Ground Zero and the American Psyche

The connection between the state of New York’s Ground Zero and the way Americans are coping with grief from 9/11.

What We Could Have

Last night’s 60 Minutes had a fascinating, infuriating piece about Ground Zero, the big hole in New York that still remains after the Twin Towers fell almost a decade ago.  The piece follows the perspective primarily of Larry Silverstein, the “New York real estate tycoon” who had hopes to revive Ground Zero into something more splendid even than what stood there before.  Actually, to be honest, I never thought the Twin Towers were all that interesting to look at, but I respect their significance, even before 9/11.

About 3 years after September 11th, I started to hear people wonder out loud why nothing outside of cleanup had happened at Ground Zero.  Over the years since, it has flared up in the media in waves occasionally, but for the vast majority of the time no one  has been talking about it in any truly public voice that I’ve heard.

The interviews and perspective presented last night on 60 minutes were grisly to say the least.  According to them, it has been a combination of bureaucracy, faulty leadership and a lack of effective communication that has stopped a number of riveting skyscrapers, a beautiful memorial and museum, and a freaking sweet train station.  Though some buildings may be done by 2014 (only 13 years after the disaster!), the majority of them do not have a set construction date, which may mean never ever ever.

What We Have

Now there’s  just a big empty hole.  It’s ugly, useless and eating up billions of dollarsA hole is what remains from the most traumatic moment in American history. Though I have no doubt that 60 Minutes was right in saying that it is primarily disorganization and selfishness that is stopping Ground Zero from going forward.  But one thing 60 Minutes didn’t cover, probably intentionally, is the fascinating metaphor that can be drawn between the United States and this hole.

How does a child act after she has been traumatized?  Imagine a little boy who’s mother and father were killed in a car accident, or a teenager who is dealing with physical abuse.

How did we act after September 11th?  We were scared, and angry, and confused.  Shell shocked and enraged, we lashed out, and quickly.  We punched and kicked two nations that weren’t responsible, but were simple targets.  We turned on ourselves, almost like a schizophrenic; we simultaneously berated ourselves and lifted ourselves on a pedestal.  In short, we did not act very rationally after 9/11.  We were like a child.  Which makes sense, as we are still such a young nation.

So, if you’re still with me on this analogy.  America is no longer shocked.  We have accepted what happened, though I don’t think we’ve gotten to starting to think about the true, actual reasons why it happened.  That comes later.  First we must grieve.  Grieving is the most important step to moving on with things, which is what our nation desperately needs.  We must let go of that day, not forget it, but reconcile with it.  But we can’t do that until we all truly stop being angry.  Angry at ourselves and angry at anyone else involved.  Just like childhood trauma, a young nation’s first trauma is the most haunting.

I imagine some people will read this as unpatriotic.  I admit, I don’t have anyone close to me who died as a result of these attacks.  But I do know that what our nation has become since 9/11 is not a healed creature.  We are deeply wounded, and the severe split that those two planes ripped between the people of this country has done nothing but get wider and wider since.  We have split so far apart, that now I seed a terrible, sad, hole in the center of all things American.  Our fear that we transformed predominately into anger rather than national sadness has ripped a hole right through us.

But imagine if we didn’t do it that way.  Imagine if we had built up around that split.  Taken the pain and turned it into something more healthy and stronger: a better version of our previous self.  That is what we could have done.

And that is what we could have done at Ground Zero.  If the bureaucrats in charge can’t pull together and move forward on the project, perhaps it’s partially because we can’t move on as a people.  It’s easier to leave it as a hole than it is to say goodbye to what was destroyed there.

These two things effect each other in an infinite cycle.  If we were to fill the void at Ground Zero with a park, a museum, a sky screaper, a memorial, a train station, a green house, whatever as long as it were new and fresh and beautiful, we would have an easier time moving on as a country.  It wouldn’t be a sick reminder in the back of our collective head, but something to refresh us and help us let go.  In the same vein, if we were to let go, to both give out and seek out apologies, it might be easier to replace what was knocked down in New York City.

Or am I way off the mark here?

9 responses to “Ground Zero and the American Psyche

  1. Very serious post Liam, I would put out there that we as a nation are still in denial or a disassociative state about what really happened and why.

