze, they were waiting for vans to deliver corpses that by then we were starting to suspect probably didn't exist.

The burning, collapsing towers had consumed people in a way that there were fewer bodies to deal with than anybody had anticipated.

About that time, word came that my friend, Ann Judge, who had run the travel office at National Geographic in Washington, D.C., had been killed on the plane that hit the Pentagon, and that produced an indelible personal moment I still remember through a line from Archibald MacLeish's "Ars Poetica" : "For all the history of grief/An empty door way and a maple leaf." I think a lot of us felt that way then — individually, together.

But the attacks also triggered a feistiness on the streets that was inspiring to behold.

One morning, I got swept up in an orderly, fast-moving mob exiting Grand Central Station. Word was that some individual, demented or just absent-minded, left behind on the platform a backpack with wires sticking out, and the terminal had cleared. We were all doing fine until a policeman on horseback, listening to his walkie-talkie, yelled, "Run!" and we ran — until the cop shouted, with a hint of come-on-now-people New York irony in his voice, "Not that way, the other way!"

That was the quintessential New York moment. People laughed and kvetched, and one or two gave the cop a piece of their minds. And suddenly you knew something the terrorists didn't: You didn't easily defeat a city with people like that in it. I overheard a guy in a suit say to his co-workers, "OK, so where to for lunch?" Osama bin Who? Fuhgeddaboudit.

For a while there, Manhattan was Resilience Central.

The anthrax scare hit the third week in September, and we got used to hearing our mail carriers grouse good-naturedly through surgical masks. On Nov. 12, a commercial jet crashed into the Belle Harbor section of Queens, killing 265 people, and terrorism worries reignited, though an investigation eventually ruled out foul play.

People continued to volunteer to work on the pile at ground zero until ground zero could accept no more. Yes, hate crimes and bomb hoaxes blemished the human record, but you also had to savor — odd to say — what a humane and civil place New York had become. We all put more oomph into our "Hey, how ya doin's," and for a moment, anyway, not just in New York but around the country, we thought we had a pretty good idea of who our friends were.

Then, as now, it was our enemies we had trouble seeing clearly. Puzzled and angry as we were, do you remember how curiosity was on a roll?

Americans are a thinking people, contrary to the nation of the nincompoop image we give ourselves on reality TV shows like "Big Brother," "Bridezillas" and "Jersey Shore." We learned in a flash that most of us knew as pathetically little about the Muslim world then as we understand about the origins of our economic woes now.

We had a lot to learn, and for a time, many of us were willing students. In New York that autumn, I remember folks reading fewer tabloids, more serious magazines, or even books like Karen Armstrong's primer, "Islam: A Short History."

If hearts had been pierced, minds had popped open, however briefly, and the impulse to strike back fought that other primordial urge to want to know the story behind the story, exactly who had attacked us and why they were so angry — something journalism pros Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have called the awareness instinct. (The same instinct, by the way, we're banking on to keep journalism in business a while longer.)

(I eventually traveled to Indonesia to do a book on Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia, in part because I felt guilty about my own ignorance and because I wanted to see the face of Islam more clearly in a part of the world I was familiar with.

I was happy to report to readers that the Muslims I had encountered were, in the vast majority, "generally about as warlike as Ohio Presbyterians at a church picnic," even if that was not the message some readers were happy to hear.)

Then our indelible autumn of unasked-for lessons suddenly got even more personal.

In early December, my wife, Toshiko, accidentally doused herself with boiling water while trying to unclog a shower drain, and for the rest of the month we inhabited the burn unit at New York Hospital. A few of the last and worst-off of the 9/11 firefighters were still patients there, and we learned about the special affection firefighters have for such places.

As Christmas approached, the New York City Fire Department nudged a big ladder truck up to the massive gray high-rise. While a guy in a cowboy suit twirled a lariat on the roof, the truck shot its gondola skyward carrying a smiling Santa. It was the craziest scene. People would look out their windows, high above the streets, and suddenly Santa would float by waving and ho-ho-ho-ing. It was a nice way to end a hard season.

When problems become too big to avoid, we're capable of putting our silliness aside and acting beyond the political clichés and rhetoric.

As I say, I wish we'd been able to preserve a sharper sense of the shared humor, heartache, gumption and focus that got us through the early days of 9/11. It's so easy to let the better angels of our nature get blended away in greed, selfishness and a media culture too much devoted to knee-jerk lotus-eating. Before you know it, you've spent upward of a trillion dollars on war, hundreds of thousands are dead, and yet most of us are still shaky on the differences between Sunni and Shiite.

Granted, today's economic crisis, while profoundly painful to ordinary Americans, is less pointed than a physical attack like 9/11 and is therefore even harder to understand. But in a world that continues to fire historic changes at us point-blank, we need to get a better grip on the realities of that world.

This summer, just before the American media began to hysterically recycle "news" about the debt ceiling "crisis," my students and I were reporting from China, where the good people, 1.3 billion of them, know a thing or two about competitiveness and look to a future in which they quietly eat our economic lunch. Meanwhile, unreasonable fears still separate us from a clear-eyed view of the Muslim world, the other great force shaping life on the planet today.

In her new book, "Rock the Casbah," journalist Robin Wright argues that the Arab Awakening in North Africa and the Middle East signals a paradigm shift in the Muslim world — a turning against extremism and a yearning for integration with global society. "Vastly different sectors of Muslim societies — from political protesters to playwrights and rappers — are proving that they share common values with the West in the twenty-first century," she writes. "And they are actively tackling their extremist brethren, usually on their own initiatives and often imaginatively."

Whatever happens, we've got our work cut out for us.

In an email letter to a niece in Washington state after 9/11, I wrote that brains, not bullets, would be our best weapon for working our way out of the mess we were in. I was trying to find something reassuring to say. I still think I was right, but I realize now how badly I underestimated the part of our brains that programs us to get back to "normal" and, in the process, makes it so hard for most of us to remember exactly what it was we learned during life inside a big, awful moment.

One important thing we've forgotten, it seems to me, is this: There's a lot more to us than is reflected in the brattish ways we see ourselves behaving on TV and the Web — that when problems become too big to avoid, we're capable of putting our silliness aside and acting beyond the political clichés and rhetoric.

It's almost enough to make you nostalgic for 9/11.

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