- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

What I Did Instead

I noticed the news around 9:45 p.m. — President Obama would address the nation at 10:30 p.m. Uh-oh, I thought, then kept checking in on the Twitter parlor game of predicting what that news would be. The smart money was on Libya, which seemed logical — some escalation of the campaign against the stubbornly resistant Qaddafi. I had my laptop with me in bed, so I kept checking while the Mets and Phils continued their staredown on the TV.

Then the rumors started. Not Libya, which would almost certainly be some kind of bad news — a greater commitment of forces, tensions with allies and the U.N., political sniping about what should have been done and when — but Osama Bin Laden, which seemed a portent of something rather different, for why would the president be giving us bad news about him late on a Sunday night? The Bin Laden reports multiplied rapidly on Twitter, coming in from Cheney confederates, Congressional staffers, anonymous State Department sources and reporters with military connections until they reached the tipping point beyond which it was impossible that that many different people could be wrong: Ten long years after the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and Shanksville, Bin Laden was finally dead.

I devoted a tab on my browser to the White House feed and kept watching the game, now with about half of my attention, as the news rippled out from Twitter to the Times’ website and the AP and then, eventually, to ESPN itself. And to the crowd at Citizens Bank Park. With Daniel Murphy batting in the ninth, the crowd began chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” Murph, at least to my eyes, looked understandably baffled, and I wondered how many of the players knew, and how they were finding out, and what would happen when Obama spoke. Would they put it on the scoreboard? Would the game stop? Would Mets and Phillies stand side by side and hug, like the Mets and Braves had done in the first game [1] at Shea after 9/11 [2]?

None of that happened, even as the president addressed the world and ESPN dropped its sports crawl to repeat the news. But the announcers (including Bobby Valentine, who conducted himself so admirably after 9/11) began to talk about it, and on the screen you could see fan after fan staring at their cellphones and Blackberrys instead of looking at the game. Normally such a sight provokes annoyance or derision, but this time it left me almost in tears. You could see people’s faces when they read the news and when the information stopped being letters and words and became something real. You watched them show their phones to their seatmates who hadn’t known, or who just wanted confirmation. You saw joy and amazement and pride and sorrow and everything else.

I didn’t know quite what to do. I saw tweets and Facebook updates from people I knew. Some were climbing to their roofs in Brooklyn to gaze out at lower Manhattan, which those of us who were here will always see with a terrible double vision, remembering it disfigured by smoke and ruin and electrical stench. Some people I knew were heading for Ground Zero, where a crowd was gathering, or Times Square, where an amazing photograph [3] captured firefighters from the FDNY — an agency which lost an incomprehensible 343 firefighters that day — gazing at BIN LADEN KILLED on the ticker.

My first impulse was to go, to join the crowd, to walk down Liberty Street and see it impassable because of celebration instead of disaster. To bear witness as best I could. And maybe that’s what I should have done. Maybe I’ll regret it tomorrow, just as I regret that I didn’t head into lower Manhattan with a pen and notebook that morning long ago.

But I didn’t go. And I don’t think I’ll regret it. And here’s my fumbling attempt at explaining why.

On Sept. 11, 2001 I’d worked in the World Financial Center, catercorner from the Trade Center, for nearly six years. The walk from the A station at Broadway and Fulton to 200 Liberty Street was so familiar to me that I knew every square in the sidewalk — for instance, there was one near the Millenium Hotel that had an abnormally large concentration of mica in it that glittered when the light was right. I’d walk down Fulton and jaywalk across Church to the Trade Center Plaza, passing by the huge flagpoles and trying not to be nervous on windy days when the padlocks would bash themselves against the poles and clang like out-of-tune bells. Most mornings I’d cross the plaza, which accuracy compels me to admit was huge and dreary, and exit down the steps by WTC 2. Long before 9/11, I’d sworn not to become jaded about walking to work through a scene most people only knew from movies and postcards. I didn’t like the Twin Towers much, honestly — I thought they were outsized and cold — but I did like the way the steel formed trident-shaped structures at the base, becoming nearly human-scaled close to the ground. I’d often rap on the steel of WTC 2 as I passed, sometimes nodding at the tourists lined up for the elevator to the observation deck so far above. It was mostly habit, but also an acknowledgment that I worked and lived somewhere extraordinary, and that I appreciated it.

