By Jan Herman
With the second anniversary of 9/11 almost upon us, we’re about to be inundated again by television documentaries on the World Trade Center, the attacks on it and the Pentagon, and even by a fictionalized replay of those events–although public officials and the news media have made less extensive plans to mark the anniversary than last year.
I may be no one to talk, having done my share of 9/11 stories: A deadline report on the day of the attacks, another on the day after, a week later when the New York Stock Exchange reopened, and yet again on the first anniversary of 9/11. But here’s the TV deluge anyway:
Amid all this, perhaps we should keep in mind Jimmy Breslin’s single-minded, little-publicized columns about not making martyrs of those who died at Ground Zero. Breslin argues against memorializing their deaths more than we do others who have died under ordinary circumstances. He wrote on Friday in Newsday:
[N]obody … has exclusive ownership for memorials and the like. Since the attack, some 140,000 New Yorkers have died. … It happened to be pretty tragic for their loved ones, too. If we have a memorial for some people, then we should have one for all.
Breslin, ever the contrarian, has been arguing for a long time against turning Ground Zero into a glorified cemetery. It’s not a popular position to take. Neither is his position on future skyscrapers at Ground Zero. He sees no virtue in them because he believes they’ll be flattened again. He thinks their reconstruction is a symbol of overweaning pride. Breslin has always been wary of hubris. It’s one of the lessons of his streetwise education — and he keeps reminding us that it’s a lesson worth remembering, especially for those in power far above the streets.
It’s not that he fails to sympathize with the families of the WTC victims. His columns have told many of their stories. Just a week ago he wrote about a mother’s desperate fight for the transcripts and tapes that recorded the last words of a daughter who died on the 106th floor of the north tower.
“Mention the World Trade Center to Giuliani and to him that means I, me, my catastrophe, my site, my workers, my fund, my all of it.” And he has railed against the lies of the Bush administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, when they assured the public it was safe to breathe air at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attack.
Further, Breslin wrote about another building’s collapse, a whole book in fact: “The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez.” (Free registration required.) In it he memorializes a 21-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant day laborer whose death on a construction site in Brooklyn was caused not by terrorists but by the more common causes of building-code violations, corruption and greed. This is a death that implicates all of us in a tragic betrayal of America’s promise, Breslin warrants, and it’s no less notable than 3,016 murders by terrorists. Is he right?Make up your own mind. But Breslin has me wondering.
FROM THE MAILBAG
Straight Up reader Shane Hockin writes that he agrees with much of what Jimmy Breslin has to say about George Bush (“I agree with anyone who says he’s a liar”), rebuilding skyscrapers at Ground Zero (“They should include big red targets on them to make them look appropriate”) and Rudolph Giuliani (“To hear him talk you’d think he’d personally escaped the towers and carried thousands of people on his back to safety”).
“But I totally disagree with Mr. Breslin’s stance on the memorial,” Hockin continues. “There is so much more to it than just honoring the victims and their families. This is an event that we need to remember, because it had a major impact on every single person in the country, and that impact will be felt for a long time. The memorial in no way slights everyone who has died in New York, as Mr. Breslin seems to insinuate. That is ridiculous.
“The fact of the matter is you can’t erect a big memorial for every single person who dies, but you can for a group that symbolizes something that is a major part of our recent history. Besides, almost everyone else who dies under ordinary circumstances gets a memorial from their family. So I guess I just don’t get his argument. I understand the protest against building towers and such, but being anti-memorial does not make any sense to me.”
MORE FROM THE
This e-mail comes from a Straight Up reader who prefers to remain anonymous:
“I say BRAVO, Jimmy Breslin!!! I was across the street from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 and witnessed a jetliner traveling at ground level down Columbia Pike toward the Pentagon. I’ll never forget the day — the smoke-filled air, the smell of burning diesel and charred flesh, people screaming and crying. Confusion and chaos. A horrible tragedy …
“There were many acts of courage and heroism that day. The firefighters and police were awesomely brave in their dedication to helping, at terrible risk to their own lives, those in trouble…. As a nation, we should honor them for their astounding courage. … But were those who died martyrs? I kinda think they’d be the first to tell you they were doing what they were trained to do and what their hearts directed them to do. No one intended to die on that horrible day, their intentions were to save life, not sacrifice it.
“Another example: I’m very happy Jessica Lynch made it home. But let’s face it, she probably wasn’t the bravest soldier in the conflict, she was simply someone in a terrible circumstance with a newsworthy story. Perhaps we delude ourselves into believing that if Jessica Lynch could be saved then maybe all those innocent kids dying in a strange place so far away from home could somehow be restored to us as well. But if Jessica is a hero, then every single soldier in Iraq is a national hero. Why don’t we hear their stories, too?
“Sometimes, people find themselves in bad places in bad times, but this in and of itself does not make one a hero or martyr. It’s as if simply being human makes us heroic these days. I don’t have a problem with 9/11 remembrances so long as we use it as an opportunity for healing and not as a platform to further anyone’s political agenda or help someone become famous for inappropriate reasons.”