September 8th, 2003, 07:44 AM
9/11 Still Strains New York Psyche
September 8, 2003
9/11 Still Strains New York Psyche
By N. R. KLEINFIELD and MARJORIE CONNELLY
In the second year of living with the memory, the simmering disquiet persists, a lengthening shadow that won't leave.
Twelve more months have passed since 9/11 and yet the antidote of 365 more days has left most New Yorkers feeling no safer, no more convinced that the terror won't come back. The narrative of that day is older now, but the city still feels its amplitude. It is as if the populace has stalled in its march toward fully being itself again.
A New York Times poll of 976 adult New Yorkers, taken last week, underscores how much lasting damage 9/11 inflicted on the city's psyche. Two-thirds of the people questioned said they were very concerned about another attack in New York, slightly more than felt that way a year ago. In their routine moments, New Yorkers indicated, they are thinking and talking less often about the terrorist attack than they were a year ago, but the subtext of discomfort is every bit as intense.
In measure after measure, the sampling found New Yorkers trapped in the same state of queasy normalcy that they found themselves in in the more immediate aftermath. There continues to be a minority of people who avoid the subway, stay away from skyscrapers, sleep fitfully, find new solace in religion. Many people still get teary at the memory.
A core group of people nearly one-third of those questioned said that their lives have still not returned to normal, as they continue to wrestle with the imprint of that day. For several poll respondents and other New Yorkers who were interviewed, the reverberations of 9/11 have become an unpleasant continuum.
Flora Muca, 37, who lives in Brooklyn and does the bookkeeping for her family plumbing business, said she basically functions fine, but the fear won't lift. "Honestly, I think it's going to happen again," she said. "My idea is they wait until it slows down and everyone falls asleep again."
Her 14-year-old daughter just started riding the subway alone to school, and that alarms her mother. She got her a cellphone. "Every time I pass a bridge, I still panic," she said. "A tunnel? That's worse. Get me out of there."
Her sister recently moved to Texas from New York, and the Mucas think that in about a year they will, too.
For anyone in the city, September no longer arrives the same way. The date has become communal property, and has given the month a new signpost. It is no longer simply the month when the sedate rhythms of summer wind down and the hazy heat of August yields to the impeccable weather of fall. It is no longer the month of Labor Day picnics and the return of school buses as ceremonial conclusions to the season.
It is the month of 9/11.
As the second anniversary approaches, much has happened to sort through two wars, continuing job losses, a blackout, car payments, kids going off to college, all the confusing exigencies of life and something important did not happen, a second attack on the city. And so it can be hard to untangle the precise forces that shape this mood.
Many New Yorkers, in fact, feel renewed and intensely devoted to the city. "You get little spots here and there that bring it back," said Lisa Petta, 44, a paralegal supervisor who lives in Manhattan. "But I'm fine. It seems like it was so long ago."
Unexplained disturbances, though, can throw her off guard: was it terrorism? It happened to Ms. Petta during the blackout. She works at Consolidated Edison and is unaccustomed to her office lights going off. "But I don't dwell on terrorism," she said. "I still go on the subway. I go into high-rises. I love New York. It's my home."
In the poll, conducted by telephone from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4, a new question was asked: how many people felt that the changes wrought by 9/11 would have a permanent effect on New York? Roughly 60 percent felt there would be an enduring impact, and just as many felt it would be negative as felt it would be positive.
Two years later, there remains little confidence in the security measures meant to protect the city's infrastructure. Two years later, most New Yorkers feel the city is unprepared for a biological or chemical attack that might contaminate the air or the water. Two years later, New Yorkers feel the city is as vulnerable as ever.
Finding the Courage to Open the Blinds
People evolve at their own speed. There is no deadline.
Jay Jimenez, 38, was sitting in the plaza of the trade center, waiting for his bank to open so he could check on a deposit. Then the planes came and his world went wrong. Debris struck him on the face. Something pierced his right knee.
His lacerations healed, but he was not the same. He had nightmares that brought him to tears. He had to call friends in the middle of the night. He was afraid to go higher than the 11th floor of any building, the height he determined that a cherry picker could reach him. He was afraid of Manhattan. In his Staten Island apartment, he kept the blinds down on the windows that faced Manhattan. He couldn't even look at it.
Two years later, he still talks about 9/11 every day; he no longer works in Manhattan, but on Staten Island, as press secretary for State Senator Seymour Lachman. "I used to equate one phrase with September, because I went to parochial school crisp air and uniforms," he said. "Now I can only think 9/11." He still keeps American flags flying from his window and his apartment door, even though a neighbor recently complained that he ought to remove them, that he was being jingoistic. Mr. Jimenez could be excused in his insistence. Half the people polled reported they continued to display flags or wear flag pins.
