Monday, September 11, 2006

The Wrong Question

Are we safer?  That’s the question you’ll be hearing a lot as we move into the height of this election cycle and indeed the one many of us are asking ourselves on this day.  But it’s the wrong question.  It isn’t that safety is not important to us individually or collectively.  Of course it is.  It is the context in which we ask it, at least if we’re honest with ourselves.  In a very profound way, are we safer as posed is a metaphor for what may continue to be our most challenging problem.  Despite going through two world wars, Korea, Viet Nam and now Iraq, despite being founders of the United Nations and NATO among others, and despite being leaders of international commerce, we remain an isolationist nation.  It isn’t that we don’t venture out, don’t interact but that in the end we are intensely self-focused.  Individually, despite our acts of kindness, philanthropy and community, most of us are “islands unto ourselves”.  All the more so are we a nation unto our self.

Are WE safer, is the question most of us ask.  It’s also the one people in power like best because, at least at this point, no one can say for sure whether we are safer or not.  With all the talk of how things have changed in the past five years, functionally it is a veneer of change as deep as today’s broadcast news, especially the 24/7 type.  It is the change of a docudrama, not the one being so widely publicized on ABC, but the one that plays out each and every day on CNN, Fox and the Networks.  News with a theatrical set and a theme song.  The fact is that business goes on as usual in our bubble of a world whether in New York or around the country.  There may be a hole in the ground downtown, but edifices are rising everywhere else in this bustling city.  Cantor Fitzgerald has gotten off the mat and is once again coining money much as it did in the old days.  People are pushing their way through on Times Square, in the subways and everywhere else in town.  School buses reappeared at their appointed hour as classes resumed for the fall.  Things will never be the same.  Fat chance.

The question we should ask is not whether we are safer but if the world is safer?  That isn’t hard to answer.  It’s definitely not.  Nearly three thousand ordinary citizens died in America five years ago but probably 100 times that number of innocents lost their lives since around the world in the intervening period, often victims of the bombs and bullets we’ve unleashed in the name of our own security protection.  We’re fighting there so we don’t have to fight here, a super-me statement if there ever was one.  Along with the now highly promoted slogans of “9/11” and “ground zero” is that of THE families.  Again, just as we are legitimately concerned about safety should our hearts always go out to the families of those who lost loved ones.  As someone who has officiated at many funerals quite early in my own life, I know how devastating the death of a single human being can be to a family, a wound that often never heals.  But, aside from occasional clips of wailing women in black garments, we pay little or no attention to those other families, certainly not what we pay to THE families.  When they are not our own, they recede into statistical nothingness.  These days, that’s not a very safe place.

The truth is that I was trying to avoid remembrance on this day not because I feel either safe or satisfied, but because I am appalled by how this sad anniversary is exploited for both commercial and political ends.  Few, if any, media are innocent in that regard and the shameless abuse is non-partisan.  In fact, leveraging September 11 for their own purpose and aggrandizement seems to be one of the few things upon which all politicians right, left and center can agree.  The weather in New York of this 2006 day is virtually a carbon copy of 2001 and by happenstance (I run every other day) I was in precisely the same place circling the Jacqueline Onasis Kennedy Reservoir in that same hour.  That’s were I heard the news five years ago and that’s were I was thinking today about our safety.

Things are pretty much the same all around America as they are vastly different in so many areas around the world.  The only visible hint of dislocation that be found here is not around that “hole in the ground” in lower Manhattan as Mayor Ray Nagin put it, but in his city of New Orleans.  That town, as I noted in an earlier post, remains physically and psychologically scarred.  But there is another piece of unpleasantness that is finally getting some attention.  The residual effects of environmental pollution in and around the site of the fallen towers.  People are getting really sick, some have died prematurely already and others are sure follow.  There is a kind of symmetry between Katrina and this resident or responder malady.  Both may have been the result of forces beyond control, but both unmasked an catastrophic lack of preparedness.  We knew Katrina was coming (years before it actually came) and failed to adequately protect the safety of those in its way, and we knew the dangers of environmental pollution.  Most of us have seen people in protective suits ridding buildings of exposed asbestos, and have become painfully aware of industrial smog.  For a city whose Mayors have devoted themselves to removing cigarette smoke from public places in the name of safety not to have insisted on protecting the lungs of those caught in or brought to lower Manhattan for cleanup in the aftermath of the attack is unconscionable.  EPA Director Whitman is being held to the fire, but certainly some of the bloom should be coming off Rudy whom many of us have long recognized for what and who he is, combover or not.  These people all must be held accountable.

The sad truth is, we are not safer wherever we make our home.  It’s a dangerous street out here and there.  With all our bombs and all our rhetoric, the “evil ones” have cast aside even the pretence of speaking to us from caves.  Their smart sets now evoke the comfort of the study five full years after we were taken into battle with bravado and promises.  Are we safer?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps the right question is, are they safer?  I leave it to you to answer that one.

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