On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was talking on the phone and looking down on the Hudson River from my southward-facing Greenwich Village apartment window. I heard a concussion, felt it almost. I looked around but saw nothing until my eyes rose up and caught sight of the World Trade Center. The gash on the upper side of the north tower was black and spewing smoke. There was also a trail of smoke down the left side of the building that went all the way to the street.
I was confused about that trail of smoke. I tried to figure out how it fit with the smoking wound. It wasn’t until some time later, when the second jetliner crashed into the southern tower, that I understood that downward trail of dark vapor.
That cascading column came to mean to me everything about the war that was forming in people’s minds around the world. It was a sign that I couldn’t read clearly, but still I knew there were deadly ramifications to its manifestation.
I won’t belabor the story here. We all went through it: our own planes raining death and destruction down upon our nation’s most identifiable and important cities and structures. The towers falling, the heroic struggles, the war being waged upon our one-time allies against the USSR–all of this presaged in that dense black column that dissipated within minutes of its inception.
For months after this event, I, like so many Americans, was lost in a kind of anxiety-ridden daze. I worried about world war, about radical religious extremists wresting the reins of power from some nation with nuclear capabilities. I worried about air travel and subway cars, about doomsday plagues and about my nation falling under the sway of fascist rule. There was a deep disquiet in my heart, and I didn’t know how to get at it except by worrying about nebulous issues far beyond my immediate control.
This is, of course, how the human mind works. When we feel menaced, we try to protect ourselves by considering every possible threat that might arise. The problem in this case, however, was that there was no defense against falling jetliners, religious hard-liners and the resort to unqualified nationalism.
The thing I feared most was the healing quality that time has on the human heart. I knew that after a while I would fall back into complacency–that I would learn to accept that which I knew was unacceptable.
Thousands of dark people are dying daily in the towns and villages and cities of Africa. We in the United States know this, but it doesn’t seem to matter to us any more than a popular television show coming to the end of its run. Millions of people, maybe more than ever in the history of the world, are languishing in slavery and forced labor in Sudan and Haiti and many other countries. There are even slaves here in the United States, men and women trapped in the modern growth industry of private prisons, not to mention those caught in the traffic of forced prostitution.
Every night on every station there is some sitcom that makes a joke about what happens to young men in prison–but still we do nothing. Not only are these men raped, humiliated and emotionally shattered, but they become infected with AIDS and hepatitis C, diseases that they bring home to our communities. And we, literally, just laugh.
War and poverty, disease and hopelessness are ravaging half the world, while the other half wonders how long it will be able to stay out of the maelstrom.