"I know I'm going to think about this for every day for the rest of my life," he said. "I worry about terrorist attacks every day."
But he also sees signs of personal progress. He has opened the blinds in his apartment. He still prefers not to go to Manhattan, but he can look at it.
The blackout didn't unnerve him. He checked on his neighbors. He was out on the street directing traffic until one in the morning, taking charge, thinking of others rather than his own demons. "I feel I've come a long way," he said.
Still, nightmares continue to interrupt his sleep: images of people blowing themselves up. Nearly as many people as a year ago, the poll found, suffer from restless nights.
Mr. Jimenez had a recurring dream two weeks ago. "I was in my parents' house and there was this sound downstairs and the TV was on and my parents were watching it," he recalled. "I heard the announcer say this latest attack far outdoes the attack in Lower Manhattan. I was trying to decipher what this attack was and then someone burst into the house and killed me."
But he copes. "I don't wake up crying like I used to," he said. "And I don't call my friends in the middle of the night."
A Search for Finality in a Mote of Dust
Diane Horning finds her destiny at a garbage dump. She visits the Fresh Kills Landfill on the western shore of Staten Island. She does not want to go there. She feels she must. It is the only place she believes she can pay her respects.
Her son, Matthew, who worked for Marsh & McLennan, died in the towers. Little of his remains was found. She believes the rest, along with the remains of many others, lingers in the finely sifted dust at the landfill. She wants that dust retrieved, put in proper environmentally safe containers and buried as part of the foundation of the trade center site. She does not know if it will ever happen; she feels the odds are long. Unless it is done, she will continue her periodic pilgrimage to the landfill from her home in Scotch Plains, N.J.
She recognizes that much else is in that dust. "We would rather bury part of a pulverized desk from the trade center because it couldn't be separated," she said, "than bury our loved ones in the garbage because they couldn't be separated."
People, she said, don't seem to realize how little of the victims the identifications has been returned to parents and spouses. "Some of the widows carry their identifications in a film canister in their purse," she said. "It's that little."
She heads up an organization, WTC Families for Proper Burial, comprising hundreds of people who feel the same way. The group meets once a week at the library in Union, N.J.
Not achieving the finality that she feels is only right has kept her in limbo. "It makes us focus every day not on what my son did in life, but on what happened to him after death," she said. "Every day it takes its toll on us."
The stress pounds away at her, and on others in the group. She said she has developed a bleeding ulcer. She never sleeps more than a couple of hours a night. "I've shattered some teeth from grinding them," she said. "I can't tell you how many of us have eyes that twitch. Mine do sometimes. A lot of us get mysterious headaches. I feel worse two years after than I did a year after."
She went to Fresh Kills with two other families about a week ago. The bugs were awful. She returned this past Friday. She brings flowers dahlias once, daisies another time. There's no good place to put them. She flings the stems into the expanse, hoping some of them find the right spot.
Seeking 12 People Free of Anguish
Days go by like days always went by. Still, 9/11 can sneak up on you, catch you unaware. You go to perform your civic duty, and run into it.
Jury duty in broiling summer weather. Supreme Court 111 Centre Street. Thankfully air-conditioned justice. The prospective jurors filed into the courtroom for the voir dire. First the judge explained the complexion of the case. Two men seated right there at the defense table, nonchalant, eyes lidded have been accused of defrauding several 9/11 charities. If anyone feels unable to fairly weigh this case because of 9/11 and its myriad aftershocks, the judge instructed, please come forward.
The line formed quickly several dozen people.
"I knew someone in the towers."
"I live near ground zero, and had to be evacuated."
"I still can't sleep, I still see the people jumping."
Then, three people in a row, unable to get a word out. They stood before the judge and cried. Nothing more was necessary.
Excused. Excused. Excused.
A Network Forged From Common Hurt
The anniversary as reunion. It is that way for some. Cantor Fitzgerald, the name everyone remembers, the 658 workers lost. Shortly after the tragedy, the company held a memorial service in Central Park. Then again on the first anniversary. Another is scheduled this year people expected from other states, other countries and the company intends for the tradition to go on year after year.
