On September 25, exactly two weeks after the World Trade Center attacks, my aunt Judi died of breast cancer in her home in Milburn, New Jersey. Unlike the thousands who unknowingly went to work on Tuesday the 11th, my aunt knew that the end was near. After doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to her liver, she underwent five weeks of emergency chemo. It didn't work. When I got the news that she would be going home to die, I knew that I would be going home to New York to grieve.
As soon as I walked into Midway, and witnessed the barely muted chaos of the new 'security measures,' I realized that there would be no way to separate my family's loss from the country's loss. Three thousand New Yorkers died in the World Trade Center. My aunt's death suddenly, strangely seemed like one voice in a chorus of despair. Time and again during the weekend -- over lunch, at the wake, in the parking lot outside the church -- talk bounced back and forth between the impossible tragedy of my aunt's death at 40, and the impossible tragedy of September 11th. There were flags everywhere in New York, from bodegas to buses to adult video stores, so it wasn't terribly surprising to file into the pews only to be met with a comically large flag draped across the balcony. As much as we would claim the disaster in lower New York as our own, attach our own grief to this greater grief, this flag seemed to signal the converse. Our grief would be claimed by America. When I picture the funeral in my head, I see mostly the flag. As we drove away from the church, my mother leaned in and solemnly informed me that we had had to leave promptly so they could start the second funeral of the day-a local resident who had worked in the Twin Towers. When minutes later, I saw a funeral procession of equal length enter the other of the cemetery's two gates, I knew instinctually why they were there.
With the deluge of commentary and punditry that has accompanied the events of September 11th, it scarcely needs to be repeated that our lives will never be the same. But that weekend, it also seemed possible that death may never be the same. As the hours dragged on, and the mourning showed no signs of letting up, it somehow seemed like that death had been the most radically altered thing of all.
While my uncle and parents went to the first night of the wake, my brother and I stayed at my uncle's house to watch over my cousins. Tommy is seven, and Danny, my godchild, is nearly three. In the past week they had not only lost a singularly devoted mother, but had, by some cosmic accident, become members in a class of over 10,000 children whose parental units had been sliced in half, or destroyed altogether. As I tucked Danny into bed he looked up at me and asked "Where mommy bed go?" I tried to explain it had been taken to a special place. "Where!?!" "Right around here." "WHERE!?!" I had no answer and some part of him knew that there was never going to be a satisfactory answer. Where did mommy's bed go? Where did the towers go? We cannot say. We tend to conceive of loss spiritually: the absence of a person's personality, their essence gone - but loss is always, at its base, physical. A person's cells and atoms are taken away from us. They cease to have a place. Just as the World Trade Center ceased to be a place.
My aunt Diana lives in Greenwich Village. We talked about lower New York at the wake and she said that the stench (what Dianne Sawyer referred to as 'acrid') was still unbearable. "New York is depressed," she said wistfully. Not New Yorkers, New York. It is always tempting to conceive of the city as an organism; it has nearly all of the features of a conscious being, a complexity that rivals our own neural networks. And now this organism was suffering. One needed only look up to the skyline to understand this suffering. The Empire State building, a powerful limb that once proudly grabbed the sky, now appeared a delicate and slender neck shirking towards a guillotine just slightly out of view.
I asked my friend if he thought New York was depressed. "Definitely" he said "The other day I saw this woman almost get hit by a cab. Some guy yelled ''Watch yourself, Ma'am!' and she stepped back and the cab screeched to a halt and everyone stopped and stared at her blankly. You just knew no one could have borne to watch this woman get hit by a cab." On the day of the attacks Mayor Giuliani was asked how many causalities there were. "More than any of us will be able to bear," he responded gravely. More than we can bear. What is more than we can bear? Can my uncle and cousins bear the loss of a wife and mother? Can a city bear the loss of hundreds of its firefighters? Those words of Giuliani's, lauded for their eloquence, are empty. We now know what the losses are, and both my uncle and New York know that they must be borne. But how? How to bear it?
