As a native New Yorker, who was in the city during 9/11, the death of Osama bin Laden provides less comfort than it may for those who experienced 9/11 via the media, interpretation, and symbol. For me the experience was visceral. To this day, I have never seen a video image of the towers' collapse. I know people who lost husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, on the planes, in the tower collapse and in the rescue operations. I had friends who were on the scene. I could smell the buildings. When planes circled overhead and as ambulance sirens sounded near and far for days, my cats hid under the bed.
The shock, grief and loss were overwhelming. On the city's streets, people wept openly. Normally business-like New Yorkers made caring eye contact and comforted total strangers. Downtown, missing person notices were taped to every tree. Reading them broke my heart. Shrines, candles, and mourners settled into Union Square Park. Sharing our grief was the path to healing. It was like living in a sea of compassion. We wept for those who had died, and lost loved ones, for the angry and wounded people, who would do such a thing, and we wept for our city, for our country and for the world.
I can recall the moment my grief lifted: It happened when I went to shop at the Park Slope food co-op in Brooklyn. There I saw what seemed like a miracle at the time: people of every ethnic group, race, and religion buying healthy food together. In New York, there are many African-Americans, Latin Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Africans, Middle Easterners, Europeans, tons of folks from Eastern Europe -- and thankfully, even a Native American was there that day.
What healed my grief was being in a tolerant multi-ethnic community. The co-op is that kind of community. At its best, so is New York.
In the aftermath of 9/11, like many New Yorkers, I was stunned that our grief was highjacked for a agenda that had nothing to do with the incident, and even less to do with healing. We embroiled ourselves and drained our economy to go after the wrong guy. Even if he'd been the right guy, honoring New York's grief would have meant devoting this country's resources to support our citizens across ethnicities and races, to give people food, health care, a decent education, job opportunities, and retool our country for a sustainable future.
Now, more than a decade later, our country is turning back many societal initiatives, even as some people rejoice at the death of Osama bin Laden.
The grief we shared, and the compassion we felt as New Yorkers, have been submerged, rather than honored.
Many recognize that further violence is no solution. A putative Martin Luther King quote currently circulating has it that only love can heal hatred. While I appreciate this uplifting sentiment, let's be real. I know very few people, apart from enablers in abusive relationships, who can feel saintly love for a person behaving destructively, nor is it appropriate in my opinion. There has to be a middle position between "loving" wrongdoers, and (as a well known New York T-shirt has it), "hunting them down and shooting them." In the Kabbalah, there's a balance between mercy (similar to compassion) and justice. The right kind of justice as the I Ching says, will always be mild and temperate to prevent further excesses -- that is to say counter-attacks. If you and your friends live near ground zero, you care about little things like that.
That's why, I would've preferred to see Osama bin Laden brought to an international tribunal, rather than taken out in the night. That would have been a win for those who value fairness and justice, rather than shoot 'em up tactics. It would have helped us see the human reality of the guy who hated us. People tell me that he was a symbol. When the press purveys any image into the mass psyche, then voila! a symbol. But when 9/11 is turned into a symbol, with its "enemy," and its "heroes," we fall prey to being manipulated by symbols, and wind up as pawns in a giant chess game.
Let us not forget the "heroes" in this chess game. While tossing around terms like "evil," President George W. Bush, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, both Republicans, rushed to don hard hats and pose for photo ops with the first responders who rushed to the scene of 9/11 to save lives. Those "heroes" were yet another group of human beings used as symbols. To me, these were the blue-collar guys in my hometown.
How tragic that nine years later, in December 2010, the Republican leadership was all too ready to throw the "heroes" to the dogs, once their usefulness had passed, by denying them a decent life or death with medical care. This current leadership derides those who are ill or disenfranchised. They seek to strip the public good -- Medicare, education, health, public media and the EPA. When they were in power during 9/11, President Bush told his EPA commissioner to lie about the air quality at the 9/11 site. The same party is now gunning to gut the EPA so that the public lacks health and environmental protection.
So to anyone who has bought into all of these symbols, I have one thing to say. If you want to honor the 9/11 tragedy, forget about symbols and remember real human beings. More death and killing won't help.
Healing New York's loss entails policies that support rather than discard people, We don't need a monument to hatred and fear against people of different backgrounds. Let's help people learn to live together and cooperate, as we do here in New York. It's not about distracting us with symbols, it's about caring about real people. And it's not about grandstanding while you pick our pockets. If our fellow Americans aren't street smart enough to spot a pick-pocket, we can help you figure that out too.
Back in the time of 9/11, honoring New York's grief was the way to healing. It still is.