Thursday, June 14, 2007

Seeing is Believing

Our cultural assumptions and values have led us to be more accepting of what we experience through popular media on television and the internet. We experience it as compelling and authentic, even though we are severely limited in how we are able to interact and respond.

Many HDTV ads describe enhancing our reality by making it more realistic, but in fact, it is not reality. It is just a technologically enhanced image and sound presentation. Our assumptions about what is real and values about passively received information may be inhibiting the sustainability of our culture. The high value we place on popular media may make us more vulnerable to propaganda, lies disguised as truth, ignorance, and corruption.

Why do I know anything about Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith, and the Olsen Twins? They are the commercial entertainment that pays for the fake news. Why do most Americans still believe there was a 9/11 connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein? Is it because there are no YouTube videos to disprove it? Are we winning the war? Are there al-Qaeda sleeper cells everywhere across America? Will Scooter Libby be pardoned? More news in 90 seconds.

About three weeks after 9/11, I talked with a friend who lives in Manhattan about his experience that day visiting the World Trade Center site. He said it made him very angry and sad, but it also gave him a better sense of the reality. He urged me to do the same, if it was at all possible.

I love New York City. My mother was born and grew up in Manhattan. Many other family members lived there and left their marks. I had enjoyed many solo urban experiences as a young teenager visiting relatives in the city. My first legal beer in a bar was in McSorley’s on the Lower East Side. Like your first high, every other beer in my life pales in comparison. I met my wife in Central Park, and we shared out first kiss under a street light in Greenwich Village. It is all good.

For a few days after talking with my friend, I considered what it might be like to see the devastation. On that September morning, I had watched the attack on television like almost everyone else. Later I went to work at the Academy at Swift River and counseled the young men and women there, many of whom were from New York City area and had family and friends who worked at the WTC. No family members of students or staff died in the attack, though there were incredible stories of coincidence and fortuity.

I realized that the events of 9/11, this critical day in American history, were not real for me or for my family. Television, even stories from others who were there and saw it for themselves, had not provided the experience I needed to suffer, in the sense of feeling, what had happened. The only way was to be there.

About a week later in mid-October, I drove to the city in the evening with my family and stayed at my friend’s apartment overnight. We did not dine out in a fine restaurant, as we usually would. We left early the next morning and took the subway downtown to Canal Street, as close as we could get to the WTC site, more than 15 blocks away.

Walking by empty office buildings with broken and boarded up windows, seeing everything covered in dust, we were awed by how large an area of the city had been affected. We could smell and taste the ubiquitous dust, instantly collecting on our shoes and clothing, and though we were relatively silent as we walked along, we were all thinking and feeling the same thing – death was in the air. No television picture or diagram in a magazine could provide the same impression.

There were other people walking along, as well as firemen and policemen. There were no cars, except official looking vehicles and dump trucks. We came to the terminus, an improvised observation site about three blocks away from “ground zero”. We saw the trucks hauling away the remains of what had been a proud landmark of American prosperity.

We bought some bottled water from a street vendor and walked to a small nearby park, Washington Market Park I believe. We held hands and in silence prayed for the souls of the dead, we prayed for healing, and for peace, and understanding. Then we went our own ways within the park and each of us found an earth spot, a place where we felt connected. We meditated, wondered, and let ourselves feel the tragedy around us. We cried. My tears felt like the dry, acrid dust in the air. They gave no relief, and could not sooth the grief and desolation I felt. The sensations of death and destruction were visceral, like nothing I ever experienced.

Clutching a handkerchief to my nose and mouth, I did recall my deep sadness visiting Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum sixteen years earlier, but that was a reflection compared with walking through the looking glass this day.

As we wandered away from the site we came across FDNY Station No 1. Inside the firemen were selling T-shirts to raise money for the families of the fallen heroes. It was an optimistic effort, and we welcomed it.

We walked back to Canal Street, noticed the Chinatown vendors selling 9/11 souvenirs, and left the city early that afternoon. We could say little about what we encountered. Words were insufficient. My family said it was very difficult, but they appreciated the experience and understood it was the right thing to do.

I am a healthier skeptic now. When I hear a politician or pundit refer to 9/11 or I read some reference to the terrible events on that day, even the conspiracy theories, I could recall how I felt watching my TV as it unfolded, but even that memory does not compare to the day we visited the WTC site. That day I became aware of the cruel reality of senseless murder and destruction. The images on our televisions and monitors look real, but they are not. They are only sight and sound – no dust, no smell of death, no ghosts.


irene said...

I remember waking up to the radio on 9/11. And then running to the t.v. and being in awe all day. I also have a dear friend who lives in Manhattan, works at the NYSE. He heard the first "explosion" and looked out his office window to later watch the 2nd plane. I recently made my first ever visit to NYC. I always knew that it would be different to physically be at ground zero, that it would be more real. Honestly, I didn't want to. It seemed too much to experience, but we went and I am thankful I did. You make a great point and reality and how easily we and our children are convinced by whomever is in the limelight.

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

I've been through Hiroshima's Peace Park and memorial museum several times and each visit gave me sacred chills. I've been to Manhattan twice since 9/11 and haven't been able to venture down to ground zero. It's still too raw.

Dadof6Autistickids said...

My only experiences of NYC are historical. My Great-Grandmother was born there. When she returned years later after my Great-Grandfather died she met her new husband at the hospital she went to after hurting herself while ice skating in Central Park.

When I was in the US Air Force and was assigned to West Germany, I flew out of JFK. I was able to see the Statue of Liberty from some bridge while taking a taxi to the airport.

But when 9/11 happened, New York was MY city that had been attacked. I wanted some butt kicking to happen right away.

Like a lot of military guys I'm quite patriotic. While living in West Germany for 4 years I learned to really appreciate our US of A. I visited Holland, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and all over Germany. Seeing and being there does help you to know exactly what we have here and why this country is so GREAT, even with its many flaws.

You blog is good, it makes me think. I'm glad you visited mine to bring me here. How did you find me anyway?

Jan said...

Seeing in Believing!! Great to spend time with you on Father's Day and get to know the wonderful lady in your life. I do believe you and Laurel have a very special companionship - and I do believe you have a great ability at mentoring, helping others, seeing through to the truth..... To the rest of the blog readers - I can testify from MY experience - this guy is going to have a lot more inciteful words of wisdom we will all learn from!

Kanani said...

I can't look at the film of the WTT going down. All I can think of is my friend's husband, trapped in there, certain to miss every single milestone of their young daughter's life.

I flew out to visit her shortly after. One night I took the subway and getting off. Following a horde of people, no question as to where we were going. I saw the firehoses, the lights, heard the earth movers.

It became not an abstraction from TV. A connection was truly made.

We're so bombarded by things over the media. And while we're aware of things happening --like Paris Hilton or Libby Scooter, we struggle sometimes to make a complete connection with those in our personal lives. And I think that's what I'm aware of. I always have to ensure that I have the guts to make sure I connect with those I truly like or love.