" Universal Community of Friends - Ghosts and Echoes by Robin Morgan

Ghosts and Echoes

by Robin Morgan

Today was Day 8. Incredibly, a week has passed. Abnormal normalcy has
settled in. Our usually contentious mayor (previously bad news for New
Yorkers of color and for artists) has risen to this moment with
efficiency, compassion, real leadership. The city is alive and dynamic.

Below 14th Street, traffic is flowing again, mail is being delivered,
newspapers are back. But very early this morning I walked east, then south
almost to the tip of Manhattan Island. The 16-acre site itself is closed
off, of course, as is a perimeter surrounding it controlled by the
National Guard, used as a command post and staging area for rescue
workers. Still, one is able to approach nearer to the area than was
possible last weekend, since the law-court district and parts of the
financial district are now open and shakily) working. The closer one gets
the more one sees--and smells- what no TV report, and very few print
reports, have communicated. I find myself giving way to tears again and
again, even as I write this.

If the first sights of last Tuesday seemed bizarrely like a George Lucas
special-effects movie, now the directorial eye has changed: it's the grim
lens of Agnes Varda, juxtaposed with images so surreal they could have
been framed by Bunuel or Kurosawa.

This was a bright, cloudless, early autumnal day. But as one draws near
the site, the area looms out of a dense haze: one enters an atmosphere of
dust, concrete powder, and plumes of smoke from fires still raging deep
beneath the rubble (an estimated 2 million cubic yards of debris). Along
lower 2nd Avenue, 10 refrigerator tractor-trailer trucks are parked,
waiting; if you stand there a while, an NYC Medical Examiner van arrives
-with a sagging body bag.

Thick white ash, shards of broken glass, pebbles, and chunks of concrete
cover street after street of parked cars for blocks outside the perimeter.
Handprints on car windows and doors- handprints sliding downward--have
been left like frantic graffiti. Sometimes there are messages
finger-written in the ash: "U R Alive." You can look into closed shops,
many with cracked or broken windows, and peer into another dimension: a
wall-clock stopped at 9:10, restaurant tables meticulously set but now
covered with two inches of ash, grocery shelves stacked with cans and
produce bins piled high with apples and melons--all now powdered
chalk-white. A moonscape of plenty. People walk unsteadily along these
streets, wearing nosemasks against the still particle-full air, the stench
of burning wire and plastic, erupted sewage; the smell of death, of
decomposing flesh. Probably your TV coverage shows the chain-link fences
aflutter with yellow ribbons, the makeshift shrines of candles, flowers,
scribbled notes of mourning or of praise for the rescue workers that have
sprung up everywhere--especially in front of firehouses, police stations,
hospitals. What TV doesn't show you is that near Ground Zero the streets
for blocks around are still, a week later, adrift in bits of
paper--singed, torn, sodden pages: stock reports, trading print-outs,
shreds of appointment calendars, half of a "To-Do" list.

What TV doesn't show you are scores of tiny charred corpses now swept into the gutters. Sparrows. Finches. They fly higher than pigeons, so they
would have exploded outward, caught midair in a rush of flame, wings on
fire as they fell. Who could have imagined it: the birds were burning.

From a distance, you can see the lattices of one of the Towers, its
skeletal bones the sole remains, eerily beautiful in asymmetry, as if a
new work of abstract art had been erected in a public space. Elsewhere,
you see the transformation of institutions: The New School and New York
University are missing persons' centers. A movie house is now a rest
shelter, a Burger King a first-aid center, a Brooks Brothers' clothing
store a body parts morgue, a record shop a haven for lost animals.
Libraries are counseling centers. Ice rinks are morgues. A bank is now a
supply depot: in the first four days, it distributed 11,000 respirators
and 25,000 pairs of protective gloves and suits. Nearby, a mobile medical
unit housed in a Macdonald's has administered 70,000 tetanus shots. The
brain tries to process the numbers: "only" 50,000 tons of debris had been
cleared by yesterday, out of 1.2 million tons. The medical examiner's
office has readied up to 20,000 DNA tests for unidentifiable cadaver
parts. At all times, night and day, a minimum of 1000 people live and work
on the site. Such numbers daze the mind. It's the details--fragile,
individual-that melt numbness into grief. An anklet with "Joyleen"
engraved on it--found on an ankle. Just that: an ankle. A pair of
hands--one brown, one white-clasped together. Just that. No wrists. A
burly welder who drove from Ohio to help, saying softly, "We're working in
a cemetery. I'm standing in--not on, in-a graveyard." Each lamppost,
storefront, scaffolding, mailbox, is plastered with homemade photocopied
posters, a racial/ethnic rainbow of faces and names: death the great
leveler, not only of the financial CEOs- their images usually formal,
white, male, older, with suit-and-tie--but the mailroom workers,
receptionists, waiters. You pass enough of the MISSING posters and the
faces, names, descriptions become familiar. The Albanian window-cleaner
guy with the bushy eyebrows. The teenage Mexican dishwasher who had an
American flag tattoo. The janitor's assistant who'd emigrated from Ethiopia. The Italian-American grandfather who was a doughnut-cart tender.

