I just re-read an essay I wrote (as therapy, I guess) back on September 11, 2001 and a couple days after, trying to capture the thoughts and feelings of New Yorkers after the World Trade Center terrorist attack.

It is worth remembering what the city and its people went through.

It is worth honoring the heroes and the fallen.

And it is worth reflecting on how we can deny a victory to the terrorists, back then and today, not just by apprehending them, but also by the lives we lead and how we lead them.

The original essay, Etiquette and Resilience in the Face of Calamity, is in the PeaceWorks Foods archives.  A copy is pasted below.

Etiquette and Resilience in the Face of Calamity

September, 2001

"I’m fighting them as much as I can," a pregnant neighbor told me on the afternoon of the attack, referring to her accelerating contractions. She was standing at our building’s rooftop, along with dozens of tenants staring at the dark sky where the Twin Towers stood just hours before. "This is not a day to bring a child into the world."

9-11: One more tragic mark to commemorate in the history of gross inhumanity. Terrorists caused so much pain and devastation. Along with a magnificent icon of American enterprise, they snuffed out countless lives from innocent people. They managed to paralyze the city that never sleeps, freeze the air traffic and financial markets of the most powerful nation in the world, and command mankind’s attention.

Such piercingly random pain perpetrated on so many innocent people: The sorrow of losing a fiancé you had gotten engaged to less than a month before; the anguish of searching for an unaccounted mother you had dropped off at the lobby that morning; the helplessness when a husband trapped under concrete called to say good bye for one last time. How can a human being handle the ache and indignation of hearing his son call from a plane on a trajectory to disintegration, knowing this is the last time he will speak with his son – and there is nothing he can do about it?

Learning the etiquette of a twenty-first century cataclysm has been surreal to all New Yorkers. Is one supposed to get into the habit of placing and receiving calls inquiring about survival? Is it appropriate to tell your friends you no longer wish to talk about the attack? Cell phones, generally cursed for their intrusive encroachment in our daily lives, played heroic and functional roles in this script: tracing loved ones; providing essential data amidst the scarcity of facts; granting a modicum of peace to loved ones that were forced to face closure, leastwise in a personal way.

Then there are the decisions about work. What is a CEO to tell employees? It is under these circumstances, when a team most expects leadership and valor, that many humans may have felt powerless. My team was looking to me for answers that went beyond whether to show up at work the next morning. What will come next? How can I locate my child? How could someone ever commit such atrocities – and think they will go to heaven for it? Can anyone have an answer?

Parents are most hard-pressed to explain the unexplainable to their children. When a six-year old asked her Mom at the rooftop in our building why the sky was so sullen, was it time for allegory, misdirection, or a lesson about horrid life? And when the odor of putrid air wafts up – harking back to Auschwitz’s incinerators – is her Mom supposed to explain this is how burnt human flesh smells?

Then came the guilt and ambivalence of the rain: an initial relief that New York would be able to breath as the deluging dust literally settled; then embarrassment for rejoicing, at the realization that the rain will wash out the posters and signs that thousands of restless families who are missing loved ones pasted across the city, and that the resulting mud will make rescue efforts even more difficult. Then on to faint hope that the water would trickle down and provide a respite to those stuck under the rubble.

These are the slowest, most agonizing hours in our lives. What is one to do the day after the tragedy? Does one dress in unshaved, mournful black out of respect to those who passed away? After absorbing their quota of the unabsorbable over the news, what were New Yorkers to do? Work seemed banal. Going out for a run felt superficial. Music was inappropriate. Watching a movie, an unworthy escape. One had no appetite for food. Many tried to volunteer at hospitals but were thrice rejected due to an excess of volunteers – apparently partly because there were not enough humans to be rescued from that mayhem. New Yorkers refused to stay down and sulk – denying posthumous victories to the terrorists. Frantic New Yorkers reflected frantically.

Producers at TV channels had to resolve obvious dilemmas: the show must go on, but how can it be done tactfully and empathetically? TNT and TBS initially supplanted their programming with CNN’s. All the major networks carried uninterrupted news, devoid of any advertisement whatsoever for several days. That this remarkable sensitivity and commercial forfeiture – a first in my memory – has gone unnoticed by viewers speaks volumes about the mood of solemnity that befell this nation.

The few networks that proceeded with regular programming in lieu of 24-hour news coverage ran footers acknowledging the pain of the nation. The Comedy Channel’s Daily Show, which produces a superb mock news show, tactfully passed on deriding current events, and instead aired reruns. Broadway shows closed for two evenings, then reopened with moments of silence.

Suddenly every mundane decision, every quotidian routine, becomes a referendum for life, an opportunity to revere the memory of the thousands lost to this senseless tragedy.

Senseless indeed. How can any human being make sense of this monstrosity? Using humans as the combustible to sear insane messages on America’s conscience? Is this a miscalculation brought about by colliding worlds? What objectives could these animals think they would accomplish? Generate sympathy for their cause? It cannot be. They must have known the revulsion and hatred they would provoke. Bring about a change of heart or a retrenchment from our policies or principles? Doubtful they wouldn’t realize our resolve would be redoubled.

