After 11 September: their ‘resilience’, and ours

New Yorkers demonstrated true bravery and heroism in response to 9/11. The same cannot be said for America’s political leaders.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics

Like many, I will never forget 11 September 2001. I was working in midtown Manhattan, and could see the twin towers burning from my nineteenth-floor window. Colleagues were crying; some knew loved ones were in those buildings. We were ordered to leave the office; there was talk that the nearby Empire State Building could be next. We were also told that there were no buses, trains or subways running – and so no obvious way for me and others who lived outside of Manhattan to get home.

As I hit the streets, I felt many emotions, but the overriding one was disorientation. Planes flying into skyscrapers was just surreal. The air was filled with flying bits of debris and smelt strongly of fire. People scrambled this way and that, some running. Mobile phones didn’t work, so I couldn’t call my wife. I bought a transistor radio from a shop just about to lock up, to try to learn what was going on. I headed downtown to begin what would be a five-hour walk to Brooklyn. I was going against the stream, and was struck dumb when I encountered people covered in dust, as well as cars with thick blocks of ash on top of them.

I wasn’t alone in feeling disoriented. It was truly shocking and scary, as well as sad. There were also unanswered big-picture questions, as we struggled to comprehend why terrorists had attacked and what it would all mean.

But in a matter of hours and days, a new story emerged, one that started to give people at least some solid footing and reassurance. That story was bravery. We learned of heroic firefighters, and selfless volunteers who rushed in to help. We also learned of Scott Beamer and the passengers of United Flight 93 who charged the hijackers and caused a crash that saved many others’ lives.

On a much smaller scale, I witnessed acts of compassion and generosity on the streets of Manhattan. As we crossed the Williamsburg Bridge on that hot Indian Summer day, we were greeted by Orthodox Jews with thousands of cups of water, like it was the New York Marathon, and offers of rides for the infirm. In the days following, the outpouring of support from people around the world was inspiring. Amid all the horror and tragedy, you could see that the attack also brought out the best in people.

Ten years later, New Yorkers have shown that they did not let that attack defeat them. Despite claims of ‘nothing will ever be the same’, most have moved on with their lives. And the predicted exodus never materialised.

Indeed, the people of the city have proved stronger than the authorities expected. Immediately after 9/11, various organisations – the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross, the Sept 11 Fund, among others – donated hundreds of millions for counselling services. New York City officials estimated 1.5million people would need counselling. But in the year that followed, far fewer (about 120,000) took up the offer.

A report in the journal American Psychologist, published this month, found that ‘experts overestimated the number of people who would suffer lasting emotional distress’. Estimates after the attack predicted 35 per cent would suffer post-traumatic stress; later studies showed rates closer to 10 per cent for first responders, and lower for other New Yorkers.

Thousands of therapists rushed to New York and analysts embedded themselves in fire stations across the city. But it was, in the words of one contributor to the American Psychologist report, ‘trauma tourism’. In fact, researchers found that therapists’ urgings for everyone to talk through their experiences of 9/11 often backfired: ‘They plunge even deeper into anxiety and depression when forced to relive the mayhem.’

When the White House last week produced its ‘talking points’ on how to commemorate the tenth anniversary, the theme running through the document was ‘resilience’. Resilience is a good word to describe the general public response following 9/11. Most people did not look backwards and let 9/11 define them, nor did most let fear dominate their lives going forward. But resilience has been the opposite of government policy, from George W Bush through to Barack Obama.

Resilience hardly informs the security procedures at American airports, in which everyone, from toddlers to grannies, is forced to strip down. And while every day 9/11 is further behind us, these procedures are getting more intrusive: in the past year pat-downs at airports were introduced. Your average American puts up with it, but not happily: the man who told officers not to ‘touch his junk’ became something of a folk hero.

Resilience does not describe the panicked introduction of the Patriot Act immediately after 9/11, which introduced wire-tapping and other limitations on civil liberties. The silly colour-coding alerts (like ‘orange threat level’) were not brave. Resilience does not describe the decision by officials – from Obama’s White House to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg – to back down from trying alleged terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City, for fear of reprisals.

At the tenth anniversary ceremonies at Ground Zero on Sunday, the victims of the attack will be remembered, as they should be. But public commemorations have traditionally not just recalled the past but also served as a transition towards the future, as they point to a way for us to move forward, collectively.

The problem is that the authorities today are one-sidedly stuck in the past when it comes to 9/11. From the empty ritual of playing a scratchy recording of ‘God Bless America’ during the seventh-inning stretch at Yankee Stadium to the memorials and other buildings at Ground Zero that still remain unfinished, the powers-that-be do not seem to know how to move on. In contrast, the people have expressed a vote of confidence with their feet: the local population of lower Manhattan has tripled since 2001. ‘Resilience’ may be a White House talking point, but we have yet to see a policy that lives up to the true resilience shown by New Yorkers and others on that day 10 years ago, and since.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

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Topics Politics


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