The 23-year-old Chinese American junior pastry chef at the Windows on the
World restaurant who'd gone in early that day so she could prep a business
breakfast for 500. The firefighter who'd posed jauntily wearing his green
shamrock necktie. The dapper African-American midlevel manager with a
small gold ring in his ear who handled "minority affairs" for one of the
companies. The middle-aged secretary laughing up at the camera from her
wheelchair. The maintenance worker with a Polish name, holding his newborn baby. Most of the faces are smiling; most of the shots are family photos; many are recent wedding pictures. . . .

I have little national patriotism, but I do have a passion for New York,
partly for our gritty, secular energy of endurance, and because the world
does come here: 80 countries had offices in the Twin Towers; 62 countries
lost citizens in the catastrophe; an estimated 300 of our British cousins
died, either in the planes or the buildings. My personal comfort is found
not in ceremonies or prayer services but in watching the plain, truly
heroic a word usually misused) work of ordinary New Yorkers we take for
granted every day, who have risen to this moment unpretentiously, too busy
even to notice they're expressing the splendor of the human spirit:
firefighters, medical aides, nurses, ER doctors, police officers,
sanitation workers, construction-workers, ambulance drivers, structural
engineers, crane operators, rescue worker, "tunnel rats". . .

Meanwhile, across the US, the rhetoric of retaliation is in full-throated
roar. Flag sales are up. Gun sales are up. Some radio stations have banned
playing John Lennon's song, "Imagine." Despite appeals from all officials
even Bush), mosques are being attacked, firebombed; Arab Americans are
hiding their children indoors; two murders in Arizona have already been
categorized as hate crimes--one victim a Lebanese-American man and one a Sikh man who died merely for wearing a turban. (Need I say that there were not nationwide attacks against white Christian males after Timothy McVeigh was apprehended for the Oklahoma City bombing?)

Last Thursday, right-wing televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson
our home-grown American Taliban leaders) appeared on Robertson's TV show The 700 Club," where Falwell blamed "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists and the gays and lesbians ... the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way" and groups "who have tried to secularize America" for what occurred in New York. Robertson replied, "I totally concur." After even the Bush White House called the remarks" inappropriate," Falwell apologized (though he did not take back his sentiments); Robertson hasn't even apologized. (The program is carried by the Fox Family Channel, recently purchased by the Walt Disney Company--in case you'd like to register a protest. The sirens have lessened. But the drums have started. Funeral drums. War drums. A State of Emergency, with a call-up of 50,000 reservists to active duty. The Justice Department is seeking increased authority for wider surveillance, broader
detention powers, wiretapping of persons (not, as previously, just phone
numbers), and stringent press restrictions on military reporting.

And the petitions have begun. For justice but not vengeance. For a
reasoned response but against escalating retaliatory violence. For
vigilance about civil liberties. For the rights of innocent Muslim
Americans. For bombing Afghanistan with food and medical parcels, NOT
firepower. There will be the expectable peace marches, vigils, rallies. .
. . One member of the House of Representatives--Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, an African American woman--lodged the sole vote in both houses of Congress against giving Bush broadened powers for a war response, saying she didn't believe a massive military campaign would stop
terrorism. (She could use letters of support: email her, if you wish, at
barbara.lee@mail.house.gov.)

