We’ve completed the mission to remove Osama Bin Laden from atop the world’s terrorist watch list. The hatred and cruelty of his Al Qaeda followers who orchestrated the terrifying events of September 11, 2001 will never be forgotten.
I will always remember how the attacks of 9/11 galvanized our sense of togetherness on the Rockaway Peninsula. Ten years ago, immersed in our communal grief, most of us didn’t document the events or their aftermath on film. So what? The images are seared in my mind—the long line of firefighters standing at attention in a salute in front of St. Camillus Church as the flag-draped casket of firefighter John Heffernan of Ladder 11 passed by along Rockaway Beach Boulevard. The service for Vincent Kane of Engine 22 in Breezy Point. Everyone holding hands on the sidewalk in front of St. Francis deSales Church, during yet another funeral. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook arose as the natural genesis of 9/11, since we felt a need to convey all of the many things that were happening so quickly during those days.
But we can step back now, in anticipation of the commemoration of the decade since the attacks, and take a long view. How many of us have absorbed the lesson that our world (and our country, sadly) harbors far too much violence and bigotry? While we’ve been in adversarial mode, churning through soldiers and materiel in Iraq and Afghanistan, democratic movements have been flowering in the most unlikely of places, surprising the pin-headed commentators, business executives, and political strategists who never see beyond the next election, or the next quarterly report of their profits.
When will we get it? The people in the Middle East(and elsewhere on the planet) want life and liberty, too. They want to pursue happiness, and no doubt, admire and are inspired by the optimism of our democratic ideals. Wouldn’t it be great if we actually started living up to those ideals?
I believe that the anniversary of 9/11 should not be about looking back. It should be about looking forward, to the challenges we face as a society. There is no better place to see illustrations of those challenges than here on the Rockaway Peninsula. The N.Y. Times “Editorial Observer” recently asserted that southwest Brooklyn is “perhaps the only section of the city divided enough to match the national debate” over the controversial House Republican budget proposal that would “privatize Medicare, slash Medicaid and cut taxes for the rich.” Those reporters need to get out of Manhattan a little bit more. Many portions of the Rockaway Peninsula are just as divided on these questions.
The costs of Medicare and Medicaid, the battle over the future and soul of the public schools and other unionized work places, clean air and water issues, the high costs and inefficiency of public transit, gross disparities between the wealthy and the working poor–all the problems are here on display in Rockaway. The “My Turn” column in last week’s Wave about the Dayton Towers’ union dispute perfectly illustrates the diametrically opposed points of view. When Mayor Bloomberg visited last, he stated, quite correctly, that “there are no simple solutions” to our problems.
Yet, our pop culture is obsessed with the soap opera of reality television–with its zero-sum games where there are only winners and losers. The portrayal of epic battles to fight obesity, sing or dance better than the next performer, or survive a difficult trial in the wilderness. The reality show of real life is far less compelling. It has lots of gray areas, and compromise, cooperation, and small incremental bits of progress over time are the key to accomplishing positive change.
People like simple and dramatic solutions. The marketing world thrives on them. So do legislators. Just wipe out public employee unions with the stroke of a pen! The cost of providing workers with promised pensions goes away. Buy the next new diet pill! Swallow three times a day and the weight comes off like magic. It’s so much easier than changing one’s wasteful, unhealthful, and ineffective habits. That great observer of human nature, Mark Twain, understood this dilemma, and is quoted as having said: “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”
Our society is still upstairs, searching for answers to our problems. We need to start moving downstairs soon. Too bad they tore down that great Rockaway Beach Hotel, The Imperial, in 1889. The grand staircase was so wide that 40 people could link arms and walk downstairs together. Now that would come in handy.
All text and photos copyright Vivian R. Carter 2011