Sunday, September 23, 2001

One Degree of Separation

This President has said that we must get back to the business of our daily lives, that to do so denies the perpetrators of the terrible calamity in New York the victory of disruption that they so desperately crave. And he's right. While we must never forget what has happened, to wallow in it does us no good. Without disrespecting the memories of those who perished, the psyches of those who were traumatized or the efforts of those who were rescuers, the most important thing we can do is to move forward with new resolve. The path, of course, is not clear. But if the will is there, then we will find a way.

And so next week, I will return to documenting the twists and turns of daily life that strike me as a bit out of sync, as I have done in this space for nearly six years. In doing so I will leave it to much brighter minds than mine to work out the philosophical conundrums of liberty versus security, the practical considerations of lengthy airport check ins versus economy growth, the political consequences of military action as weighed against diplomatic efforts. Like you, I will watch, listen and participate to the best of my ability in the national conversation that will shape the future, the future that began last Tuesday at 8:45AM on a bright September morning.

But before we move on, we would be dishonoring all those affected if we didn't take away some lessons from this catastrophe. Not big ones about national security or urban safety or search and recovery... we'll leave those to the panels of experts that seem to have taken over CNN. Rather, while I was fortunate not to be directly involved with the horrors of the day, like anyone who lives in the metropolitan area, I know plenty of those who were at every level. Their stories are visceral, disturbing and heartbreaking, but also filled with tutorials. Without presuming to be definitive, and recognizing that these observations are viewed through my own imperfect prism, here are but a few.

Bob was in the revolving door of the South Tower when the first plane hit. He told me about the decisions he made that morning that put him there at that time, most specifically taking the long way around in order to get a little extra fresh air. Likewise, Tim was walking across the north bridge at the same moment, people-watching with the spare time he had. In both cases, they confessed to being where they were because the day was so beautiful that they couldn't bring themselves to hurry to their desks. I would submit that the lesson isn't to dawdle nor to speed up. Rather, it is that life can be cut short in an instant, and so you should savor the view wherever you are, wherever you're going and whatever you're doing.

In the days following the disaster, I received scores of calls and emails from people all around the country and the world, from Colorado to Ohio, from Japan to Australia, checking up on me and my family and mutual associates, and offering prayers and expressions of concern. I know how I felt when I got the communication: touched that someone was thinking of me, even people whom I barely knew. Indeed, I did much the same, reaching out to close friends, as well as people with whom I had only a passing acquaintance. Many of those I contacted spoke of the same kind of gratitude for my efforts that I had experienced. If I learned anything from that, it is that I am part of a community that I take for granted, one that I should be far more appreciative of in the future.

As businesses began to reactivate on Monday morning, there was a sense of getting ready for battle. All you had to do was look at the shots of the traders on the floor of the New York Stock exchange as a marine sang "God Bless America" to see it. The scene resembled the start of any football game, with the "Star Bangled Banner" being played over shots of athletes twitching with anticipation. And yet, for most people, the importance attached to wheeling and dealing and buying and selling and office politics seemed to have diminished. One Wall Street broker put it best: no matter what the situation, nothing is so important any more that any interaction with a client, associate, family or friend shouldn't begin with a personal conversation.

There are plenty of other lessons to take to heart. Disasters affect real people, not movie extras: the next time there is a monsoon in India or an earthquake in Japan, perhaps we'll understand that and reach out with more compassion than we've shown in the past. We need to differentiate freedom from privileges, and understand what's important. Taken another way, it's a freedom to be able to travel when and where and how we wish; it's a privilege to be able to check in 10 minutes before the flight. And no matter how stoic, how professional, how hardcore you are, you can still cry, still benefit from a hug and no one will think less of you.

Ithiel Pool, one of the grand visionaries of the modern social sciences, originated the concept "six degrees of separation" to describe the phenomenon of a shrinking world, where any random two people can discover a link through a chain of six acquaintances. But with over 5000 souls lost, that chain gets a lot shorter. It harkens back to 1961, when Berlin was partitioned and the wall went up. At the time, the US spearheaded an international effort to fly food and supplies into the besieged city. President Kennedy went there himself, and in a famous speech, declared the solidarity of the world's people with the citizens of that stricken zone. Well, in a paraphrase that I'm sure he wouldn't object to, people the world over are proclaiming that at least for this week, "Ich bin ein New Yorker."


Marc Wollin of Bedford has written Glancing Askance since 1995. It appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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