On September 11, 2001, our country - for just a moment - stopped functioning. In the wake of the attacks on lower Manhattan, amid the smoke, fires, stench, and rubble, those who were left breathing staggered to their feet, emerged from the subway, or sank to their knees, depending on their proximity to the World Trade Center. Across the river in New Jersey, everybody watched in disbelief as the city seemed to cave in on itself. The rest of the country was glued to their TV sets in shock and horror. It was in those few seconds after the second tower fell that New York City was silent for the first time.
Of course, being the US, this silence didn't last very long. Reporters were on the scene within minutes, the President was whisked away in Air Force One leaving us to try and figure out what had happened on our own, and our media juggernaut replayed shots of the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers over and over again, as if to try and convince themselves that it had actually happened. Before long, pundits had gathered to analyze the incident, interviews with prominent individuals were held, and the President finally landed and made his predictable "we'll hunt 'em down, so help me God" statement. The morning was capped off by Congress singing an impromptu rendition of "God Bless America". It was touching. Amid all of this insanity and newly revitalized patriotism, however, certain voices were drowned out. Evidently the media felt that the cops, waitresses, security guards, busboys, shopkeepers, firefighters and office workers who were killed, injured, or nearly killed or injured in the attack were not educated enough in foreign affairs to be asked for their opinion. Although reporters often asked them how scared they were.
Predictably, it didn't take long for our government and media to turn this tragedy against the working people of New York City into an apocalyptic battle between good (us - naturally) and evil (them). Our government officials know an atrocity when they see one - they've committed enough of them. They also know how to manipulate the emotions of their citizenry, and al Qaeda played right into their hands. If President Bush had planned it himself, he couldn't have come up with a better excuse to launch a military action in the Middle East. A couple of rousing speeches later, and once the shock wore off, the American people wanted blood.
There was something unsettling going on just below the surface of our sudden lust for vengeance. The government had somehow managed to turn our tragedy into a catalyst for its own agenda. The international community heard the voices of our so-called elected leaders - "America is strong, America is great, we will overcome this tragedy and root out the evildoers who want to take away our liberty and destroy our way of life," - and off they went, leaving the voiceless to pick up the pieces of their own lives. Other than a few sound bytes and frightening shots of people covered in white dust, the voices of the security guards, policemen, firefighters, and office workers who suffered in this attack were quickly drowned out by officials, pundits, and media bombast. Our misery was summed up on the nightly news by an endless montage of the Towers collapsing to a schmaltzy, underscored soundtrack. Within days the media focus went from domestic turmoil to international intrigue, as if the domestic trauma would wrap itself up as neatly as a CNN documentary. In reality, people were wandering around a decimated ground zero for weeks, showing each other their "missing" posters and asking if anyone had seen their brother, sister, husband, or wife. They traded descriptions, hung more pictures when the old ones faded, lit candles, and cried.
While our government was busy deciding which small, Middle Eastern country it was going to bomb back into the stone age, the working people of New York City were struggling to show a brave face to the world, to keep up that good old American optimism that we are so often ridiculed for. "We'll find him," a sister would tell an NBC reporter, "it's just a matter of time." "My husband is very strong," a wife would assure us on the nightly news, "they'll get him out." The word "denial" is not in our vocabulary (we prefer to think of it as "having a positive attitude"), but it hung in the air as thick as the stench of jet fuel over lower Manhattan. Six months after the attacks, the workers of New York are dealing with massive lay-offs, the loss of loved ones, and the new creepiness of ever-present helicopters flying over the city.
Our president is busy annexing all non-cooperative Middle Eastern countries under the title "Axis of Evil", and drawing criticism from the rest of the world, which resents his presumption that the Russian Federation and the EU will go along with everything that he does. Milosovic is on trial at the Hague. In other words, life has gone on. We got the bad guys, and our government has moved on to an even more grandiose agenda, more confident than ever that they will prevail. For the working people of New York City, however, the future is still much more uncertain.