By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA
I can’t seem to write much in September of this year without thinking about the terrible events of ten years ago. On a fine fall morning, I stood on 6th Avenue, just south of Houston Street, and watched the building I worked in burn. Lower Manhattan was shrouded in surreality. Around me, my fellow New Yorkers had heads in hands and mouths agape.
While this year’s 9/11 is a milestone, an awful lot has happened in those ten years. Our country has been involved in two wars. There have been sundry international crises and economic good times and bad times. There have been political scandals and celebrity burnouts. There have been winter and summer Olympics. There has been the historic election of President Obama. And, of course, each of us has lived a decade of a personal life, about 13% of an entire life span.
While I acknowledge the tremendous import of that day, I’m afraid the psychological repercussions have knocked us in the wrong direction. Here we are in the fall of 2011 and folks still speak so fervently (even obstinately) about moments in their lives ten years ago. The tragedy of the World Trade Center remains foremost in their minds. The New York Times had an article last month about those who still haven’t returned to work. They continue to be traumatized and on disability. And come this 9/11, I expect the media to bring us the now-familiar images, along with new ones to mark the occasion.
Three thousand people died that day, each a precious soul, but twice that many of our military have died in our wars of response. Some five thousand Americans die each year in alcohol related traffic accidents, and around the world, that old villain tobacco kills many thousands more.
Can we move past that September morning? I think part of the problem is the inability of Ground Zero to lose that name and become lower Manhattan again. I remember returning to work downtown in 2003. I was located in the World Financial Center at the Hudson River’s edge and each day I walked around the great fence that zoned in the construction quadrant. Tourists, both foreign and domestic, flocked to stare; taking pictures, not of what was there, but of what once was and no longer is. These visitors behaved as if at a shrine, rather than at the financial center of the world.
The progress of reconstruction has been a crawl, what with haggling between politicians, aggrieved survivors, and real estate interests. This drama is overseen by the courts, and with all of the lawyers involved, further delays are assured. The great hole in the ground remains.
My reaction to 9/11 has always been a bit different than most. Even while I cried and lamented, my wife and I were proud of and thankful for our city’s response. New York showed its greatness in the aftermath. There was a sad-eyed kindness about the city that I had never experienced before. We were all hurting, but we didn’t take it out on each other. We pulled together. And the intrepid rescuers and cleanup crews who converged on the ruins inspired the entire nation. To borrow from Winston Churchill, it was New York’s finest hour. That was my lesson of 9/11 then, and it still is today: Brave people can overcome unspeakable tragedy.
So while I mark the dark anniversary this year, I do so with an attitude. After all, if that September morning was a collective crisis, so too is the current state of affairs in our country. There are those among us now predicting the fall of America. We are a sinking ship. But as I recall, they said the same thing ten years ago when the buildings, symbols of our might, were cruelly destroyed.
I think we need to act today like New Yorkers did back then. Each political party and each of us, from every nuance of the political and social spectrum, we need to be more like the varied pieces of glass that form a beautiful mosaic and less like accessories to Number One on the worst dressed list.