New Humanist

Reflections from New York City on 9/11/2011

By Chris Wells

As the ten year anniversary of 9/11 approaches, an intense media blitz is in motion. To be honest, I find most of the coverage offensive in that it imposes and manipulates assumed feelings about the event without the least reflection on the real meaning and consequences of that day. I get the feeling that a particular response is expected. But my response is different.

I live in NYC and I lived here in September, 2001. We all have our stories about the day itself but I also remember an extraordinary period of several weeks after when the mood of the city shifted dramatically. We were shocked and frightened but what I remember most is the tenderness that people expressed for each other. You could feel it on the street, in the subway – anywhere in public. It was is if we had been put in touch with a profound and immediate register of the fragility and incalculable value of each human life. In this context, I remember how absurd the usual familiar aspects of daily life seemed – the advertisements for clothing or vodka on buses to give just one example. One felt viscerally, immediately:  “How ridiculous – that’s not important!”  while noticing how saturated our environment is with such messages. It was as if this huge and shocking act of violence helped us to see what (and who) was in front of us with new, clearer eyes. After a few weeks, the moment passed and one felt the pace of life accelerate again. The “edge” returned and we went back to “normal” but for me that experience left an imprint.

What is the proper response to such an act? The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, directly or indirectly killing hundreds of thousands of civilians (including children). I find this response monstrous, exponentially multiplying the violence in ongoing reverberation around the world. The official story is that these attacks were necessary to combat the terrorists. The subtext, however, is largely about revenge. So the chain of violence is perpetuated, amplified.

There is another approach. A few days ago, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group of family members of those killed in the attacks, released a statement that reads (in part):

The members of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows are grateful for the expressions of remembrance and concern being offered on the 10th anniversary of the events which took the lives of our loved ones.  On this day we ask those who feel compassion for our loss to expand their compassion to include others who continue to experience loss ten years later: innocent families in Afghanistan and Iraq experiencing the loss of their loved ones and displacement  from their communities as the result of war and political strife; Muslim-Americans subjected to bias and violence at home; those denied the protections of our Constitution and law, whether in Guantanamo or in our own country; those suffering from job loss and economic dislocation related to the cost of war and rising military budgets; and those who have seen their civil liberties and freedoms exchanged for the false promise of security.

This response – “expanding compassion” – reminds me of that extraordinary time 10 years ago when something deep and true seemed to express itself from within the hearts of New Yorkers.

Yesterday, I passed through Bryant Park, which sits right in the center of Manhattan. On the large central lawn, an exhibit has been assembled in tribute to the lives lost. It is effectively simple; 2753 empty chairs arranged in rows facing the site of the twin towers – one for each person killed that day. The chairs convey the scale of the loss in concrete terms and provide an invitation to connect, to feel compassion, for those killed and for their loved ones. But what if we then expanded our compassion to include all of the lives lost or ravaged in the ensuing chain of violence, here and around the world? How many parks would be filled with chairs? It’s difficult to imagine; but maybe it’s worth it to try – even as we re-double our commitment and efforts to comprehend and overcome the many forms of violence that plague humanity across the globe.

The statement from September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows says: “The lesson of 9/11 is that we live in a connected world. We rise or fall together.” That seems to me a fitting response and tribute to the loved ones lost on that day and in the years since.

Chris Wells: North American Spokesperson for New Humanism. Chelsea Journal Editor and professional actor. Lives in New York with his wife and two children.

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