9/11 a year later

This is a hard column to write.

It's hard because I'm not sure that I should write it at all.

My editor at csmonitor.com asked me, as one of the few online writers living in New York City, to reflect on Sept. 11 a year later. But I'm ambivalent about all the reflection taking place this week.

I am not ambivalent about remembering. We have to remember the slaughter of those people, the cruel murder of civilians by terrorists. Not about the need for action – our government needs to take steps not only to increase domestic security, but to engage the wider world in a way that shows the pride we have in democracy and the disdain we have for repressive regimes who crush dissent, who torture innocents, who forbid diversity and discussion.

No, I'm ambivalent about reflecting on 9/11 itself. Reflection is what a mirror does: it takes an image and spits it back, not changing it, not being affected by it in any way. You don't see the mirror; all you see is yourself. And to ignore the losses, individual and collective, that took place on the day to spend time thinking about your own reaction to that loss seems, at best, misguided.

Even as I'm writing these words, I'm aware of committing the crime that I'm writing about. But I'm not equipped to do something as powerful as the New York Times' "Portraits of Grief" series, which brought the entire city (and probably a good portion of the country) together in glimpsing the people behind the awful statistics.

And even if I were able to take a picture of Ground Zero and post it on this website, I'm not sure that it would do a service to our memories, as the twisted and charred rubble has all been cleared: ground zero is now a construction site. It's waiting for the next thing, not thinking about the last. And I'm not sure that this isn't for the good.

Feeling insignificant in the face of all this isn't a new sensation. On Sept. 11, I headed downtown to try to help out however I could, only to find out that there was nothing for an untrained, well-meaning writer to do, except get in the way. (I was hardly alone, by the way. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers converged on downtown Manhattan, lining up for hours, wanting to help. The goodwill of the citizens of New York was a magnificent example of the heights that people rise to in the most extreme of times.)

An eerie thing, though, happened later that night, when I once more tried to head downtown, this time to volunteer at hospitals. I discovered that even those who helped people professionally for a living – doctors and nurse – had almost nothing to do, since, as everyone now knows, people either escaped, largely unscathed, or they didn't make it.

So I think, after all, there may really be nothing to say that will do justice to the enormity of what happened to New York a year ago.

What I realize, however, is that despite my ambivalence, I'm going to send in this column. Because even if the reasons I have are just rationalizations (my telling about my reactions shows an individuality that the terrorists, striking indiscriminately at Americans of any race, religion, age, or sex, hoped to efface; that, as in the Jewish tradition in which I believe, mourning is a process as much for the bereaved as for the departed, and so introspection is a natural part of the process; that America is, at its heart, not a country of silence, and that standing mute would be, in some sense, a defeat ) it seems wrong to let this anniversary go unmarked.

And so, in the end, we do reflect; we just have to try to look past that to also remember.

Jeremy Dauber teaches Yiddish Literature at Columbia University. He is also a playwright, theater director, and screenwriter. He is currently at work on his first novel.

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