In the past several weeks I, like countless other New Yorkers and Americans, have found solace in the epic acts of heroism displayed by the firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers who have risked their lives to save others. My aunt's neighbors displayed a quieter, more quotidian heroism in her final weeks, setting up a cooking schedule so that a fresh dinner would always be delivered, taking turns watching the kids, and even lending my uncle a new coffee pot when his broke.
Standing outside the house and gazing at the orderly lines of trees, circled with pink ribbons, I realized that people are overwhelmingly thoughtful and altruistic towards fellow members of their 'community'. Cruelty and indifference are nearly always directed towards those who lie outside the community. The trick is figuring out where exactly the boundaries of the community should lie. What has been so magical about the American response to the WTC attacks is the rapidity with which the entire country has become a coherent community. The morning that those planes hit the towers, the vast majority of the over 300 million Americans felt rough visceral anguish, a kind of anguish that we usually reserve for those we know. We found ourselves shedding tears for those who, hours earlier had been strangers. Now they were neighbors. At their best, this is what the ubiquitous American flags represent: a nation and community that are now coterminous, an enlargement of our empathic abilities that is nothing short of miraculous.
But the grief that Americans feel for other Americans, the care and support we extend towards the victims' families all take place within the physical and metaphorical borders of a global empire that is too often unconcerned with the grief of hundreds of thousands of other 'victims' families' who live and die outside of our community. How many Americans even know that our country murdered a civilian in Sudan in 1998? On August 20th, 1998 there was some Sudanese father who woke up, kissed his family goodbye and went to work at a pharmaceutical company, only to be blown to smithereens by an American cruise missile. The fact that we did not explicitly intend to kill this man does not mitigate the pain his family must have felt, nor the does it mitigate the lack of emotion that it stirred in me when I heard the news. As heartening as the flag as a symbol can be, we are required to ask ourselves why our community should stop at the border? Why can't we muster tears for those who die tragic and painful deaths in remote places? How can we grieve for everyone?
A founding principle of the liberal philosophy to which most of the Western world subscribes is a belief in the universal equality of all people, regardless of contingent affiliations like religion, nation, and ethnicity. A community of all humankind. The problem, of course is that the more you expand the boundaries of the community, the less membership in the community actually means. I am very proud to be a New Yorker, and many are proud to be Americans; but few, if any are proud to be human beings. In fact, multi-national corporations and multi-national religions, such as Islam, provide the broadest level of community membership that retains any real significance in the contemporary globalized world.
Community itself is defined negatively as often as it is defined positively. A community requires both an inside and an outside, so to speak of a universal community is to speak of a chimera. But being in New York last weekend I saw that there is such a thing as a community of mourners. Loss, no matter the cause, can unite the bereaved. And in a world in which death and tragedy are too-readily available, perhaps this can oddly function as the content for a global community.
There will always be, at any given moment, a fellow human being dying a death that is worthy of mourning. It is an uncomfortable psychological fact that we cannot mourn for everyone, that is obvious, but the aftermath of the WTC suggests that our empathic abilities are greater than we might have thought; our community, the global village, is more vast than we could have imagined. We have shown that we are able to empathize on the same visceral level with people from New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and we have seen the footage of mourners in Germany, England and elsewhere. So maybe the limit to our ability to feel the suffering of others is not as circumscribed as we may hope it is. Maybe we can shed tears for a mother who died today in Kabul, or in Hebron or in Baghdad.
If there was ever a community with the ambition to be a community of the world, it was New York City. On my final subway ride of the weekend I boarded a packed car with a middle-aged gentleman wielding a clarinet, pushing a shopping cart loaded with a stereo. He began to play -- first 'God Bless America' (the stereo blasted an arrangement while he played the solo melody). Next came 'New York, New York.' After he finished his second song, a woman leaned towards him and said "How often do you do this?" The man replied, with great difficulty, "I don't speak English." Everyone on the car applauded.