Many say this is a matter of zealotry – hence inexplicable to most. The perpetrators’ self-righteous religious convictions made them accountable only to their perverse version of God’s will, and not to society. Such despicable acts can perhaps only be explained by fanatic martyrdom. Or perhaps their immense hatred redefined evil intent: to cause human suffering as an end in itself.

But it is too easy to dismiss the perpetrators as irrational, insensitive madmen. It is clear they did have a long-term agenda. Today’s world is media-driven, and the choreographed attacks (one after the other, designed to maximize media exposure) are evidence the terrorists recognized and craved coverage of their acts of terror. Their very objective was, at the least, to intimidate, destabilize, paralyze, and divide the leading democracy in the world -perhaps to have us turn on the values that have brought us so far.

As we start christening these actions in the traditional superlative terms of the media – i.e., the single worst terrorist act to date on American soil – we establish an unwitting race to see which bold monster will dare break the prior record.

Then we dare ask, how could this all happen to a superpower? Our very strengths can also be our weaknesses: our openness, our freedom, our tolerance for all, our devotion for due process, and our high profile.

While we must respond with all our might to bring the perpetrators – and the accomplices they hide behind – to justice, and while we must rally so that leaders and individuals of all persuasions clearly call for respect of the sanctity of life, it is important to accept that fringe suicidal terrorists will continue popping up through posterity.

But just as inescapable, those seeking to subvert our freedoms will only make us bolder, stronger, and more united as we cherish what holds us together all the more.

Terrorism only succeeds if it frightens a people into submission, if it weakens the will for freedom, and the rule of law.

It is possible some will stop erecting tall buildings as a tactic to prevent attracting terror, but we shall not shirk from building our ideals, dreams, and plans; we will redouble our efforts to build the best society ever to exist in humankind: upholding democracy, reemphasizing tolerance, reconstructing our neighbors’ homes, working together without regard to the color of one’s skin or their religious beliefs.

The greatest threat to our society is not the terrorist’s bomb, but its after-effect on our minds: the temptation to fall prey to prejudices and generalizations, to find answers in simplistic raw emotions of blanket animosity. The day of the attack, on Park Avenue South, a piously bearded Muslim man dressed in a long white outfit and headdress stared on the cement as passers-by eyed him with suspicion and contempt. That was another sad moment for New York – alas, we alone were the culprits here. He has been selling fruits at the same corner for months, but I have not seen him again since the attack. I hope to see him tomorrow, that I may buy a peach. His well being, like that of all law-abiding residents, is the responsibility (and in the interest) of the entire community.

No amount of subversion can ever bring down what makes America what it is: a country with bonds founded not on a common ethnic heritage but on ideals, principles, and values of democracy and equality. It is in this tragic hour that these values must shine the most – as they have so far, for the most part.

While smoke enveloped our skies, an air of civility and camaraderie took over the streets, increasingly adorned with flags. The streets were empty of cars, and filled with quietness and tangible sorrow. Yet every marching person had a determination and resilience that intimated, "we shall stand together." The war zone was combed by firefighters, heroic and mighty in their courage and selflessness as this generation had not witnessed before. Amidst the engulfing silence, caravans of ambulances sporadically shrieked their sirens. The streets were empty; but the sirens nevertheless scram out loud: "We are carrying one more human being and we are not going to give up."

People shared rides and asked others if they needed help. In the City of type-A personalities, all hoped they could donate O+ blood. Clothing donations and volunteering efforts were oversubscribed. No looting was reported. People of all walks of life that normally do not cross emotional paths connected, sometimes for the very first time: a Hispanic immigrant delivering food, a Bangladeshi taxi driver commiserating with a passenger, a Korean shopkeeper – stereotypically stoic – hugging a firefighter. The largest, most cosmopolitan city in the world was also its most tightly knit.

As the nights of sadness wore on, an urge to be together and soak in human warmth overtook our hearts. A tacit understanding arose that any social engagements planned before the attack no longer meant to be kept, even if planned four or five days later – not just because of the difficulties of physically reaching places, but because of the new priorities to reaffirm life, perhaps be with loved ones, perhaps reflect, but change the way we have been living.

Scheduled "cocktail parties" and "gala" dinners bowed or were transformed to "Open Houses" and "potluck" dinners: NY chic deferring to homey comfort. Rarely do New Yorkers pontificate about life, but it was implicit that amidst the heinousness injected upon our people, they cherished the surrounding humanity, kindness, and empathy.

I, recently naturalized as a US citizen, could never be more proud to be a New Yorker and an American.

We cannot bring back the thousands of lives that were unjustly taken from us. But we owe it to those we lost to live life to the fullest so that tomorrow can be a day worthy of mothers bringing their newborns into this world.

Daniel Lubetzky 2001

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