September 15, 2011
Early last Friday evening, my friend Judy and I were walking down Tenth Avenue near 23rd Street in Chelsea. We passed a U-Haul van pulled over to the curb with a police car, lights flashing, behind it. The driver stood next to his vehicle, being questioned by the officers.
"See that?" said Judy. "It's 9/11 paranoia. I had to drive around the city all day today, and the traffic was snarled everywhere by all the searches. I lived downtown ten years ago, and I saw the towers fall. All this stuff just brings back the horror, and I don't need it. What good does it do? Why can't we just move on?"
It's like scratching a scab.
"This whole thing is just what happened right after the attacks," she continued, "the orange alerts and stuff. Today I heard the government had, quote, ‘credible evidence' that Al Qaeda was planning to bomb the tunnels and subways and the police were looking for two American Arabs. Then in the same breath they said they had no specifics. It's all done to keep us fearful."
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a similar point on his Friday radio show. "We've got to make sure we don't let the terrorists take away our rights without any terrorism," he said. "If you lock yourself in your house because you're scared, they're winning. If you don't let somebody else pray or say what they want to say or you deny any rights to certain people — that's exactly what they want. I don't think we should do that."
A word of good sense. Of course, he and his police chief Ray Kelly ordered the searches. As one anonymous law enforcement official told the New York Times, the plot "could all be one big fabrication, but no one wants to take any chances."
I suppose you can't be too careful, and I myself had mixed feelings of revulsion and relief watching the NYPD deal with the man in the van.
That's the nature of terrorism. It's like those poltergeist movies: Your skin crawls because you never know when and how the killer will strike; you don't even know who or what the killer is. No matter how strong you are or what actions you take, you feel impotent in the face of the unknown. You want to direct your seething rage, but there is nowhere to direct it. You want to protect yourself from another attack, but the enemy is a phantom.
Just look at the government's responses to 9/11 over the last decade: Another bloated bureaucracy with the still-eerie name of Homeland Security (Fatherland and Motherland having already been taken); two military invasions with loss of innocent life exponentially greater than that on our shores; practices of torture that got no results and only defiled America's sense of decency and integrity; a monstrous airport security apparatus that keeps the country in a constant low-level state of anxiety and fear.
Whether or not any of these actions, costing trillions of dollars and untold damage to body and spirit, has been effective, we'll never know. How many of the rumored plots were real, and how many were "fabrications"? Most of the ones we know were real, like the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, and that goofball who set his truck on fire in Times Square, were thwarted by the bumbling perpetrators themselves.
Unlike the movies, there is no ending, no resolution. Even the assassination of Bin Laden last May, shamelessly gloated over by our President, brought no relief, only a momentary release of frustration and a shallow burst of flag-waving. No V-J Day here.
It's to the credit of the American people, imbued with the spirit of freedom and equality and chastened by memories of lynchings and interments, that this anxiety, fear, and pent-up rage have not, except at the fringes, been released on the Muslim community. The angels of our better nature, up to now at least, appear to be winning.
The tenth anniversary ceremonies, and the telling and re- telling of stories of tragic loss and unparalleled heroism that occupied the media in the weeks preceding, were acts of catharsis, a form of therapy for our collective post-traumatic stress disorder. The focus of most of it was not against enemies, whoever they were and may be, but toward the resilience of the human spirit in the face of disaster, no matter what the cause.
Now it is over for a while again, but it is never really over. What we must do, as Judy said, is move on.