Tuesday, May 3, 2011

No Revelry, No Closure

24 hours later my day began with a wrenching reaction of disgust.  The top of the San Francisco Chronicle blared out an oversized headline filling the width of the front page:

A world changed

Whom did the editors think they were kidding?  Yes, the world had changed in many ways over the ten years since 9/11.  Did they want to celebrate those changes?  Did they think that the death of Osama bin Laden would magically restore conditions to where they were on 9/10?  This was no different from the images of revelry at Ground Zero or in Times Square, as if the only way to react would be the same way we react when our team wins the World Series (which, let’s face it, is the sort of the story the Chronicle knows how to write).

Once again, I had to find more sober writing on the Web site of Al Jazeera English.  This time it was a story filed from New York by Gregg Carlstrom, but it was set in neither Ground Zero nor Times Square.  The scene was far more modest:

East Meadow, a middle-class suburb on Long Island, is home to Nassau County's September 11 memorial, the centrepiece of which is 10 granite plaques bearing the names of the 344 county residents killed in the attacks. Two aluminum towers, evoking the Twin Towers, stand over a reflecting pool next to the plaques.

Over 100 residents came there on Monday night to honor those 344 victims.  Those interviewed by Carlstrom were far more sober than the revelers, and many were reflective in the best sense of the word.  Here is how Carlstrom opened his account:

Eileen Zott is one of thousands of New Yorkers who lost family because of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but the news of his death brought little satisfaction for her.

Zott and her husband attended a candlelight vigil on Long Island on Monday night to pay tribute to her cousin, Louis Modafferi, a New York firefighter who was killed on September 11. Both seemed unsure about how to respond to bin Laden’s death 24 hours earlier during a US raid in Pakistan.

"I don't know how I feel about this," she said. "I'm a Christian, and killing isn't part of my beliefs. It doesn't bring anyone back."

Here is how he concluded:

The mood was somber, with many residents saying they needed more time to digest the news. Zott's husband John said he wasn't sure how he felt about bin Laden's death.

"It's a lot to process. It's all so sudden," he said. "We were watching Celebrity Apprentice, and suddenly the president was speaking ... it's not closure. And it drags up all these memories."

Ed Mangano, the Nassau County executive, said the vigil would be a "respectful location where we can grieve". Most of the attendees did exactly that: They lit candles, cried and reflected on their losses.

"It's partial closure, but it's never complete," said Lisa Fleming, a nurse from Nassau County who brought her two young children to the vigil. "I lost friends, lots of close friends ... and [this] will never bring those people back."

There was no sympathy for bin Laden, of course, despite the ambivalent reactions to his death. "If anything, he got off too easy," one woman said, a common sentiment in conversations across New York.

But many residents, rather than celebrating his death, opted to reflect on how bin Laden - and his actions - impacted myriad lives in the New York area. Fleming told me about a friend whose son joined the Marines after September 11; he was killed in combat in Iraq. Another woman talked about her brother, a police officer, who now suffers chronic respiratory problems because of dust he inhaled in Lower Manhattan.

There was scattered talk about a possible retaliatory attack, though few people seemed concerned. US officials say they have not received intelligence about any specific threats since bin Laden's death.

Robert Hopper, an East Meadow resident who attended the vigil with his brother, said he worried that bin Laden's death would not stop militant groups from targeting New York.

"You get rid of him, it'll be someone else," Hopper said. "You can't just kill one person. You need to get rid of the underlying problems."

Carlstrom could not have chosen a better punch line.  The problems were there before 9/11.  (No one has dared to consider how many of the people working in the World Trade Center building were flesh-and-blood versions of the fictional characters (s)he had encounter in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.  Whatever their character flaws may have been, their deaths deserved to be treated with solemn respect.  Why should bin Laden be treated any differently?)  Not only are the problems still there, they have grown to frighteningly hypertrophied proportions.  We tried to elect a President who would confront those problems head-on;  instead, he struggles to stay on his feet while subjected to an unrelenting salvo of head-butts from those determined to maintain all the degrading qualities of business-as-usual “by any means necessary.”

East Meadow gets it, the same way that those trying to earn a living fishing in the Gulf of Mexico get it and the same way that those who continue to lack food, clothing, and shelter in New Orleans get it.  What we need is a representative government that gets it, which probably means that we are sorely missing individuals in the institutions of government who take the responsibility of representation seriously.  Barack Obama may have gone into the Oval Office with the necessary seriousness of purpose;  but how must he feel if the only thing that boosts his approval ratings is the satisfaction of a national blood-lust for revenge?

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