Shouting in Silence: 9/11 and the Importance of Saying Nothing Revisited

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As August comes to a close, the dog days of summer end, leaving before everyone the distance of Fall. For some like myself, Fall remains the premier season of the year. The air cools, football, England’s Premier League (EPL), and basketball commence and the business of work begins. In its own way, Autumn initiates a sort of professional renewal. For New Yorkers (and yes those in Washington D.C. as well) though, Labor Day marks the uncomfortable memory of an impending milestone many would rather forget, 9/11. Unfortunately as the fifteenth anniversary of this national tragedy approaches, a cacophony of rhetoric seems to be greeting it.

When I orginally wrote this post a couple of years back, the rhetoric to which I referred consisted of the white noise surrounding 9/11 commemoration efforts as they became bogged down in local and national politics and what some observers might have called a burgeoning Islamophobia. Today, however, this reference nods to the current presidential race. On one side, the nominee’s hostility toward Islam, immigrants, women, and the disabled; on the other, the honesty and integrity of the candidate. Needless to say, the discordant clamor makes rational thought difficult, especially on such a visceral, emotional anniversary.

Islamophobia circa 2010

Islamophobia circa 2010

For the record, I lived in New York for nearly a decade working as a public educator in the city’s high schools. I vividly remember that morning. At the time, I was teaching History at an alternative public school in Brooklyn in between downtown Brooklyn, the Farragut Housing projects, and the now very hip DUMBO community. When the first tower was hit, one of my students ran into the classroom, interrupting my lesson on English emigration to the New World, to let us know that the World Trade Center was on fire. I dismissed his concern, thinking that some idiot in a Cessna had not been flying responsibly and regrettably cost himself/herself their life. Tragic but hardly a national concern. When the second tower was hit, we stopped the lesson, gathered all our students in two rooms and waited it out.

Our school was located in an office building across the river, as such, we had a clear view of the towers as they burned and collapsed. Walking across the Manhattan Bridge in the bright sunlight hours later, I remember staring at the smoke infested southern tip of Manhattan with little to say. I still remember two fellow teachers, crumpled over into each others arms, crying. As a then 25 year old, I sat at the end of the hall facing Manhattan and watched the towers burn as I listened to Wilco play “Via Chicago” on my discman repeatedly.

Admittedly I’ve dated myself in two ways here. First, who uses a discman anymore and two, before Wilco songs boomed from the speakers of Safeway grocery stores across the land, denounced by millennials as “dad rock” they used to be “edgy”. Yet as far as we’ve come in technology and music, as demonstrated by my very analog discman and Wilco musical fetish, we remain mired in our post-9/11 reality. After two wars in the Middle East, and the marauding criminality of ISIS, I’m not sure our debates regarding national security and terrorism have changed all that much.

In retrospect, in the days after the attacks, I don’t remember what came next but I do vividly remember thinking to myself that I wasn’t leaving New York for anyone, especially not some terrorists. If anything, I readied myself for car bombings and the like; that said looking back I’m eternally grateful New York didn’t become 1970s Belfast.

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At Two Bridges Academy where I taught (it no longer exists, washed away by the charter school movement and the Board of Education’s own internal reorganization), most if not all of our students hailed from lower income communities. Many struggled in the weeks afterward to reconstruct their semblance of life. One girl, a teenage mother, couldn’t sleep for weeks, thinking that every plane that flew overhead somehow threatened her life and that of her baby. Some students turned sullen and irritable, which as any teacher of at-risk youth will tell you, simply made it twice as hard to educate. In contrast to the brutish mosque controversy that unfolded in 2010, what I remember about the 12 months after 9/11 is the silence. The acknowledged emptiness of the whole experience left most people speechless. Yet, in this silence I grew to understand the profound significance of those 12 months.

In the days, weeks, and months that followed 9/11, people coped with the reality of a damaged New York in a variety of ways. In December of 2001, the New York Times published a story that illustrated New Yorkers’ proclivity for drink increased markedly. In the aftermath of the bombing, nervous “twenty and thirty somethings” had finally realized their mortality. As one real estate professional confessed to the Times, ”I used to be health-conscious. I used to work out; now I don’t give a damn. I used to go out twice a month; now I go out twice a week. It’s friends coming together to embrace each other.” Meeting for drinks may have provided a sense of meaning, a way to combat the very existential silence that pervaded the city.