Those of us who have access to the media have been trying to get a
different voice out. But ours are complex messages with long-term
solutions-and this is a moment when people yearn for simplicity and
short-term, facile answers. Still, I urge all of you to write letters to
the editors of newspapers, call in to talk radio shows, and, for those of
you who have media access-as activists, community leaders, elected or
appointed officials, academic experts, whatever--to do as many interviews
and TV programs as you can. Use the tool of the Internet. Talk about the
root causes of terrorism, about the need to diminish this daily climate of
patriarchal violence surrounding us in its state-sanctioned normalcy; the
need to recognize people's despair over ever being heard short of
committing such dramatic, murderous acts; the need to address a
desperation that becomes chronic after generations of suffering; the need
to arouse that most subversive of emotions--empathy-for "the other"; the
need to eliminate hideous economic and political injustices, to reject all
tribal/ethnic hatreds and fears, to repudiate religious fundamentalisms of
every kind. Especially talk about the need to understand that we must
expose the mystique of violence, separate it from how we conceive of
excitement, eroticism, and "manhood"; the need to comprehend that violence differs in degree but is related in kind, that it thrives along a
spectrum, as do its effects--from the battered child and raped woman who
live in fear to an entire populace living in fear.

Meanwhile, we cry and cry and cry. I don't even know who my tears are for
anymore, because I keep seeing ghosts, I keep hearing echoes. The world's
sympathy moves me deeply. Yet I hear echoes dying into silence: the world
averting its attention from the Rwanda's screams . . Ground Zero is a huge
mass grave. And I think: Bosnia. Uganda. More than 5400 people are missing and presumed dead (not even counting the Washington and Pennsylvania deaths). The TV anchors choke up: civilians, they say, my god, civilians. And I see ghosts. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Dresden. Vietnam.

I watch the mask-covered mouths and noses on the street turn into the
faces of Tokyo citizens who wear such masks every day against toxic
pollution. I watch the scared eyes become the fearful eyes of women forced
to wear the hajib or chodor or burka against their will . . . I stare at
the missing posters' photos and think of the Mothers of the Disappeared.
And I see the ghosts of other faces. In photographs on the walls of
Holocaust museums. In newspaper clippings from Haiti. In chronicles from
Cambodia . . . I worry for people who've lost their homes near the site,
though I see how superbly social-service agencies are trying to meet their
immediate and longer-term needs. But I see ghosts: the perpetually
homeless who sleep on city streets, whose needs are never addressed. . . .
I watch normally unflappable New Yorkers flinch at loud noises, parents
panic when their kids are late from school. And I see my Israeli feminist
friends like Yvonne, who've lived with this dread for decades
and still (even yesterday) stubbornly issue petitions insisting on peace.
. . I watch sophisticates sob openly in the street, people who've lost
workplaces, who don't know where their next paycheck will come from, who
fear a contaminated water or food supply, who are afraid for their sons in
the army, who are unnerved by security checkpoints, who are in mourning,
who feel wounded, humiliated, outraged. And I see my friends like Zuhira
in the refugee camps of Gaza or West Bank, Palestinian women who have
lived in precisely that emotional condition--for four generations.

Last weekend, many Manhattanites left town to visit concerned families,
try to normalize, get away for a break. As they streamed out of the city,
I saw ghosts of other travelers: hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees
streaming toward their country's borders in what is to them habitual
terror, trying to escape a drought-sucked country so war-devastated
there's nothing left to bomb, a country with 50,000 disabled orphans and
two million widows whose sole livelihood is begging; where the life
expectancy of men is 42 and women 40; where women hunch in secret
whispering lessons to girl children forbidden to go to school, women who
risk death by beheading-for teaching a child to read. The ghosts stretch
out their hands. Now you know, they weep, gesturing at the carefree,
insulated, indifferent, golden innocence that was my country's safety,
arrogance, and pride. Why should it take such horror to make you see? the
echoes sigh, Oh please do you finally see? This is calamity. And
opportunity. The United States--what so many of you call America --could
choose now to begin to understand the world. And join it. Or not.

For now my window still displays no flag, my lapel sports no red-white
and-blue ribbon. Instead, I weep for a city and a world. Instead, I cling
to a different loyalty, affirming my un-flag, my un-anthem, my un-prayer-
the defiant un-pledge of a madwoman who also had mere words as her only
tools in a time of ignorance and carnage, Virginia Woolf: "As a woman I
have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is
the whole world." If this is treason, may I be worthy of it. In
mourning--and absurd, tenacious hope,

Robin Morgan, September 18, 2001, New York City

The Provincetown Design Group
336 Commercial street #8
Provincetown, MA 02657
508.487.7733

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