|« A Life Worth Dying For||Lower Manhattan, Our Gettysburg? »|
September sparkles in New York City. In my neighborhood, Columbia and Barnard students have moved back into their dorms and fill the sidewalks, and the kids in my apartment building are wearing heavier back packs. In a city where so many people are Jewish or, as a friend says, Jewish-ish, the Jewish New Year is a further reminder to cast our bread upon the waters, ask forgiveness for our sins and begin anew.
For nine years now brilliant blue skies and balmy early autumn weather also have been a reminder of how things can go terrifyingly wrong in an instant.
Each of us carries our own response to the trauma of the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Even for those who lost a loved one, that response is highly individual; there are dueling groups of 9/ll widows, and Nicholas Kristof reported September 8 that at least two women who lost their husbands that day having been aiding widows in Afghanistan for whom, let?s remember, there is no fund of compensation and the specter of the Taliban.
For those of us New Yorkers whose loss was less immediately personal (only one of the victims was someone I knew slightly), the trauma has diminished. The bag I packed with its bright bandana, flashlight, mylar blanket and who knows what else in case we had to evacuate Manhattan has been disassembled. The stockpiled gallon bottles of water under the kitchen table grew dusty and began to disintegrate. The nightmares that woke me in a panic for a couple of years have ended; my psyche seems to have come to my rescue with a dream in which all the occupants of the Twin Towers slide down an interior chute to safety before the building collapses.
Still, as I remember, my eyes well with sadness thinking of the children who will never again see a parent, the dust-covered survivors and the weeping, shorts-clad young people who gathered at a candle-lit memorial at the Unitarian Church of All Souls. Death is a trap door that confounds our expectations, the late Forrest Church, who presided over the service, often said.
For us the living, much has changed. Armed guardsmen now patrol Penn Station. A plane trip anywhere involves the tiresome ritual of removing our shoes and revealing the contents of our luggage. Signs in the subway alert us that our backpacks may be examined. New York City police retain the names of the nearly 500,000 people they stop every year, even though ninety percent of them are innocent.
The sprawl of security agencies has grown to 1,271 government groups and 1,931 private ones, as Dana Priest and William Arkin reported in a July series called "Top Secret America" in the Washington Post. "The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work,? they report.
Nationally, the Patriot Act took away more individual freedoms. Just last month, 37 year-old Nick Merrill became the first person to succeed in partial lifting a national security letter from the FBI that had bound him for six years. Under such letters, which replaced traditional judge-signed subpoenas in terrorist investigations, individuals were required to hand over information while revealing to no one that they had received the letter. In a triumph of reason over fear, Merrill sensed that his Constitutional protection against unfair search and seizure was being usurped and consulted an attorney who suggested they contact the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued successfully. (About 50,000 of these letters were issued annually under the Bush Administration, and the Obama Administration is seeking to restrain the excess without giving them up entirely.)
And then there are the incursions we?ve launched in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 in the War on Terror, which the Obama administration has thoughtfully renamed the Overseas Contingency Operation. Small price, you may say, for no more successful terrorist attacks on American soil. But might this be overkill?
I couldn?t bear to watch President Obama deliver his version of Mission Accomplished on August 31 while leaving 50,000 Americans behind in Iraq. At least he didn?t jet onto an aircraft carrier in a flight suit like George W. Bush, but it felt artificial anyway. As the Associated Press?s Tom Kent put it more delicately, ?To begin with, combat in Iraq is not over, and we should not uncritically report suggestions that it is, even if they come from senior officials.?
Two weeks ago, I was shopping in Times Square. While waiting for a clerk to return with a needed item, I looked out the store?s glass-plated entrance to see that Forty-second Street had been emptied of wheeled vehicles and was filled with pedestrians. (Think New Year?s Eve without the merriment.) When I finished my transaction, a security guard said that an unattended package had been discovered on Seventh Avenue, which intersects Forty-second. Apparently, the bomb squad found it to be harmless. As quickly as it had left, traffic flowed back into the street, pedestrians took to the sidewalks, and I entered the subway, shaken, for the trip home.
Perhaps had I not just finished Gary Shteyngart?s dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story, it would have felt less ominous. Shteyngart was born to Russian Jews in the former Soviet Union where he spent his early childhood. Since I?ve never lived in a failed state (discounting the faded Confederacy) reading Shteyngart?s novel helped me imagine previously unthinkable consequences to trends of our society?the obsession with technology, the quest for longevity, even immortality; constant war with small nations, diminishing literacy and, especially, the consolidation of personal information by the state.
Fortunately, this is a love story, even if the object of desire is a twenty-something shopaholic. Even more fortunately, Shteyngart is both wry and clever. But he did make me think that all our foibles may not come out in the wash, and if the Soviet Union could loose its mojo in Afghanistan, we too?
Choose as your enemies carefully, Forrest Church liked to say, for you will become like them.
In my next post, I?ll have more to say about the Rev. Dr. Church, who died last September 23, the day after his birthday.