|Of Tourists and Hyphens
When television coverage of the smoking World Trade Center tower began a few minutes before nine that Tuesday morning, my first thought was (I swear to God): "How conveniently timed to catch the news cycle!" My wife and I were holding our two-month-old baby as the scene unfolded. We heard President Bush's highly inflected Texas drawl over the phone from some elementary school in Florida as we watched both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center billow black smoke, announcing that it could not yet be confirmed whether "tourists" were responsible for the fires in those buildings.
"Tourists?" I remember thinking, before my brain processed the word into its more violent syllabification. "Why would the president suspect this was the work of …" Then a jumbo jet flew through the second tower, a plane crashed near Camp David and the commander-in-chief's voice was heard from some undisclosed and airborne locale as a scrambled flock of planes zigzagged him back to the White House.
That day unreeled as if in a bizarre editing room: the film spooling back and forth, the towers keeling over again and again, the explosive cloud of asbestos and concrete dust chasing people through the canyons of lower Manhattan, the announcement shortly afterwards that somehowdeus ex machinathe culprits were being identified as al Qaeda operatives (in one day!). Those visuals were accompanied by phone calls to other rabbis and Jewish professionals in the Raleigh area, solidifying into a plan to follow the local police recommendation to avoid any public gathering that day or the next, coming together only for the city-wide memorial gathering Thursday night. Other churches were holding impromptu prayer services and opening sanctuaries for support, as we would also do later that week, and quite a few Jewish people in our area questioned our decision to wait. But because we all had been through the quite remarkable presidential election-that-would-not-die that put George W. Bush in office, being asked to wait a few days seemed unremarkable.
Besides, why did we need a Jewish response? My reaction those first two days was as an American. Although I had previously spent a year studying in Jerusalem, where downtown bus stops were targets of machine gun spray and a bus I frequently rode to the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University was blown open like a sardine tin one day when I stayed home to nurse a painfully acute case of "Absalom's Revenge" I reacted as had all Americans: we had been attacked.
All those years we hyphenated-minorities agonized over our status as Jewish-Americans or American-Jews disappeared that day, because when American citizens and institutions were in the crosshairs, even a professional Jew like me did not think for a second to separate myself from the community as an "outsider" or "objective observer". We, ourselves, had been attacked.
The 9.11 attacks came just a week before the Jewish New Year, when rabbis are expected to deliver tour-de-force sermons. Only the day before, a colleague moaned that she had no idea what to talk about this year, and how much she envied the vast majority of rabbis who had finished their sermons in prior months. I had predicted that she would surely come up with something. I was sure that I would think of something, as well.
And then September 11 happened.
"Not again," I thought, miserably. This was to be my third High Holiday season in Raleigh: the first one was preceded by three hurricanes, including the devastation of Hurricane Floyd. The second had been concurrent with the outbreak of Mideast violence that has since come to be known as the al Aqsa Intifada. And now this.
"Will it never end? Am I doomed to preach about cataclysmic destructive events each and every year; events that won't be ignored, but are so newly minted that I can never manage to say anything coherent and insightful about them?"
Anger boiled over in my sermon, try as I might to control it. I was taken to task by my synagogue president, forced to apologize before the entire congregation for the colorful language I used in characterizing the situation. I spoke of the parallel between the birth of my son and the possible birth of a new world upon the ashes of another's destruction. Perhaps racism, religious factionalism, the discriminations based on language or wealth or sexual status might be overcomepermanentlyin sort of a grand unification of forces at temperatures high enough to melt concrete floors and reinforced steel girders. What would be the long-term legacy of such horrific acts of terrorism?
As time has passed since those days, life has returned to its normal fragmented self. Throughout the periods of the minivan flag obsession, anthrax-of-the-month club, "Quran-o-Mania", the war in Afghanistan, and suicide bombings and retaliations in Israel, I have once again been separated off from many facets of society by standing in a particular vantage point. Although it seemed at the time that the destruction might trigger permanent change, bickerings have returned. Callousness and cynicism have crept back. Even Realpolitik and lack of backbone in the face of terrorism seem to threaten a comeback. With each passing week, newly ground lenses seem to perch themselves before our eyes, preventing us from seeing backwards or forwards with any clarity.
But all of us who lived through that day saw the lenses blown from our faces. We saw all adjectives and hyphens disappear: in the face of "tourist" threats, there are no African-Americans or white people, no Democrats or Republicans, no liberals or conservatives. When a cloud of vaporized victims threatens to suffocate you, no one is handicapped or athletic or southern or yankee; there are no gentiles or women or homosexuals. We were hardly even Americans for awhile, as the flags of 50 nationalities whose citizens worked in the twin towers appearing in the newspaper proclaimed, just humans who were being attacked by a threat as deadly as Vesuvius.
Despite the encouragements to go back to normal, to go back to New York as tourists (I still cringe at that word) or to buy stocks and plan for the future, I, for one , will lovingly cradle that moment in my deepest heart of hearts, for on that most unusual Tuesday when the walls fell, ALL the walls fell. Barriers that separate people into enclaves and fiefdoms disappeared, if only for a brief, breath-catching moment, and that's got to make some kind of difference.