How 9/11 Changed New Yorkers

[Retrospective essay by Adrian Brijbassi published in the Sept. 11, 2002 edition of “The Record”]

Everybody was okay. Me, my wife, our friends and neighbours, the few family members we have here. Friends and relatives had been calling since morning. No one was hurt, I told those who were able to get through on the phone lines; all of us were safe. Later in the day, professional acquaintances began to make contact. They were mostly reporters looking for first-person accounts from Canadians living in or near New York. I couldn’t give them a harrowing story on Sept. 11th, and I am as grateful for that now as I was back then, when I awoke to learn that the twin towers of the World Trade Center had each taken a bullet in the form of a passenger plane and had crumpled on a pristine Tuesday morning that would have been routine if not for the unfathomable machinations of 19 disturbed men.

As we tend to do when huge events halt life, I sat frozen in front of the television. I was barely able to watch and at the same time could not help but. Seeing the carnage happening 35 miles away from my home, then getting glimpses of the catastrophe at the Pentagon and the crash site in Pennsylvania, all I could do was worry fretfully about what might be next.

Since then, life in America has been about repair; individually and collectively, physically and psychologically. For me, it has been easier than for others. Having lived in New York for six years now, I suppose I am fortunate to have no roots here. Then whom might I know? Who might I now say I had known? As such, my life has returned to that “normalcy” politicians and psychologists felt was so important to attain after the attacks. My circumstances, I realize as I reflect on the past year, are not all that unusual. The fact is, Sept. 11 marked the most significant event in my lifetime and that of my generation, but it is not the most significant thing to have happened to us as individuals. For me, it would be my immigration from Guyana to Canada when I was five. For others, it might be a marriage, or parenthood, or the passing of a loved one, an accident or brutal event of another sort. As such, I don’t think I live in an America now that is very different from the one I was living in on Sept. 10. There is less optimism, certainly, more wariness and a broader global perspective. But many of us have not changed, and there is good in that as well as bad.

In my case, the good is I’ve returned to being generally optimistic and rational, a stark contrast from the way I was in the days following Sept. 11. The terrorists left me paranoid and, I understood later, traumatized. I work for Newsday, a large newspaper that covers Long Island and New York City, and in the days following the attacks my job was to edit and help package the work being produced by our staff and the wire services. Facts and images had to be scrutinized, meaning constant immersion into details of the crisis, from the aftermath, to the search for survivors, to the fluctuating death toll, to thoughts of war and what the consequences of retaliation might escalate to. Like most people, I ruminated on the threat of a subsequent attack. In doing so, I aimed to outthink the terrorists. Where might they attack next? When? How could I be prepared? Realizing I was clueless, I attempted to stay clued in at all hours of the day. When I was through reading about the latest news at work, I returned home to watch CNN to know immediately if any of the stories had advanced for the worse.

Eventually, time smoothed the extreme thoughts and fears, and my mind was put back into a place where I could deal evenheadedly with what had happened. In making that return, though, I failed to hang on to the positive changes that occurred during my brief moments of insecurity, and I’m not alone in that.

The behaviour and attitude of almost everyone around me had shifted towards a more conscientious, thoughtful demeanour. New York and its surrounding areas suddenly had become populated by people who had been spared. Men and women spoke in a manner that was congenial, not competitive. We asked strangers about the health of their families and gave money generously and all but begged to be allowed to lend a hand. We let each other change lanes and excused an honest, absent-minded mistake and performed other niceties that would have seemed miraculous for the general citizenry here days earlier. Of course, there were incidents of the other extreme also. Acts and threats of violence occurred against Muslims. Even those who, to the ignorant, looked like they might be Muslim weren’t safe, as East Indian restaurants were vandalized and Sikhs were fired upon. However, so many of us migrated to the other way of thinking that it seemed we had managed to find a higher plane in the most dire of circumstances.

My great change was going to be the end of criticism of America. Knowing that hatred of the United States had spurred such heinous acts, I promised I would never say another bad word about this place that allowed me the chance for a good life. Canadians spend a great deal of time and energy castigating America for its penetrating hegemony, greed and parochial policies. Growing up in Kitchener, I learned early on that a large part of being Canadian is not being American. The concept doesn’t work the other way around, of course. Canada is take or leave for the majority of Americans, who don’t learn about us because they don’t have a need to. That leaves us feeling small, a smallness that often turns unattractively smug and supercilious. I know that most of us felt proud and relieved to hear and read Canadian broadcaster Gordon Sinclair’s glowing homage to the United States that made its way around the Internet last summer. In calling Americans “possibly the least-appreciated people in all the earth,” Sinclair’s words had resonance. Overlooked, I think, was the fact that his message, which aired in 1973 and dealt with the devastating Mississippi River floods, remained so apt because Canadian attitudes towards the United States haven’t changed.

To do my part, I decided I was going to shut up and be grateful. We bought an American flag, went to observe a peace rally and spoke reverently about the patience of the Bush administration. Then came Enron, and the Winter Olympics, with Canadian hockey claiming gold over Teams USA, and the accidental bombing of Canadian soldiers, and the president’s refusal to sign the Kyoto accord, and now the impending war on Iraq that seems to have more to do with lifting Republican hopes for senate re-election in November than global policing, and I am back telling my American wife and our American friends how wrong it all is, how wrong the government is, and I feel like I have given into a guilty pleasure because of it and I wonder how many others have done the same.

As the anniversary of the attack nears, we seem to feel an obligation to hang our heads and ponder what has happened in the past year, even though that may not be the most honest reaction. Truthfully, the United States is more debilitated by the economic slump, a stunning collapse more to do with the corrupt practices of corporate leaders than with the vile acts and threats of terrorists. And Sept. 11, 2002 looks to be taking the form of a well-planned media spectacle that will celebrate the inspiring efforts of New Yorkers to rebuild and the government forces that have kept terrorists from doing more harm here. Without a doubt, America is back. New York is back. It’s its old vibrant self, where you can watch or participate with amazement or disgust as dreamchasers teem about and circuses of people drop in and out like trampoline artists and “life on the go” keeps going at an extraordinary pace. Such a rebound shows resolve and spirit, and some rashness, as well.

No one will ever forget Sept. 11, that’s obvious. But what about the days afterwards? When New York was still stopped and so many took time out to watch. We all had to confront ourselves in some way back then, whether it was to cope with fear and paranoia, or to question what is important and why we live the lives we do. Whatever conclusions I may have made in that time — between trauma and “normalcy” — were never incorporated into my life. There was no time for that. Since I suffered no loss, I had no reason not to move on, not to get back to the business of life as it was. Lapsing back into routine was relatively simple and necessary. That’s human nature, I suppose, and it applies to communities as much as it does to individuals. Change doesn’t come easy, after all. You have to need to make it, or be forced to.

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