Among those attending will be William Doyle, 56, from Staten Island eight years retired as a stock trader but for two years now a 9/11 missionary. He lost his son, Joseph. He felt compelled to become an information source for the families and the injured. He built a database, more than 5,000 names, just about everyone with direct pain from that day. If there is any news relating to 9/11 matters, he sends e-mail messages to the entire list, advises families, fixes things.
"There are still so many problems out there," he said. "Everyone's problem is my problem. I've become like a unique social worker. In Japan, they gave me a translator. Japan has 26 families. I've got California. I've got Canada. Canada lost 28 people. I get 250 to 400 e-mail messages a day."
The work has helped him absorb his own loss. It looms in his yard, the memorial that stands outside, his son's picture in a shadowbox. A candle is always lit. For a year, Mr. Doyle tended a real candle, replacing it every other day. Then he switched to an electric one, which burns on by itself.
The work has various rewards. He has made friends he would never have made. It is one important way he tries to heal. He mentioned a Brooklyn couple who lost a child on 9/11. The two families really enjoy each other, and are going together to Las Vegas in October.
Back to Business, Except for the Ghosts
Billowing clouds overhead. Jostling crowds on the sidewalks, licking ice cream cones, sipping Burger King sodas, peering into emptiness. Some of the onlookers seemed deflated by how little there was to see, other enthused. After all, they were there.
Ground zero itself, the 16 acres, the air thick with the past, the nexus of homage and rebirth.
Tall buildings were to come back, but unity on the redevelopment plan remained elusive. A quarter of the people questioned in the poll disliked it. Remarkably, with all that has been said and shown, close to half still felt they had not heard enough to say what they thought. Ground zero as question mark.
Commerce had resumed around the perimeter. Remember Brooks Brothers? Right there at 1 Liberty Plaza, facing the fallen towers. The mannequins flopped on their sides. That horrid gray dust coating the preppy suits. In the days after the attack, body bags of remains were hauled in and stacked in the fitting rooms.
Could the shop ever sell suits again?
It could. Shoppers pushed in. Some were tourists, in need of the bathrooms not clothes comes with the territory. The store reopened on the afternoon of last 9/11 same place, some of the same faces.
Out on the floor was Antonio DeJesus, 38, a salesman. He was the first one in on the morning of the attack. He made one sale, to a businessman who needed a tie for an interview at Cantor Fitzgerald. He was in a rush, but Mr. DeJesus had him consider tie after tie, until he found the perfect "power tie" to complement his suit and land him that job. Mr. DeJesus wondered if he had made the man late.
Last November, the businessman reappeared at Brooks Brothers. He mentioned that some salesman had saved his life on 9/11 by having him try on extra ties.
While the store was closed, Mr. DeJesus worked at the Brooks Brothers on Madison Avenue. He wanted to return to Lower Manhattan. The day the store reopened, he and Jackeline Davis, a co-worker, stood in the middle of the store; together they said a prayer for the dead. "We prayed for the souls," Mr. DeJesus said. "We made peace with the past."
From then on, he said, he looked forward, never back. He rubbed his chin, stared out the window at the site. "To me, it's like those towers were not even there," he said. "There's nothing's there. It's a hole. I'm back to normal. Sometimes I'm in here selling and I just forget it ever happened. It's another day in the city."
Ms. Davis, 33, looked a little askance. "Listen to you," she said. "I haven't heard you talk like that. I don't know, I think women are affected differently."
She was back selling shirts, her life resumed. "I'm moving along," she said. But she feels more haunted than Mr. DeJesus.
She said she believed that spirits of the dead dwell in the store. The other workers indulge her, refer to "Jackie's ghosts." They've heard her evidence. She lost a stone from her wedding band one day and she prayed to the spirits: "Guys, help me find my stone." She walked along the carpet and there it was.
Sometimes, shirts tumble inexplicably from the cubbyholes along the walls. People keep tripping over the third step in the staircase to the second floor. She believes a spirit rests on that step and trips people it dislikes.
"Because of that day, there is something here," she said. "There is a presence."
And that is 9/11 two years later, ghosts and missions and an unknown tomorrow.
Two years ago, Mr. DeJesus sold a power tie and perhaps saved a man's life, but he was done with that story. A man approached the register with a striped tie and Mr. DeJesus rang it up $57.03.
There was a fine drizzle outside, and a mist twinkled over ground zero. Mr. DeJesus told the man: "Thank you. Come back."
How the Poll Was Conducted
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
September 8th, 2003, 08:03 PM
I read that piece in the Times today at lunch. The item about the prospective jurors somehow really got to me. Great piece.
September 8th, 2003, 10:32 PM
I know. Frankly, if I were in their position, I don't think I'd be able to rule fairly either.