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Still, my most striking memory of 9/11 remains not the day itself, but rather the first anniversary. As a public school teacher living in Queens but working in Brooklyn, I commuted daily between the two boroughs, which inevitably took me through Manhattan. The subway in the morning often explodes with sound from the trains themselves to the mumblings of those embarking to work to countless children on their way to school. However, September 11, 2002 sounded like nothing I’ve heard in New York before or after. Literally, no one spoke on the trains. At subway stations like 34th street where I often transferred for the downtown F train, all that could be heard was the shuffling of feet and the screeching of subway cars. Everyone knew what day it was and what that meant. The silence was sad and shocking but also deeply moving. No one tried to fill that space with anything but this emptiness of sound, a tangible metaphor for the loss that New York, Washington, and the nation endured.

Reflecting on the upcoming tenth anniversary, here’s what I wrote in 2011.

Flash forward to today and impending tenth anniversary. Last year’s mosque controversy stood as proxy for the nation’s retreat from introspective self reflection to anger driven political knife fighting. The WTC remains a graveyard masquerading as an unfinished construction site. Battles over the Freedom Towers and local real estate have crippled efforts at constructing a memorial. One hopes this year’s anniversary will be marked by introspection. The voices that have arisen in recent conflicts from the mosque controversy to the recent debt ceiling fiasco lack any sense of nuance or understanding. Americans appear to have forgotten that despite the horrific nature of the 9/11, we briefly put our differences aside to contemplate how we could move forward as a nation. From the working poor to the financial mandarins of lower Manhattan, we all suffered. As countless commentators have pointed out, the casualties of the bombings included Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists, blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, man, woman, child, and the list goes on. In all the shouting and disappointment since 9/11, we seem to have collectively forgotten this.

It would be nearly impossible to conclude, we’ve covered much distance in the ensuing five years since I wrote the above. The aforementioned 2016 Presidential Race has been marked by acrimony, extremism, and the collapse of the political middle on the left and right. Proposed bans on Muslims and immigration more generally, suggest that whatever introspection happened in the months after the attacks, may have dissipated into what might be emerging as a potential garrison state. If the symbolism of a mosque near 9/11 drove antipathy, places like Covington, GA, more peacefully at town hall meetings like the one pictured below but with no shortage of prejudiced and problematic arguments, refute them all to together.

Islamophobia 2016?

Islamophobia 2016?

Sure we are not a garrison state yet, but as numerous commentators have noted in response to the primaries, Brexit, and the general election campaign, open versus closed seems to be replacing the age old political binary of left versus right. Culturally, some Americans want not only to close our borders but also constrict our definition of citizenship.  Identity politics, for so long mistakenly ascribed to minorities alone, now (and really always have) clearly also belong to white voters.  Where we are now, isn’t much different from where we were then.

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Thankfully, the WTC memorial finally came into being and this year, they will be unfurling the long missing 9/11 flag, pictured in the iconic photograph of three firefighters raising it in tribute to the city and nation’s resiliency in the wake of the attacks, at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan. It’s transcontinental journey, from NYC to Washington State back to NYC, seems a metaphor for our current reality. In many ways, we’ve travelled a great distance from 2001 – the nation’s first black president, marriage equality, the first female presidential nominee from a major party – but in others we seem to be back right where we were.

The famed, fatalistic, and under achieving post punk Minneapolis band The Replacements once sang:

“And I suppose your guess is more or less as bad as mine
All over but the shouting, just a waste of time
Never mind”

In an odd way, it captures our current moment. I’m not sure anyone has a hold on the best way forward right now let alone the ineffable  truth.  Twitter wars, Facebook dustups, and other forms of political hollering remain largely “a waste of time.” Everyone wants to express their feelings, but no one seems to have any real answers. We’d all do well to take a couple of months after this year’s anniversary and follow the example set by New Yorkers in 2002.  A spell of quite contemplation – whether in anger, sadness, or some combination of both – might well do us all some good.

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