What was left behind

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Stuffed lamb, Tribute WTC CentreThis is what was left behind when the clouds of debris finally settled: a child's soft toy — a lamb — sitting atop the rubble and looking heavenward as if with bewilderment and disbelief; a menu from the Windows on the World restaurant, whose staff was a rich, ethnic mishmash, lying discarded on the street; a business card that wafted over the Hudson River from the crumbling towers and was picked up in Brooklyn; a set of miraculously-preserved dictionaries, their languages — German, French, Russian, Spanish, Dutch, Italian — a symbol of unity against the malevolent events of that day.

There were also things you couldn't see: the gaping hole in New York's skyline; the acute loss of those twin towers — the biggest building project since the pyramids at the time that construction on them began in the 1960s; an agony so great it broke through family and borough and city containment lines and rushed outwards until it had swamped an entire world.

A decade later, that sweet lamb looks up at me from within its protective glass case inside a building on Liberty Street in New York. It reminds me of lost innocence, and of my six-year-old son who had stayed home from school sick on that day and had continued watching TV as the events in New York replaced his afternoon cartoons.

He was transfixed by these movie-like stunts that beamed into our living room in South Africa even as they were happening half a world away; his big eyes grew ever larger as a plane arced towards the second tower and disappeared inside it, releasing a violent outburst of tremor and explosion. He was witnessing the very first imprint of history.

Nearly ten years later he stands silently beside me in the Tribute WTC Visitor Centre, across the way from Ground Zero. The centre has catalogued September 11 through the minutiae of everyday life, displaying relics that have been carefully collected and preserved, as though in lieu of the incinerated bones of those who died. There are twisted forks and spoons, computer fragments, a sprinkler valve sign, elevator floor plaques and two 357 magnum revolvers encrusted in molten concrete.

My son is processing the event through the lens of a teenager whose era has been thoroughly defined by it, and by the War on Terror that it spawned. He knows all too well the enactments of a society doomed to fear and retribution: the endless, bloodletting crusade in Afghanistan and Iraq, stories of which stream into our home from the radio and the TV; the vilification of Muslims; the mistrust that infuses our society; the alarming erosion of civil liberties.

Al-Qaeda, jihad, bin Laden, terrorism, Taliban, Islamic fundamentalist, Guantanamo Bay: these words slip easily off the tongues of my son and his contemporaries. He has seen John Howard's fridge door terrorism kit, and he has been taken aside by overzealous airport officials, suspicious of his long hair, tall frame and subversive T-shirts. He knows not to say the word 'bomb' in jest, and ensures that there are no bottles of water or pen-knives in his backpack.

At security checkpoints he obediently removes his belt and shoes, the coins in his pocket, his watch and leather bangles, and lopes through the cordon holding up his loose pants. He doesn't question this procedure, nor the curt, disbelieving tone of those who are in charge. This is how it has always been for the people of his generation.

It's these young ones who reflect their solidarity most poignantly at the Tribute Centre on Liberty Street, through the 10,000 paper cranes created as a symbol of peace by Japanese school children and their families, the quilt made by a fifth grade class from Shumway Elementary School in Arizona as an expression of their grief over September 11.

There are reminders of children who would accompany their parents to work at the WTC, from whose lofty windows they would peer through pillows of fog to the matchbox cars on the streets below, and lamentations from youngsters unable to protect themselves from the horrors of an adult conflict. 'It is unfortunate that it took a tragedy such as the terrorists' attacks to bring about the compassion that people should have for one another on a daily basis,' wrote a ninth grader from Rhode Island.

My son writes his own tribute and slips it into a Perspex condolence box. Two weeks later he sits in a Las Vegas motel room beside his sisters and watches as Barack Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden. The jubilation on the streets outside is peculiarly unsettling, at odds with the strength and dignity conjured at the Tribute Centre.

This is a new and heavy milestone, for while America was hunting down bin Laden my son and his contemporaries grew up, and inherited a world irrevocably changed.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist with Jesuit Communications and a contributing travel writer for The Weekend Australian. 

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, September 11, World Trade Center, Osama Bin Laden

 

 

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Thank you for this very poignant reflection on 9/11 through your children's eyes, Catherine.

This event seems to have set us back 50 years, in many and varied ways. I wonder, though, whether the real 'sliding doors' moment, and the real legacy, lies in the Bush response to the tragedy. For that matter, would Al Gore have responded in the same way?

We can only wonder and try to weave again what was rent.
Fatima Measham | 09 September 2011


Thank you for this very poignant reflection on 9/11 through your children's eyes, Catherine.

This event seems to have set us back 50 years, in many and varied ways. I wonder, though, whether the real 'sliding doors' moment, and the real legacy, lies in the Bush response to the tragedy. For that matter, would Al Gore have responded in the same way?

We can only wonder and try to weave again what was rent.
Fatima Measham | 09 September 2011


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