September 11th, 2003, 09:29 AM
September 11, 2003
TWO YEARS LATER
Jobs, Tourists and Nail-Biters: Taking the City's Pulse After 9/11
By ERIC LIPTON and MIKE McINTIRE
At St. Vincent's Manhattan Hospital in Greenwich Village, tape holding the posters of the missing is now brittle and the images are fading. Relatives and friends put up the display in the days after the attack of Sept. 11.
It's two years later. New Yorkers are taking more antidepressants. They fear they will be the target of another terrorist attack. They are still staggering from the jobs and money lost after the last one.
It does not come as a surprise that a statistical snapshot of the city after the World Trade Center attack produces more grim numbers: bankruptcies up, Broadway attendance down, the fact that of all the nation's securities jobs lost in the past two years, four-fifths of them came out of Manhattan. These numbers are mere hints of the incalculable pain caused by the human losses.
What is amazing is that there are more than a few numbers that offer reasons for hope.
Unemployment is beginning to head down. Subway ridership which tends to track ups and downs in the city's general health is strong. And, perhaps most surprisingly, the apartment buildings at Battery Park City, the community just west of the World Trade Center site, are all but full.
Since the attack on the World Trade Center, people have found it harder to make ends meet. In the 12 months before March 2001, 23,700 individuals filed for bankruptcy in the New York City area, according to the Administrative Office of the United States District Courts. In the year ending March 2002, 26,260 individuals filed for bankruptcy. In March 2003, the figure rose to 28,966.
The attack pushed already nervous investors firmly into pessimism. On Sept. 10, 2001, 1,274,909,598 shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange. On Sept. 17, 2001, when the markets finally reopened, 2,367,954,572 shares were traded. That day, the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 7.1 percent to close at 8,920.70, a one-day drop that pushed the Dow to 20 percent below its peak, a traditional indication of a bear market. These days, investors are feeling more confident. Yesterday, 1,498,456,000 shares were traded and the Dow closed at 9,420.40, down 86.80.
Measures of what was lost on Sept. 11, 2001, still trickle into the history books.
While it stood, the World Trade Center was large enough to be its own ZIP code: 10048. Andrew A. Beveridge, a professor of sociology at Queens College, analyzed Census Bureau data on business activity from 2000 (the most recent year available) broken down by ZIP codes. He found that while only 55 people lived in 10048, made up of the seven buildings of the World Trade Center, 31,149 people worked there. Those people were paid an average of $101,006 in 2000, the highest income per worker of any ZIP code in the city. (The average pay for all New York City workers was $59,448.) The $3.15 billion earned by trade center employees was more than 1 percent of the entire payroll of the New York City metropolitan area.
The federal government is paying about $3 million a month in Social Security benefits to people affected by the attacks. Most of the payments go to the 2,375 surviving children and 853 surviving spouses of people killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Benefits are also being paid to 498 people disabled by the terrorist attacks and 81 of their dependent spouses or children. In addition to the monthly payments, the Social Security Administration made one-time payments to 1,800 members of victims' families.
The work of identifying the dead continues. Last Sept. 11, the office of the chief medical examiner listed 2,801 people as missing and had identified the remains of 1,402 people. As of Sept. 5, 2003, it listed 2,792 missing and had identified remains of 1,521.
The New York City comptroller's office says that it cost $582 million to clean up ground zero.
There was a hunger to understand what had happened and why, and publishers raced to fill the need.
According to the Bowker's Books In Print database, 760 books have been published about 9/11. (For each book title, Bowker's counts every form - trade hardcover, mass-market paperback, large-type editions - as a separate published book.) Of these books, 724 are still in print, Bowker's found, and 39 of the hardcovers made at least one best-seller list. And it isn't over: 40 more 9/11 books have been announced for publication in 2003 and 2004.
Subways were stilled after the attack, and even when they ran again some riders stayed away for a time. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in August 2001, people took subways 4.41 million times. In September 2001, there were just 4.12 million trips. By September 2002, the system were mostly back to normal and the riders had returned: 4.70 million subway rides. In June of this year, the most recent figure available, there were 4.58 million rides.
ON THE WATER
With much of the region's mass transit system paralyzed immediately after the terrorist attack, New Yorkers rediscovered an old but reliable means of getting to and from Manhattan: ferryboat. Ridership on private and city-operated ferries doubled, from a pre-Sept. 11 weekday average of about 65,000 to more than 130,000 two months later, according to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, the Port Authority and the New York City Department of Transportation. Ferry regulators say ridership has remained at about that level and are likely to increase as more routes are added.
