Sept. 11, 2001, will forever be etched in the consciousness of all living Americans, but assuredly in a unique way for New Yorkers and Washingtonians. In New York, a variant of the question, “Where were you when the lights went out?” is asked and pondered citywide. For me, the answer is “just one train stop away from my office.” From that moment on, everything changed. As many editors stayed periodically tuned in to the community television set on the sixth floor of America House, the atmosphere assumed a surreal quality. There’s no question that the heinous acts of terrorism witnessed that day have a profound impact on us all—albeit in different ways and levels of emotional intensity. But New Yorkers were united in a common pain, a shared trauma, a singular witness to an atrocity whose magnitude defies the imagination, let alone categorization.
On a fresh air break at about 11:30 a.m., I was literally taken aback by the throngs of people—five and six deep—on the sidewalks of the Avenue of the Americas. It seemed like St. Patrick’s Day on Fifth Avenue, but without the parade. Most of them were evacuees—not just from downtown but all across the city. Banks, office buildings, shopping malls, transit systems closed up tight, brought to a screeching halt. And speaking of screeching, the near-constant drone of sirens, a commonplace in this city—something to which New Yorkers are impervious—was a recurring reminder of the devastation that engulfed New York. And sirens blared throughout all the boroughs of the city.
Anticipating a long walk home over the 59th Street/Queensborough Bridge (the outer crossing of which had been reopened some time after lunch), I planned an early exit from the office. Just before leaving the building, however, I learned that limited service had been restored on selected subway lines. So I explored that option first, of course. My back and arthritic knee thank you, Lord, that I was able to catch a train at Fifth Avenue. No matter that the hour was 2:30; it may as well have been 5 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day—such were the crowds. In any event, though an overly long commute, it was eerily comforting. Despite the large number of commuters of all ages and stripes, the somber silence underground was actually palpable. People’s faces said it all: fear, disbelief, profound anguish, a collective sense of rape. We were one, connected.
Then followed a bus ride. I fell into line behind a high school boy who immediately asked me, “Did you hear what happened at the World Trade Center today?” Clearly, people wanted to talk with others. This was a terror that couldn’t be dealt with in solitude. There were both cellphone-toting business people and students riding the bus, usually the perfect recipe for clamor. I had a seat in the front, near the driver, a perfect vantage point from which to scan the horizon, as it were. The same stillness, quiet and somber reflection I encountered in the subway prevailed on that bus.
There was a woman across the aisle from me holding back tears as she spoke with a fellow passenger. As I overheard things, her son is a police officer whose precinct includes the World Trade Center. She was recounting a telephone call he managed to get through to her. He told her not to cry, not to worry about him. He was “honored to be here [helping on the scene].”
I could not return to the city the next day. There was a need to pray in church and reflect. During the brief walk, I witnessed many houses flying the Stars and Stripes and was overtaken with a sense of pride and sadness, all at once. It will be a long while before the numbness thaws. But in the meantime, and for all time hereafter, we have seen once again the spirit of New Yorkers at their finest and bravest. This horrific situation requires us to summon every ounce of faith and strength to rise above, to resist the human-animal impulse to seek revenge. It requires the civilized world to stand with us. God, it is very, very hard. We need your help.