The second day after 9/11, New Yorkers were officially summoned back to their lives. Commuters flowed into Manhattan by auto and train, through tunnels and over bridges. They piled back onto the city’s buses and subways. They maneuvered around the growing number of sidewalk shrines in the shadows of world-famous landmarks like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.
In short, we who live and work in New York City spent our days in a labyrinth of prime targets for terrorists. And we were not unmindful of this.
On 9/13 I remember riding the downtown local Seventh Avenue train toward my place of employment in Chelsea. Before the cataclysm this train went to the World Trade Center; people who lived on the West Side could ride it to their jobs in the Financial District. But on that day, we all knew, the train would stop short of its usual route, because part of the tunnel was collapsed under the smoldering ruins of the towers. And on that day I saw a Financial District sort of guy — good suit, gold watch, leather briefcase — riding that train. He was trembling. He shifted in his seat and muttered to himself. He was terrified. God only knows what that man had seen with his own eyes just two days before. Other commuters stood around him, clinging to poles and swaying with the subway car. They were silent and respectful, and they clustered around him like protective angels. But the fact is we were all flesh, and we were locked inside a metal and glass thing hurtling through miles of unguarded underground tunnels.
We all knew that. Yet we got on the subway, anyway. We had to get to work.
In those first few days, rumors flew about poison gas in the subways and mysterious packages left on buses. One such rumor caused a co-worker of mine to faint from fear. She laid on the office floor moaning, and her husband had to come in a car to take her home.
Military planes guarded the city, and every time one flew close to the high-rise office building I worked in (which had given us a clear view of the atrocity) we all dashed to the windows to see if it was one of Them. I suppose you could say we were a bit twitchy.
But the point is that life is what it is, and if you lived or worked in Manhattan, you had to overcome your nerves and get on with things. “Getting on with things” doesn’t mean forgetting. It means making peace, somehow, with your own vulnerabilities.
This past Monday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg talked about the alleged plot to “blow up” JFK airport:
“There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life,” he said.
That “What, me worry?” attitude pretty much sums up Bloomberg’s advice to New Yorkers on the terror plot. As far as he was concerned, the professionals were on it, so New Yorkers shouldn’t let it tax their brains.
“You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist,” he added.
The Usual Screechers, naturally, are outraged. Michelle Malkin says non-worriers are “ostriches.” “Add NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg to the gathering of ostriches,” she sneers.
In other words, according to Lulu, if one is not living in a constant state of terror, one is an “ostrich.”
I’ve got news for you, toots: People can’t live that way. And some of us, you know, live here. And if we choose to stay here, we must expose our precious flesh to the dangers of subways and tunnels and bridges and high-rise office buildings and Muslim taxi drivers every single damn day.
But just because we are not in a constant state of mind-numbing, inchoate fear, does not mean we are not mindful of what can happen. A whole lot of of watched the worst that terrorism can do with our own eyes. We were not sitting safely in our living rooms watching a little picture on a television. We were there. We lived with it. And we lived with the shrines and the smell and the sorrow for weeks after.
Believe me, you don’t forget something like that.
We’re still living with the hole in the city. I walked by it just a couple of days ago. Nobody’s forgotten anything. People still cluster in front of St. Paul’s to read the sidewalk display about the recovery effort. There’s still a big flag hung on the front of the Stock Exchange, and another from the ceiling in Grand Central Station, where armed National Guard still stroll through the corridors.
As I wrote a couple of days ago, I’m very happy that law enforcement is watching our airports so vigilantly that even half-assed plots are nipped in the bud. I fly into and out of New York City airports from time to time.
However, I don’t see anything useful about fear-mongering. Fear does have its uses, of course. If you confront a snarling dog, for example, fear gives you that nice shot of adrenaline that might help you climb a tree to safety. But the reality of modern life is that most of the scary things we face are things we can’t run away from. If we’re going to live our lives as we choose to live them, fear is an obstacle that must be overcome. Stirring up more fear isn’t helping anyone.
Fear isn’t helping anyone but some politicians, I should say.
New Yorkers on the whole do not like it when some politician frightens us with a terrorism threat, and we find out later the threat was absurd (e.g., destroying the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch). We get annoyed when news stories hype a threat to the office buildings we work in, and then we find out the threat was based on three-year-old information. And we do not appreciate someone who lives somewhere else, who was hundreds or thousands of miles away from Manhattan on 9/11, screeching at us that we’re supposed to be afraid. And that if we’re not afraid, we must not understand the dangers we live in.
You want to step over here and say that, Michelle? Out loud? On a New York City sidewalk? You might not like the reaction you get. You should be afraid, actually.
Update 2: See Happy Furry Puppy Story Time.