The total number of firefighters and officers in the New York City Fire Department on Sept. 10, 2001, was 11,327. A year ago, the count was 11,270. On Monday, it was 10,751.
According to the mayor's office, the Police Department head count at the end of July 2001 was 39,895. In the same period last year, it was 38,900. This July, it was 37,354.
The terrorist attacks had a profound impact on how the Federal Bureau of Investigation views its mission. Though staffing at the F.B.I.'s New York City office remained relatively stable at about 1,100 agents, the number of those agents assigned to antiterrorism cases has increased three-fold since Sept. 11, 2001. (The F.B.I. would not release the exact numbers because of security concerns.)
Two years after the attack, New Yorkers are still walking on eggshells, according to a New York Times poll of 976 New York City residents, conducted Aug. 31 to Sept. 4. When respondents were asked whether they generally felt safe from terrorist attack, felt somewhat uneasy or felt in danger, 18 percent said they felt in danger and half said they felt uneasy. Only 29 percent said they felt safe. And 68 percent said they were very concerned about another terrorist attack in New York City.
Federal aid committed to New York for rebuilding efforts has dipped to $20.8 billion from $21.4 billion in the past year, and the amount that the city has actually received so far stands at only a fraction of the total: $5.6 billion.
The passage of time slowed, but did not halt, the flow of contributions to charities created to help victims of the attacks. The Sept. 11 Fund has made $126 million in grants during the past year, compared to $336 million a year earlier. The New York Times Company Foundation's9/11 Neediest Fund made $4 million in grants through August, compared with $58 million the previous year.
In the weeks following the attacks, people raced to donate blood, though much of it was never used. The Red Cross collected 1.2 million units of blood nationwide between Sept. 11, 2001, and Oct. 30, 2001 - far more than the current rate of about 380,000 units for a comparable time period.
One million fewer tourists came to New York City in 2001 than in 2000 (35.2 million vs. 36.2 million, according to the city's tourism office, NYC&Company). Last year, things seemed to improve marginally; the preliminary figures showed 35.3 million visitors. And this year, an estimated 35.9 million tourists will walk the city's streets.
But many more of these tourists are from elsewhere in the United States, and American tourists don't stay as long or spend as much money. Foreign tourists were 18.8 percent of the total in 2000; they are estimated to be 15 percent of the total this year.
Broadway still has not recovered from the shock. In 2001, before the attack, Broadway theaters were averaging a total audience of 231,484 a week, according to data provided by the League of American Theaters and Producers. But the week beginning Sept. 16, 2001, drew just 65,155 patrons to Broadway theaters. By the week of Oct. 21, 2001, attendance broke 200,000 again, at 218,266. For all 2002, the weekly average was 219,356. And in 2003, through Aug. 3, the average has been 213,201.
Before the attack on the World Trade Center, the 237-year-old St. Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church, in the shadow of the twin towers, was not routinely open to the public. But after the disaster it served as a round-the-clock sanctuary for weary rescue workers, serving up to 2,000 meals a day. St. Paul's has since opened itself to visitors, who number about 12,000 a week and are curious to learn about the chapel's role in the disaster.
The Census Bureau says that it is too soon to count how many people moved away from Lower Manhattan after the attack on the World Trade Center. The best it can offer are estimates for Manhattan, which lost some residents; the number dropped from 1.549 million in 2001 to 1.547 million in 2002. But the entire city's estimated population rose slightly in the same period, from 8.062 million in 2001 to 8.084 million in 2002.
Despite all that's happened (perhaps because of it), apartments downtown are in demand again. CitiHabitats calculated that before Sept. 11, 2001, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment below Chambers Street was $2,582. This dropped to $2,321 in October 2002. By July of this year, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was back up to $2,460. (The July average for all Manhattan one-bedrooms was $2,195.)
Commercial real estate is not doing as well. William C. Thompson Jr., New York City's comptroller, just reported that from the beginning of 2000 through the second quarter of 2003 there has been no significant construction of new office space in Lower Manhattan. And the vacancy rate has increased. In the second quarter of 2001, downtown Manhattan had a vacancy rate of 6.1 percent, slightly better than the Midtown rate at that time, 6.4 percent. In the second quarter of this year, downtown had a vacancy rate of 14.3 percent, compared to Midtown Manhattan's 11.9 percent.
