September 11, 2008
The memories, now that I’ve decided to write about the subject, come back in horrific floods: the morning news bulletin that a plane had collided with one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center and the initial talk of a "terrible accident"; then a second plane, and talk of terrorism; fuzzy long-distance shots of people jumping stories to their deaths, then the imploding towers; further bulletins of planes crashing into the Pentagon and some field in Pennsylvania; the column of smoke visible for days from the rooftops of the Bronx, ten miles to the north; the endless TV replays interspersed with live footage of people wandering dazed on the downtown streets with photos of the missing; the tolling bell and candle-light service at St. Augustine Catholic Church here, two days after the tragedy; the old woman who took my hand and whispered, "It’s Judgment Day."
There were few physical casualties here in the South Bronx, but everyone knew someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who had died in the cataclysm. A teacher at St. Augustine School, a former police officer, lost her sister in the towers and broke apart; after five years on disability, she returned to teaching, sharing her story of overcoming grief with hope and hatred with love.
Keith Outlaw, the young African-American pastor of St. Augustine’s, carried out his duties in a haze. "For days and days," he told me recently, "people would come to me in tears, and I tried to be strong for them. Then when they left I’d cry. I was really hurting. I cried so much during that whole period. It was beyond what we could ever imagine."
He did his part.
"When they called for clergy to bless remains in the morgues," he said, "I signed up. But so many had volunteered that I was pushed back to the second week. When I finally got there, I prepared myself to see bodies or large body parts, and the staff there warned us and gave us special headgear for the stench — but I didn’t need it. What came through by that time was just little bits of bone — the biggest I saw was about five or six inches long. There was no stench because there was no flesh — all the bones looked like they’d been in the desert for years. The doctor on duty told me the fire was like a thousand degrees — they were cooked.
"Of course at that point, they couldn’t identify the persons those bones belonged to, so there wasn’t much to be done. I said some prayers and that was it."
Jesus taught his followers to love and forgive those who hate them. How did he feel at the time?
"The love and forgiveness part was never there, to be honest. I was very angry and very hurt: How could they do this to them?"
"The only good thing I can say is that it really united people. Here in New York, the mood was so different from usual. People were actually kind to each other. We weren’t rich or poor, Republicans or Democrats, Catholics or even Muslims — we were all Americans."
It was the small things that often spoke the loudest to him.
"I remember watching a Red Sox-Yankee game in Boston that fall, and some fans unveiled a banner that read, ‘The Red Sox Love New York.’ Has that ever happened before or since?"
Another small thing: "I remember buying bananas from Colombia or someplace around that time, and the little sticker on them had the Colombian and U.S. flags crossed together and the words, ‘We are with you.’ We had the whole world behind us then.
"That was until Iraq. We were all united until Bush finished us off."
I would say that Iraq didn’t start the finishing off; that had been going on almost from the beginning.
It was a time of national trauma, and as with individual trauma, the country felt both angry and helpless at once, and looked to their leaders for support and guidance. As the woman said, it seemed like Judgment Day. But it was not so much a day of judgment as it was a day for judgment, the ability of true leaders to accurately evaluate a situation in the midst of the chaos, take visionary action, and inspire hope and trust. In the years following the tragedy, what we got from our leaders was the Office of Homeland Security, the Orange Alerts that only heightened the trauma, the squandering of the enormous capital of good will by an abrasive, go-it-alone foreign policy — and then Iraq, and domestic surveillance, and torture, and military tribunals, to all of which the country and its legislators passively acceded: the sure signs of ongoing trauma.
It’s been seven years, and Keith Outlaw continues to hurt.
"There’s still a wound there that probably will heal in time," he told me. "It’s less painful now, but it opens again every September."
Personally and politically, 9/11 is not behind us yet.