Opinion: Daily Journal

Sense and Sensibilities: 9/11 in 2010

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. Karen Palasek, Director of Educational and Academic Programs for the John Locke Foundation.

RALEIGH — For today’s Daily Journal I have put together a series of thoughts, some more clearly interrelated than others, that illustrate for me the significance of the 9/11 anniversary. This anniversary is perhaps more difficult this year than in some years past because the 9/11 attacks, and particularly the area around Ground Zero, have such a fractious public/policy profile right now.

Among other issues, there is a distinct struggle between a purely rational vs. a sentimental understanding of plans, motives, and events surrounding the attack site, and between a logical vs. an emotional analysis and reaction. It’s personal, it’s political, and it’s also universal. Jane Austen posed the same set of dilemmas in Sense and Sensibility. Do we act on our sense of what is right, or on our sense of what is personally advantageous? There is no guarantee of agreement on either precept.

Today is the eve of the 9/11 anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City, the attack on the Pentagon, and the thwarted attack involving the fourth hijacked jetliner that was crashed instead in Pennsylvania. Recollections, both personal and public, are intermixed with fact and emotion. Conflicting visions and delays over approval for a Liberty Square memorial in New York City stalled site progress, and stalled, perhaps over-long, an appropriate venue for mourning. So long since the event, so little has yet been settled.

A couple of personal remembrances strike me. It happens that I am a native (suburban) New Yorker. Two members of my extended family had offices in the World Trade Center, one in each tower. One survived. He wasn’t in the office that day, out of country on a business trip. The other, in an office on the 104th floor of the South Tower, perished. Like most of the other victims from that scene, there were no traces except for location. In some New York-area elementary schools, six or seven children in every classroom lost family friends, parents, neighbors, or other relatives in those terrorist actions. There is a lot of grief that still resides in these children, spouses, and friends that remain. In some ways, “getting over it” isn’t necessarily an objective or an option.

The beauty of freedom is that it gives us choices and options, however wisely or stupidly we may use them. But many people’s options were severely limited on the day of the World Trade Center attacks. While watching the video coverage of that day, I was stunned — both emotionally and logically — by people jumping, or simply stepping, out of Tower windows as their preferred option. What do you have to suppose about your future to make that choice your best alternative? One pair I recall held hands as they stepped out, linked a final time to another person, starting the long fall down the side of the building. I remember wondering, in stupefied amazement, “Why/Would I hold someone’s hand going out the window?” jumbled with, “It doesn’t make sense. How silly that would be.” And then I realized, “Who cares how silly it would be? It makes perfect sense.”

I am not a fan of extreme heights and definitely not a candidate for skydiving. Tumbling into midair with the certain expectation that your chute will open, and that you will land safely, must be vastly different from the expectation one would have stepping out the side of a building, no chute, 90 or 100 floors above the ground. The videos aren’t shown on TV anymore, but they exist on YouTube and in news footage, and they are horrifying. They are also part of the indelible history of that day, part of our American history, and along with the rest of the events of 9/11, part of both our sense and sensibility of those events.

There is no doubt that discussion of what should or should not be built — or rebuilt — now, near the site of that tragedy, is highly emotionally charged. Do historical parallels exist? That’s still being debated. Whatever the outcome, and however we each understand it, we will have arrived at both a personal and a collective balance between our sense of what is right and what is rational and sensible. No matter what “side” one may be on, it’s clear that the half-life of felt injustice as well as suffering is long and very real.

Which brings us back to tomorrow’s anniversary. Abstracting from the debates over current issues, there is still a need, in 2010, to find a place to “land in the balance” on a remembrance and understanding of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Perhaps more so, as the events recede in time. As an American nation we have taken a stand for freedom, which we understand is risky. But risk is a choice that goes with the freedom to think and act independently, and it is also a choice that makes American freedom a target.

After the 9/11 attacks my colleague Don Carrington, an avid and expert skydiver, organized a unique formation dive to commemorate the day. The divers linked midair to spell “USA” before pulling open their chutes. The photo of that jump is, for me, a bit of a positive antidote to 9/11. The saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. I think it applies here. Many thanks for the jump photo, courtesy of Peter Matos.