At the World Financial Center, a complex of offices, stores and restaurants west of ground zero, Brookfield Properties said, 45 retailers were in business before Sept. 11, 2001. Though the center suffered serious damage when the towers collapsed, at the end of last month , 34 retailers were in business.
In the 2001 edition of Zagat's New York City survey, 92 restaurants were listed in the financial district and TriBeCa. This dropped to 74 restaurants in the 2002 edition. In 2003, the number increased to 81 and the 2004 Zagat's, which will be published in mid-October, will list 82.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
December 21st, 2007, 10:26 AM
December 21, 2007
Legend conjures up those 9/11 fears again
By David Stanke
People racing on foot to find a way off the island of Manhattan; military vehicles taking positions around the city; historic bridges destroyed; the futile efforts of a population to escape an unimaginable disaster: these are the visions of I am Legend. The latest movie featuring the destruction of Manhattan is not simply frightening. It reached into my gut and reignited the embers of 9/11 induced fear, irrational fears that I thought had burned out.
Most survivors of 9/11 were subject to some degree of post-traumatic stress syndrome. It manifests itself in overwhelming fear at the mere possibility of disaster. In December of 2001, for instance, a fire alarm went off in a Maryland movie theater. As the only person to leave his seat, I was prepared to climb over the rows of complacent people to escape. People in our neighborhood cowered for years at the standard roar of airplanes overhead. During the steam pipe explosion in Midtown six years later, people phoned family Downtown to prepare for evacuation. For many of us, the legacy of 9/11 is to expect the worst.
Potential disasters have dominated the public discourse in recent years. Weve seen planes hitting buildings, people jumping to their death, and buildings collapsing over and over again. Politicians have warned us that the threat is real; even certain. Weapons of mass destruction, biological agents, global warming, drug resistant infections, tsunamis, and illegal immigrants: all these are used to ignite the fears that will motivate the population into action. How many attacks did Giuliani say have been stopped? I dont know of one that seemed viable. We just know that we had better be afraid.
On the corner of Church and Liberty Sts., a couple recently approached me: Where is Ground Zero? I paused to consider. Is this a trick question? Directly behind me in plain view, if I am not mistaken, are 16 acres of empty land visibly and audibly under construction. What more are they possibly expecting to see, smoking ruins, perhaps? The land behind me once evoked pain and fear with every glance, and every glance stretched into a gaze. Now I look the visitors in the eye and point over my shoulder. Right there. I look back to confirm that it is still there and to understand what they saw that prompted their inexplicable question. I look back to them with no fear; smile and cross the street.
While running along West St., I used to glance nervously at the Statue of Liberty. I could not escape the thought that this target would be destroyed before my eyes. Intellectually, I knew it was unlikely, but emotionally, I was prepared for the worst. With time, emotions catch up with intellect.
I recently watched a 9/11 Truth video with footage of the worst of 9/11. It is sad certainly, but it no longer possesses me to run to my kids. But if the reality of 9/11 does not terrify me, how can I sit in Madison Square Garden, fighting the sinking feeling of despair, while watching a Will Smith movie? Is Hollywood really that good?
There is a measure of comfort in a known event, even a terrible one. We understand the dynamics, how it unfolds, and what we would need to do. If airplanes hit a building and you survive the initial impact, you have a high probability of survival. Get under cover. Get to your family. Grab essentials. Move quickly and calmly. Evacuate.
But in the face of a real disaster, or one that appears real, I still cannot control the despair. I feel it when I read about the human flights in Sudan, Ethiopia, or Iraq. Any picture of a man carrying a wounded or critically ill child can start it. A video of a bombed out village, a flooded village, or an occupied village can do it.
Even when not personally at risk, despair invades me. The experience of 9/11 trauma has connected me to the plight of humanity. For 40 years, I lived in a world where the downside was not that bad. Much of the world lives closer to the edge of real disaster. I understand the fears that these people endure every day. Perhaps it is not fear that shakes me, but empathy with the reality of the human condition.
Some say everything changed after 9/11. In reality, only our perception changed. A low probability event like 9/11 felt like a real possibility. Worst case scenarios can happen. With time, our consciousness reassesses the risk and we adjust to new realities. Our fear fades. But our emotional memory persists.
How can a fictional and unlikely movie strike such strong emotional cords? Zombies on viral steroids are not real. We may be frightened, but we can walk away laughing. But millions of people evacuating their homes, praying for survival; this really happens. And I know, in a small way, how it feels. And watching it happen, even in a fictional movie, is still disturbing.
David Stanke lives and writes in Downtown Manhattan. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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