I could never write about 9/11. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Over the years, I’ve tried writing about it several times. Just a few weeks after the towers fell, one of my journalism colleagues sent out a request for publishable words on the tragedy. He wanted someone to write something that conveyed a broader perspective, and meaningful insights for the rest of the country. I wrote something. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I can tell you that it wasn’t insightful. Or inspiring. Instead of conveying a sense of universal meaning, it sounded trite and overly sentimental. Where I wanted to pose some deep, searching questions, I only offered a kind of sad, desperate window onto the fact that none of it – nothing I was going through – made any sense to me at all.
On September 11, 2001, all hell broke loose. And a friend of mine – a brave and caring firefighter -- went to work and never returned. He had a beautiful spirit and a gentle soul. He knew his work posed dangers — including terrorist-sponsored ones -- but before that tragedy happened, none of us really imagined that his life, and those of many of his colleagues, would be extinguished by an act of such monstrous and intentional evil. Nothing in my human experience had ever prepared me for losing someone in that way. Like many people who lived through those events, it took me weeks to accept that my friend was gone. In part that was because the bodies weren’t immediately recovered. In part, it was because we were all in a state of shock. In part, it was because for a long time, all of it – the death, the destruction, the pollution, the chaos, the terror –seemed utterly unreal. For the family members of my friend and all those other victims, of course, it was even worse.
Over the past week, in the wake of the tragic and surreal events at Sandy Hook, I’ve been searching – again -- for something insightful or meaningful to write. Until now, I haven’t been able to think or write anything about that massacre that reflects more than my anger and despair. I’ve been trying to deal with it, in large part, by reading what other people are writing. For me, the most meaningful writing focuses on heroes. Just as during 9/11, I find the stories of heroism to be uplifting and hopeful and real. They help to convince me that even in our worst, most tragic moments, we might – all of us -- be better than the sum of our basest instincts.
And yet the Sandy Hook events have been reminding me – in some very raw emotional ways – of those weeks after 9/11. It’s not exactly, or even nearly, the same. I didn’t lose someone close to me. Let alone one of my babies. I didn’t know these people in Connecticut. I have never, to my knowledge, been to their town. I haven’t been dealing with the aftermath of those violent events for these many days -- which will soon turn to weeks and months --with no end to the trauma in sight. I was no more there – in Newtown – than I am there when another innocent life is lost, anywhere world. I wasn’t there at all. Those are not my lost and wounded children.
But like many people in this country, I have felt heartbroken. I understand that some people haven’t experienced it quite that way. I’ve read many times over the past several days – and heard people discuss it -- that innocent children are killed every day, both by guns and other forms of violence. I know that those deaths don’t affect us in the same way, in part because they receive less attention in the media. But I can’t discount the scale of this tragedy because for me, it was different. Partly, it was different because the setting was more public, the coverage was more pervasive, and there were so many, and so very young, children terrorized and killed at the same time by the kinds of guns that have already been used to kill many other helpless and innocent people.
It was also different for me, personally, because I could relate to them in some very basic and personal ways. For better or for worse, I think, we can more easily empathize with people who remind us of ourselves. People die at the hands of their own guns all the time, but I don’t keep guns in my home. I’ve never known anyone whose child was lost because he or she got hold of a relative’s gun. I know that children die at the hands of their own parents, but I don’t live in a violent household. Children die in troubled communities, where they feel scared to walk down the street at night. I wish no child ever had to endure these realities, and if they were on the news every night, admittedly, their parents’ losses would probably feel closer to my reality. But that is just not the case.
My reality is that I live in a small town. My kids go to a nice public school in a community where people – both in the school and around it – know and like and help each other. My children are young. My younger one is in kindergarten, and often spends her evenings practicing her writing. She writes the names, over and over, of each and every one of her fellow students. She likes knowing, and thinking about them. She likes going to school, even though it means going away from me, because she loves her teacher. When I go to school to help out, the children all know me. Many of them hug me. They tell me, over and over and over, when their moms are coming in to help, to the point where I’ve memorized their mom’s volunteer schedules. The tender-hearted love of a kindergarten child – any single one of them -- is so simple, and sweet, and innocent that it has been difficult for me, every day, not to imagine the children in Newton being exactly the same way.
And I remember what it feels like to try to move on, after all hell breaks loose. In the several months following September 11th, the families accepted and said goodbye to their loved ones. It was too much death. But after the memorials and funerals were over, it also became clear that life, for the rest of us, wasn’t the same. The toxic dust had long settled, the pile was cleared, the streets were re-opened, and life as we knew it returned to a more or less regular schedule. New York -- the city of dreamers, and freedom lovers, and urban thrill seekers – would always be great. The people, as a community, really pulled together. Yet alongside the new security measures, the barricades, and the new flight patterns, a broader anxiety also endured. A pervasive feeling that the city had lost a measure of its innocence, its reckless youth, its unbridled creative joy. Over time, we got used to that, and sometimes even forgot things had changed. But there was a new mindset governing the city for years, characterized by more fear and more caution.
It was, simply put, a new normal.
I’ve heard that phrase – new normal – used several times already in regards to the recent school tragedy. People have invoked it as they've expressed concern that elementary school shootings might become more regular events in our society. We all hope, and pray, they don’t. But in a more immediate sense, as I’ve recalled the traumatic weeks after 9/11, I’ve been thinking about that other new normal. The one that happens in our minds, at the level of a new collective fear and sadness and especially, the loss of innocence. Those children's death shook many people to our core. Before this happened, many of us didn’t associate our local elementary schools with fear, not this kind. Now, we have a set of images and categories and circumstances in our heads that may make us wonder, every day, if our kids are safe. Now, we live with the daily reminder, when we bring the kids to school, that they may not be safely sheltered from other people’s madness and violence. I don’t know how many other people are feeling that way. But to the extent that many others are, we're all, now, living with a new normal.
I wish I had some more meaningful insights, or an inspirational perspective to share. I’ve always admired writers who can bring great personal insight to a difficult time. I’m not talking about a policy paper, or a program for the future, but an emotional tribute. The ability to reach out from a place of pain, and form a narrative that others can relate to and possibly learn something from, is an important skill. In times of communal crisis, particularly, people’s stories can help to remind of us of our collective humanity. And that is no small concern.
The one memory from 9/11 that is giving me some small comfort is knowing that eventually, this new normal will get better. It will get better as we help each other cope. It will get better if we can come together to change our violent problems. But mostly, I think, it will just get better with time. As time passes -- and as long as tragedy doesn’t strike again -- we’ll feel incrementally more comfortable. We will, hopefully, stop looking back at our children in the schoolyard, wondering if they're safe. Over time, the new normal will come to feel, just, normal again. That sounds like a sad, desperate thing to say. And it may not resonate with what anyone else is feeling right now. But at this point, accepting the new normal and moving on is the absolute best I can hope for.