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World Trade Center attacks: secondary impacts

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But when I walked out onto the street after the appointment, I heard a deafening roar. Crowds of people stopped in their tracks and looked up at the sky. The sound was mind-bending and scary to all of us who were still trying to get over the attacks of the week before. Then we saw them, the fighter jets. Ours. Finally, the US military has come to protect us, a guy in a suit said, ironically. Another man turned and smiled, sadly. “We’re in a death trap.”

“Target practice,” the guy next to him interjected.

“We’re the bulls-eye.”

The term “bulls-eye” came up in conversation all the time. Wel felt targeted. We felt the next attack was imminent.

Still, it was unanimous. The air was safe to breathe. It was unpatriotic to argue.

It was patriotic for downtown residents to remain in their homes and to return to work in the financial district and at the stock market and to resume ordinary life. Mayor Giuliani, resurrected from the cesspool of personal scandal into a powerful leader, said so.

So did George Bush. So did Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA.

In the new Manhattan that emerged after the disaster, it was acceptable to be patriotic, despite the real international diversity of the city. Little American flags appeared on the sides of subway trains.

American flags hung draped from apartment windows. They showed up on the windows of cabs. Seik drivers wearing turbans and beards sported “I Love America” stickers on their dashboards. Flags fluttered from car antennae. They covered entire trucks, entire buildings, entire blocks. I felt I was suffocating under the weight of these flags.

I have always been a pacifist and I am steeped in political history. Even I felt like whoever did this thing should be punished. I felt a crime had been committed, mass murder. I felt that Interpol should go after the perpetrators and bring them to justice. But I didn’t understand the cry for war or nationalism.

At the same time, when Thich Nhat Hanh came to New York and advised New Yorkers to look to the root of the problem that had caused people to act in such a way, I felt angry with the great teacher. I had attended many of his retreats after writing a long piece about him for an American magazine. I respected him immensely. But I couldn’t handle hearing him talk this way, so soon after the event.

It didn’t matter what the roots were to the people who were murdered. It wasn’t their fault. It was the fault of systems and political structures, not individuals. And the individuals that were killed in the disaster had come from all over the world. Politicians act and indivduals pay. The Supreme Court had given us our president only ten months before. It didn't help that the majority of Americans didn't want him.

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” the attorney general of the United States announced. PS234, the Tribeca-based school that was only four blocks from the disaster site, had been moved for the time being about fifteen blocks uptown, to Greenwich Village, to PS49.

The nearby school was going to be moved to my son’s school, New Explorations of Science Technology and Math, off of Avenue C in the East Village. Ugly stuff began to come up from the Tribeca parents about coming to NEST, because NEST sat directly across from a large complex of public housing projects, where some of the city’s poorest residents were housed.

It was ugly, but these families were under tremendous pressure. Many had been forced to find shelter with friends or relatives in other parts of the city. Their apartments were contaminated. Children who had enjoyed immense privileges, like round the clock nannies, were now sleeping with their parents on mattresses on the floors or on couches, in the apartments of friends. A “guest room” is a rare thing in New York. A world of privilege had become a world of hardship.

It didn’t look pretty when the mothers came to school. Some mothers stayed at school all day. They had nowhere else to go. And they over worried about everything, from the kinds of snacks their children ate to the disruption to the regular classroom schedule to petty grievances like who sat where. Manhattan mothers always worry. But this was off the charts.

The kids were going crazy, too. A number of kids had lost a parent in the tragedy. Others saw the planes hit or saw the buildings explode and disappear off the landscape. Many had looked out the window of their school on that day and seen people jumping and falling to their deaths from the high windows of the trade centre. They doubled up with the original PS49 kindergarten classrooms and did their lessons and drew pictures of collapsing towers, burning buildings and people who looked like scrawny stick birds plunging to their deaths. In their free time, they built tall block structures and obsessively knocked them down. This was how the youngest witnesses began to process what they’d seen.

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