  2. I am planning my trip to NYC whenever Freedom Tower or whatever they finally decide to call it is built. I’m hoping for it to be cathartic for me, as well as other Americans. Nice article. Great blog.

  3. Okay. So, I’ve been reading shit tons about 9/11 and cultural trauma. Turns out that’s what happens when you’re a grad student and 9/11 is The Event that sets off your dissertation.

    I do not think that 9/11 was the first traumatic event in U.S. history. My guess is that the Civil War was pretty f-ing traumatic. As was Vietnam. And the Kennedy assassination. However, what DOES make 9/11 different is the fact that the trauma has been so reiterated. The nation stopped to watch the towers fall. And then we watched it again. And again. And again. Just a couple weeks ago, new 9/11 pictures came out, so that we could view it another time, from another angle. Additionally, the news was already referencing the trauma of this before the towers hit the ground so we were “prepped” to be traumatized as well.

    I agree with you, had we time to grieve and process the events after the trauma of 9/11, we as a nation, and the world as whole would be much, much better off. And we would be safer. But, let’s not forget that about two weeks after 9/11, Bush made a public speech to Congress letting the nation know that it was time to “turn grief into action.” He foreclosed the possibility of a full grieving cycle for may Americans. And how do you get that back? Maybe you leave a hole in the ground as an attempt.

    Also, after trauma, one reaction can be acting out. Another reaction can be a silencing, an inability to speak, a shutting down. There is also the before/after split that is left by trauma. How do we move on from the “before” to the “after” if we cannot speak it? Perhaps the hole is our country’s way of being silenced. Or, perhaps we have not yet figured out how to continue on into the after of 9/11, especially when we still don’t really have an understanding of what/who we were before.

    Okay. I’ll stop now.

  4. Maybe as an Australian I’m not qualified to comment but re. ‘Imagine if we had built up around that split. Taken the pain and turned it into something more healthy and stronger: a better version of our previous self. That is what we could have done’ I reckon I agree with you. A wonderful park filled with heaps of public art; a place for creativity, for the imagination. That’s what I’d like to see in that place.

  5. When a hole is left- and an ugly one at that…it is a constant reminder of not feeling “whole”…quite the metaphor. in my opinion, this is not by change. Such an image is a constant reminder of a wounded state. This serves to keep (perhaps unconsciously) the American people in a shattered state: more fearful; disempowered.

    History shows that people who are wounded are more easily CONTROLLED

    With respect, I disagree with your observation of people after the falling of the towers.

    “We were scared, and angry, and confused. Shell shocked and enraged, we lashed out, and quickly…”

    Most in NYC did not want war; did not want more violence. The first emotion that people displayed toward each-other was compassion.

    There was no impatient honking in cars, people were quiet and resourceful -they chose to help each-other and to act with love, not revenge.

  6. “not by chance” what i meant to write, instead of “not by change”. sorry.

  7. This is very important post. I agree with Judith that there’s denial and disassociation. And I know from being right there when it happened that omshanti is spot on. The first reaction was the impulse to care, an overwhelming desire to volunteer, give blood, do anything. People got really upset if they couldn’t do something. There was an UNPRECEDENTED global moment of silence.
    I myself was a volunteer for about six months. In that vulnerable moment, another crime was committed which involved shaping public perception. It was taking advantage of a traumatized population (more easily controlled).
    I do not believe that it’s time to stop being angry. I believe true healing will only come when the depths of what really happened — and its spin-off wars are faced. When America fully allows itself to realize who did this, and why, then cathartic anger can lead to justice, right action, the appropriate trials and so on. The world needs to see this crime solved and the subsequent crimes stopped.
    There are journalists who have paid heavy prices to bring the truth to light. One is Christopher Bollyn. It involves following the money, and the ownership of the complex is tied up with that.
    The truth is darker than we realize. It requires us to lose our innocence, and grow into spiritual maturity. To face those who have sought to destroy this country and do it in a way that will bring a new foundation and a fresh start.
    When I think back on that global moment of silence, and see how many people — including families that lost their beloved sons, daughters, mothers, fathers — are courageously seeking the truth, I am hopeful.

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