by Peter Howe

September 18, 2001 - I have lived in this city for nearly twenty-three years. Most of the time I’ve loved it, and some of the time I’ve hated it. It’s that kind of a city, one of extremes, one where the middle of the road is where a taxi runs you down. I have never missed New York City like I did during the week following the carnage and destruction that was visited upon its southern tip.

If I hadn’t gone to see my mum in London after attending Visa Pour L’Image in Perpignan I would have been home on the Sunday, but mum is nearly ninety-two, and although in remarkable shape, needs all the TLC that she can get. So I stayed with her for two days, and on Tuesday, September 11, I boarded a plane eager to get back. We took off at 2 pm Greenwich Mean Time, 9 am Eastern Standard Time. An hour out, somewhere over the Atlantic, the pilot came on the PA to inform us that US airspace was closed and that we would have to return to Heathrow. It wasn’t until we landed that we learned of the unbelievable story that was devastatingly real.

The rest of the week was spent calling United Airlines, watching television, and reading newspapers and trying to stay in touch with New York as best as possible. There is a special kind of frustration and stress that comes from separation, from not being a part of something that is happening to a part of you. Even after finding out that my loved ones and friends were safe I still wanted to be there, to be doing something, even if it only involved hugging and crying. However there was consolation in the reaction of the British people to the disaster. It was immediate, heartfelt and enveloped anyone from the United States. Assistants in stores asked if you and your family were OK, flowers, messages and candles piled up in front of the US Embassy, and people lined up for over an hour to sign the book of condolence. On the Friday after the attack three minutes of silence were observed all over Europe. In London people stopped whatever they were doing, wherever they were doing it. Traffic halted in even the main thoroughfares as drivers stood by their cars. Television and radio were silent. For me it was especially moving as I watched my old country offer sympathy, solidarity and respect to my new one.

An hour later a service of remembrance was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s has a special place in the hearts of Londoners as being the symbol of British defiance during the Second World War when it stood unscathed amidst the smoke and destruction of the Blitz. It is a beautiful Wren building that holds about 2,000 people at a push. The push that day involved over 10,000, most of whom heard the service relayed to them over speakers as they stood outside. When the Queen emerged she had tears in her eyes, something that I think was never seen before in public. The previous day she herself had ordered that the band of the Brigade of Guards play the Star Spangled Banner at the daily changing of the guard in front of Buckingham Palace. Again this was unprecedented.

As I describe these extraordinary events I realize that you probably know about them already. You know about them in the same way that I know about Rudy Guiliani’s remarkable press conferences, and the volunteers lining up to give blood, most of which tragically was never needed. In the same way that we both know what Osama Bin Laden looks like, or at the other end of the humanity spectrum what a New York City Firefighter looks like after working twenty hours straight at Ground Zero. We, and the rest of the world, know this because journalists reported these stories. We, and the rest of the world, know this because journalists were also working twenty hours straight at Ground Zero, also breathing the foul air through masks, and also needing counseling for them maybe to come to terms at some point with the horrors that they witnessed in those awful hours. For once in this world of inverted values in which we live, Peter Jennings was more important than Jennifer Lopez, camera crews and photojournalists more valuable than Yankee outfielders.

I hate the term “the media”, a term that is nearly always used pejoratively nowadays. It is too broad a brush with which too many ordinary, hard working journalists are tarred. Of course there are bad journalists who abuse their positions of trust, but I don’t think proportionately more than embezzling bankers or corrupt politicians. There are also editors who, in the scramble for readers, sensationalize the already sensational. But to hear it told “the media” is responsible for all that ails this country, whether it’s too right wing or too left wing, too patriotic or too cynical, too isolationist or too interventionist. We’ve taken the rap from the left for George W. being elected, and from the right for Hilary’s rise to Senator. What is rarely heard, however, is an acknowledgement of the good that journalism does; an acknowledgement that journalists risk their lives to bring information and understanding out of chaos and danger; an acknowledgement for showing to the world that brave and resilient people live in New York City, and all the other places on our troubled planet where courage and fortitude are required; a recognition that a free press, however bothersome it may be, is one of the foundation stones upon which our democracy is built, and whose vital role is acknowledged in the constitution. If there ever is a coalition of states dedicated to fighting terrorism it will be in no small measure because of the images that people around the world saw and that appalled them and motivated them to do something about it.

Around town there’s a lot of talk about getting back to normal, although, as one of my friends pointed out, New York was never normal in the first place. That’s always been one of its charms. New York normal isn’t the same as Minneapolis normal, but having said that we are nowhere near achieving even that limited state. As I write this, military helicopters are thundering overhead, there are police on every midtown corner and police and the National Guard downtown. The most painful and abnormal feature however is the missing person flyers that are pasted to walls, street lamps, on panels in Grand Central Station, in Union Square Park, in front of hospitals and anywhere that desperate people hope their loved ones will be miraculously recognized and returned to them. The photographs on the leaflets are heart wrenching: wedding pictures, vacation pictures, fathers playing with children, friends drinking beer on picnics, young people looking at the cameras with all the optimism appropriate to their youth.

There is a frequently expressed determination to never forget the events of September 11, 2001, and it is certain that those who lived through them never will. As with the assassination of JFK, everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news. For those Americans like myself who were very far from home at that time, the connection to the violation of our country and its citizens through the scenes that we saw on television and in the newspapers was both horrifying and vital. Those images not only told us what happened, but prepared us for our return, especially if we were returning to New York. The people of this city owe a huge debt of gratitude to the firefighters, police, construction workers, emergency medical personnel and all the other rescuers who toiled endlessly in conditions of indescribable horror. To this list of heroes I would like to add the journalists, whether they work in television, print or on the Internet. We owe you a large thank you as well.

© 2001 Peter Howe

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