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Friday, May 6, 2011

A return to normalcy: Reflecting on 9/11 in a post-Osama world

Jacob Hartog, MPA

Here’s how I know I’m the oldest MPA1: When 9/11 happened, I was already teaching. In fact, I was administering a beginning-of-the-year standardized test to my 6th grade homeroom when the aide who was handing out the bubble sheets to all the classrooms told me someone had crashed a plane into the World Trade Center, and that there were reports of a second plane as well. The kids overheard the aide’s words.

“Who crashed a plane, Mr. Hertawg?”

“Let’s have a moment of silence,” I said, pretty sure that was what I was supposed to do in these situations.

There were some uncomfortable giggles and a few restless seconds of silence, and then I kept handing out the bubble sheets.

From there, the day got more surreal. Parents began arriving around 10AM to pick up their kids, and the school—a huge and disorganized block of cement in the South Bronx, with 1,500 kids—became still more disorganized. Pretty soon, a long line of anxious parents snaked down the second-floor hallway, waiting to be told where their child was. When that situation began degenerating further, the main office began calling out name after name over the PA system, and the hallways began filling still more.

Finally, the teachers were told one by one to bring their classes down to the auditorium, where they marched past parents standing along the walls, who were supposed to point out their children like suspects in a lineup. When the last kids were dismissed at 3:20PM, rushing unafraid into a bright September day that had suddenly turned ominous for adults, I made my way home, walking from the Bronx to my apartment in Washington Heights. The subways and buses weren’t running, and the streets gradually filled with pedestrians walking in the middle of the road. As we crossed the bridge over the Harlem River into Manhattan, several people pointed at the sky, insisting they could see smoke in the distance of Downtown.

I was always surprised by the public reaction to 9/11, which seemed to be more bellicose the further one traveled from the attacks. Yes, in New York as anywhere else in the country there was anger as well as grief. But for those of us in New York, 9/11 represented a frightening answer to a question that anyone who lives in the City must inevitably pose: whether in living amid that buzzing and bustling confusion one sacrificed a crucial measure of control over life; whether the thin veneer of civility by which packed subway cars, crowded classrooms, and darkened streets become tolerable would one day vanish, revealing savagery and violence. My departure from normalcy was of course but the merest side-trip, compared to those of thousands of others, who returned that night to empty and grieving homes.

In the days after 9/11, perhaps inevitably, our leaders embraced the rhetoric of violence and revenge. But what was needed then was not cowboy swagger but civility, kindness, decorum: not just the kindness of the shopkeepers who had lined Broadway to pass out bottles of water to streets of weary and frightened commuters, nor just rightfully honoring the heroism of fallen rescue workers, nor just the admirable patriotism of thousands who volunteered for the armed forces in the following months; but also a belief in the power of laws, process, normalcy: that criminals can be brought to justice through the courts, that everyone can go back to school and work, and that the trains can run on time.

This is perhaps why the news of Osama bin Laden’s death fills me with ambivalence. It comes after a signal failure by President Obama—a man who believes as much as any in the power of laws and the limitations of violence—to close Guantanamo, to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial in a civilian court, and to fully to end unlawful interrogation practices and infringements on civil liberties. Perhaps none of these goals would have much impressed Osama bin Laden, and that is just why we should have embraced them. Instead, we are happy to crow over an enemy’s bloody death, a reaction bin Laden would have very much understood.

Any sane answer to Osama’s legacy of bloodshed, now as on September 11th, 2001, must start with a commitment to the power of process and normalcy. This commitment to the boring things in life is, perhaps, why we’re in a policy program: a belief that the war, the election, the revolution is never as important as the society in which we wake up on the morning after. A cost of such realism is, perhaps, a limitation to our political passions and a regulation of our hatreds and adorations. Ironically, the same weekend that Osama bin Laden was successfully assassinated, an unsuccessful NATO attempt on the life of Moammar Gadhafi instead killed the Libyan leader’s son as well as his three young grandchildren. Whether we are speaking of Obama, bin Laden or Bush, it is not leaders that ruin or redeem the world but the patterns of action they leave behind.


  1. Jacob - well done and well said. Gareth

  2. This is by far my favorite article in response to bin Laden's death. Excellent reflection, Jacob, and cogently put.