By Lynn Paris
"Lost and Found" 10-01-01
The following is the column I wrote, ten years ago, soon after September 11, 2001. Because I always wrote my columns on the first of every month, it wasn’t published until October 1, at which time I was also still grieving the passing of my mother who had died the year before.
I was expecting a bad month anyway. Trying to gear up for it. After all, it was exactly a year ago when my mother was suddenly diagnosed with cancer. A year ago when we spent our final month with her before she died. It was, amazingly, the first time death had come into our house. My world changed last year.
Last month, everyone's world changed. I won't presume to try to match the thousands of words I've read and heard to describe the shock, the sorrow. We've shared a sadness so profound, a horror so unspeakable, a tragedy so brutal that nothing that came before could possibly have prepared us. We've been the lucky ones, blessed with an aura of invulnerability we took so much for granted that most of us didn't even recognize it until it was lost, and the whole world changed.
To imply that we in any way benefited from these despicable acts, these incomprehensible losses, would be obscene. But to examine in their wake what we have found, what we've learned -- about ourselves, our fellow citizens, our country, our place in the world -- and to benefit from those lessons seems essential. And the lessons have come in so many ways, from such different sources. Each of us, of course, filters our perceptions through everything we've known or believed in before, and thus, the universal becomes personal. So, while I cannot speak for others, I can share what I have learned. These are some of my lessons.
Before September 11th, I thought we'd run out of heroes. For too long that word's been used to describe multi-million dollar athletes lauded for playing on a twisted ankle, or worse, for hitting 70 long balls. Now I know that real heroes are still around; I've seen them by the thousands . . . those who bravely risk their lives in order to save others, those who toil endlessly in the ghastly trenches of debris, those who keep helping when the urge must be to hide . . . those who keep giving when they've already given too much. I've seen heroism performed by those who never knew they could be heroic, and heroism by those whose job it is to be heroes. And it makes me hopeful to think that perhaps out of this will come a generation where more aspire to be policemen and firemen and EMT workers, not 7-ft. centers or dot.com billionaires, but the kind of true heroes that made a nation weep with gratitude, that made a nation proud.
I thought I was too cool to fly the American flag. I've lived half a century, and I have never been moved to fly the flag of our country. It seemed so conservative, so middle America, so un-hip. Oh sure, I've been filled with pride when I saw it, hanging high over our medal winners at the Olympics, and I've been filled with grief when I saw it at half-mast, as when Kennedy was assassinated, but the flag itself was just part of the overall moment. But that indelible image of the firemen raising the flag against the skeletal remains of the Twin Towers changed something in me. The flag became our country, and our country had been viciously attacked....our country had been ATTACKED, and there was our flag rising triumphant from the ashes, .......and suddenly I wanted a flag; I was desperate to fly our flag. I was apparently not alone in that response because the flags are flying everywhere. And to hell with those who say it's just a bandwagon thing, or a meaningless gesture. What's important, for me, is that it makes me feel good, it makes me feel part of something. I'm glad I want to fly the flag.
But that does not mean for a moment that I've suddenly become jingoistic, or blind to this country's faults. Because if the events of September 11th have made me feel inexorably united with my fellow Americans, more fiercely proud of my native New York, more infused with patriotic fervor, they have also made me more aware than ever of our flaws. And those run the gamut, from disturbing-like the pathetic excuse for security at our airports-to embarrassing. I am embarrassed that I didn't really know where Afghanistan was in relationship to, say, Pakistan or Iran. It's embarrassing that I didn't know that there are millions of tax-paying, practicing Muslim Americans in this country, more Muslims than Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists.
And I guess I'm ashamed that I never really bothered to imagine what it must be like to be oppressed, to live in terror, every day. There was some "immunity switch" in me, the same switch I seem to be able to turn on whenever I see a homeless person. For one empathic moment I'll think, there but for a single paycheck go I, and then, just as quickly, I'll turn on that switch and separate myself from that possibility. As though I were immune. As though deep down I knew I had the magic potion; this could never happen to me. And so I think it has been for this country. Even as we've observed the daily lives of Palestinians, Kurds, Bosnians, Afghanis, even when we've tried to help or intervene, we've always had that switch. We could watch in horror and revulsion the hideous conditions endured by women under the sadistic Taliban regime, knowing all the while that this could never happen to us. And I guess that it's this "immunity switch" in me, in this country, that has kept us feeling safe, that has kept the fear at bay.
That's why I think I understood, why it seemed to resonate with me, when I heard interviews with a group of Arabs from several countries who said, "No, the Americans didn't deserve it, but all the same, it's good for them to finally feel what it's like to live in fear, to be the victims, just as we do every day of our lives." The reporter interviewing them was indignant. But I think I understand. What they were really trying to say is that no person, no country, gets immunity forever.
I also grow embarrassed watching our reporters badgering delegates from other countries about their internal affairs, their human rights violations, their dirty secrets. Yes, we're justifiably proud of our country, but we are NOT perfect. And we should no longer be so self-righteous. This is a country that wiped out the American Indian! We interred the Japanese. We had slavery, and when we abolished slavery we replaced it with racism. It's also true that we have supported corrupt regimes when it suited our interests; we are greedy and imperialistic. And guess what? We even have our own fundamentalist extremists. During an interview on "60 Minutes" the other night, a Muslim leader who was asked if he felt he needed to defend his Islamic beliefs asked Ed Bradley if he, as a Christian, felt he had to defend his belief in Christianity when an extremist bombed an abortion clinic. No, we are not perfect, and I just wish that those who represent us to the world would acknowledge that, and be slightly humbled by it. Stop being so self-righteous; work more on getting it right.
Not being perfect, however, does not mean that this isn't the greatest country on earth. We are more free, more brave, more generous, more loyal than any other country in the world. And, if you think we were powerful before September 11th, we have only grown stronger, more united, more proud of each other, more devoted to freedom, since that dreadful day. There should be no challenge we cannot meet, no evil we cannot overcome. We are the United States of America...one nation, under God, indivisible. So let's not fall back on being self-righteous. Let's just go out there and get it right.
Whatever else happens this month, it will always be a sad one for me. It's the month my mother died. The month I lost my immunity. Something precious was lost. But when I think back, I also know that something was found. That last month caring for my mother made me grow; I came out of it stronger, a better person. I guess none of us is truly immune. It's when we accept that, then overcome our fear and rise above it, that we grow. Embracing our vulnerabilities is part of what makes people, and nations, truly great.
A few of the things I wrote ten years ago I might not write today; I’d like to think that in the process of continually growing and changing that my perspective has also grown and expanded. I know it’s become more inclusive.
Still, in the end, the way I ended my column ten years ago never rang more true than this morning, when our pastor used the very same words as the theme of his message; we must embrace our vulnerabilities rather than continue to strive for invulnerability. That striving comes from a place of fear, and nothing will ever change until we can all be vulnerable together, from a place of compassion and love.