On the morning of Sept. 10, 2001 I took that walk for the last time. Less than 24 hours later those places were gone, along with so much else that we wondered if we could bear it. So many people were dead, and I knew so many more would die, before it was over.

I’d meant to go in early, then hit the snooze alarm multiple times. The impact with the first tower woke me up, but I sleepily convinced myself it was a truck going over one of those metal plates laid down in roadwork, and put my head back down. The impact with the second tower woke me up again, and this time I stayed awake — because I could hear people screaming. I watched the unimaginable, awful rest of it unfold on TV. I remember I kept shivering and couldn’t get warm, even though it was a beautiful late-summer day.

I was lucky on 9/11. I wasn’t there. No one I knew was killed, though colleagues of mine sent out to the street saw terrible things, things I know they will bear the awful weight of until the end of their days. They literally ran for their lives as the towers crumbled; our office building was ripped open by hurtling I-beams and filled with dust and powdered glass. We would rendezvous in temporary quarters outside Princeton, N.J., which would be our home for the next 51 weeks. Faced with a dreary commute made uncertain by terrorism closures and rumors, I’d stay in New Jersey for two or three nights in a row, then go back to Brooklyn. I got in the best shape I’d ever been in, flying along on the treadmill with my feet pounding out fear and anger. I also drank in the hotel bar until things went black far too many nights. I wonder sometimes how much damage that kind of hysterical overdrive did.

None of this, of course, is more than an infinitesimal disruption compared to those who had mothers and fathers and children and friends and neighbors taken from them, murdered by a madman half a world away. But at the same time, it was not nothing.

Nor is it nothing that our country changed, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, horror stories about renditions and interrogations, an erosion of civil rights and the rise of a security apparatus that taps our phones and peers at our email and endlessly pursues obsolete targets at increasingly demeaning airport check-ins, all at an exorbitant cost. The character of our nation has changed, as we see it and as our friends and enemies see it. We will argue for generations over whether or not these changes were necessary and what harm they did us, but none of us involved in such arguments will ever remember how things used to be without regretting that time’s passing.

After 9/11 I wondered if I should leave New York. After Emily and I had a son 14 months later, I wondered that anew. Could I stand to live in the foremost terrorism target in the world? Was it insane to raise a child there? But we stayed. And almost against my will, I came to love New York in a way I never had before. Which leads me back to tonight.

Yes, part of me wanted to go to Ground Zero, to mark the occasion. And I smiled and nodded at the scenes of celebration there. But I decided not to go.

I thought of my son, not yet born on 9/11 and now sleeping safe and sound a room away, and said a silent but grateful thank-you to the brave men and women who had done so much to make it so. And then … I got back to watching the Mets game. I have a book deadline this week, so I organized some material for the final push there. There was Sunday laundry left to be done, so I kept the washer and dryer running through their cycles. But mostly I watched the game. I cheered on Pedro Beato and everybody’s new favorite Met Ronny Paulino and Taylor Buchholz and whooped when the Mets trooped off the mound victorious [4].

I’m glad that the Mets and Phillies kept playing, that the patriotic cheers were spontaneous, that there was no stoppage of the game for the president or anything else. The Mets and Phillies had a game to play, and they played it until there was a winner. People in the stands cheered for their team — men and women together at a sporting event, even the unveiled and unmarried, drinking beer and holding up signs and painting their chests and eating cheesesteaks and engaging in all sorts of foolishness. I cheered for my team at home. For the most part, I did what I do. For the most part, the people in the stands and on the field did the same.

When Osama Bin Laden murdered 3,000 people, it was a Tuesday morning on a warm late-summer day. Ten years later, I heard of his death on a pleasant spring night. I followed news of his demise via a technology that didn’t exist on 9/11, while my son, just just a vague imagining in September 2001, slept 10 feet away. Where the towers once stood, new towers are visible above the cityscape. Life has gone on in ways big and small, while this obscene murderous theocrat hid in caves and compounds, behind blast walls and barbed wire. He met his end on a Sunday night in America, during baseball season, with everything he sought to disrupt and ruin continuing without him — as it has for some time with him. Living as we have and as we wish and as we will is the best revenge.