- BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY
Wistful Days of Summer: Solidarity, Storms, and September 11
My father called the late summer days from August 15 to September 15, with their brilliant blues, breezes, and lengthening shadows, the “wistful days of summer.” As has often been remarked, September 11, 2001 was just such a day; New Yorkers still turn to each other when the wind and sun are right and remark that it’s a day like September 11.
When I think of September 11 and its upcoming 10th anniversary, I think of my friends Dave and Marian Fontana (who has written for the Hastings Center Report), and their son Aidan, now 15. September 11 is Dave’s and Marian’s wedding anniversary. It is also the anniversary of Dave’s death. Dave was a New York City firefighter. On the morning of their anniversary in 2001, while Marian waited for him at a coffee shop in Brooklyn to head out on their planned anniversary excursion to the Guggenheim Museum (he was also a highly regarded sculptor), Dave was rushing into the burning towers.
In those first days and weeks, Marian didn’t know he’d perished. There was so much she, and all of us, didn’t know. But there was one thing we did know – we needed each other and we wanted to help. Marian’s home was instantly managed by a brigade of friends and friends of friends. New Yorkers rallied together despite the terror of going anywhere and the disorienting roar of fighter jets being the only sound in the sky. We lined up at hospitals to give blood that wasn’t needed, greeted by hordes of medical personnel that with so few survivors weren’t needed either.
Overnight, Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I live, became two things: a pop-up graduate school on Islam, with regularly packed talks and lectures at schools and bookstores on a culture that we knew wasn’t “the enemy” and wanted to understand and on the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which were terrifying and we also wanted to understand; and a pop-up NGO, with humanitarian efforts organized by many individuals and shopkeepers, ranging from delivering coffee to rescue workers to finding foster homes for pets displaced in the disaster. Support from people from around the country and even the world poured in – pennies, food, kind notes posted in bookstores and delis. Solidarity, as opposed to hate and divisiveness, was the reigning value – and healing, slow and painful, but true, was the result.
This solidarity quickly disintegrated in Washington, where it was reduced to a meaningless lapel pin of a flag and petty “freedom fries” in the House of Representatives cafeteria. Even as New York – “Ground Zero” of the attacks and the location most likely to be bent on revenge – was holding massive peace marches, the nation moved to a war justified in the name of the September 11 atrocities.
Marian, who became a reluctant spokeswoman for families of firefighters who died on September 11, was at a White House event on the 2003 anniversary. A leading figure in the administration, assuming she supported the Iraq war effort, asked her opinion of the war. “You don’t want to know,” she said. “Really, I do,” he replied. She turned to him and said, “I think you’re prosecuting a war in the name of my husband and others like him that has nothing to do with his death.”
Another sort of disaster hit New York, New Jersey, and New England during this year’s wistful days of summer. As Hurricane Irene barreled up the Eastern seaboard with New York City in her sites, and the city’s Mayor Bloomberg ordered evacuations and mass transit stoppages on a glorious day, I and many other New Yorkers were comparing the weather to September 11, 2011. The storm ended up doing relatively minimal damage to New York City, but devastated communities upstate, as well as in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont. As on September 11, solidarity reigned. These communities came together to bail out neighbors, cut down trees, and share meals. In Garrison, home of The Hastings Center, the historic pre-Revolutionary Bird and Bottle Inn (built in 1761) was threatened by a flooded and rushing brook. Neighbors and friends turned out to dig an enormous ditch to divert the flood and saved the inn.
But this was a very regional solidarity. Some members of the House of Representatives, including powerful Representative Eric Cantor and some GOP presidential hopefuls, used the disaster to critique federal disaster relief and demand that FEMA spending on the storm be offset by cuts in other spending. This while communities in Vermont needed food helicoptered in because washed out roads left them stranded! Disasters are no time to budget, they are a time to dig deep and help. They are a time for solidarity, which I, and I think most Americans, consider a core national – indeed human – value. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote about Cantor, “In effect, he is threatening to take Irene’s victims hostage.” (Cantor’s proposal has since been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats.)
These are indeed the wistful days of summer. On this September 11, I’ll be at a small dinner at Marian’s, where she and Aidan can be away from the media circus at Ground Zero and privately celebrate the too-short life of a brave husband and father. And I, and I imagine all of us, will be wistful for the fleeting days when the nation came together in solidarity and joined with her, and with a bruised city, in honoring him and the others who had fallen.
Mary Crowley is The Hastings Center’s director of public affairs and communications.