Thursday, September 8, 2011

Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)

As September 11th comes closer, there are going to be (and it’s already started) hundreds of hours of television and thousands of articled dedicated to this anniversary. I went through an obsessive phase a few years ago and read more than a half-dozen books about the event, including Tower Stories: An Oral History of 9/11. One thing I’ve been struck by so much in all the writing about September 11th is the attempt to differentiate the people who died. Consistently the writers have tried to separate each victim and establish them as individuals, so that it’s not a summary of 100 people from that office who died, but “Steve who loved dogs and Bob who loved to fish…” I don’t know if that’s a particularly American thing. I don’t remember reading in great detail about victims of attacks in other countries being individualized, but it may be that I’m not reading the right sources. And it may be that with the great outpouring of words about 9/11, the authors needed these human touches to set their book apart.

As with most oral histories, Tower Stories was the most human-level recording of the day’s events that I read. Seeing how messy the day was – how people’s memories overlapped and diverged – brought home to me the utter confusion of the day. Normal people who hadn’t planned on anything more exciting than a salad for lunch turned out to be heroes. They carried strangers down 30 flights of stairs and helped firemen find offices and exits. I’m sure that there were an equal number of people who pushed their way down the stairs and left their officemates behind when they couldn’t keep up, but I’m okay with not including them in the account of the day. I think we all needed to feel like goodness could exist in the middle of such chaos. New York has a right to still feel proud, these ten years later. They did good.


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