Sunday, September 11, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

"Human kind cannot bear very much reality." -- T.S. Eliot

A decade has passed since live television broadcast of the second plane striking the south tower reduced a nation to numb incredulity and wounded our collective imaginations in unprecedented ways. That instant became the defining image of the new century.

There was no television at the library that morning. I streamed National Public Radio coverage off my desk computer, imagining horrible scenes cast against the fictional movie backdrop of “Towering Inferno.” When I finally viewed the real thing on CNN at lunch time it turned my insides to water.

The images defied verisimilitude, the mind disconnected. I’d only visited NYC once, as member of a church youth group tour in1969, three to four years before the World Trade Center towers were completed. Surely Godzilla would emerge from that rolling cloud of debris chasing New Yorkers down the street after the WTC towers collapsed. But it wasn’t a budget flick. It was real.

Events acquired a face when I received an email from a close friend. On that Tuesday morning, Sherry was walking along the fence enclosing the White House grounds on her way to the Commerce Department from her office building within the two block extended security zone.

When she reached LaFayette Square in front of the executive mansion, people suddenly began pouring out of its doors and from adjacent buildings like gerbils out of a shoebox. Secret Service agents armed with automatic weapons ran through the square yelling at everyone to evacuate the area. Additional heavily armed guards and anti-aircraft weapons appeared on the White House roof.

Sherry stood open-mouthed, momentarily transfixed by the scene around her until one of the agents shouted in her face, “What are you – stupid??!! RUN!!!” As she turned and sprinted down a side street a fighter plane flew over at a low altitude, scaring her witless. She made it back to her office by a circuitous route just in time to learn the building was being evacuated. Her eleven mile drive home to Maryland took two hours.

The last shred of protective detachment I’d been able to maintain as a shield against reality shattered as I read my friend’s message and realized what might have happened to her. Then I thought of the friends and family of the thousands who were injured, killed or missing – many of them simply blown to bits – and burst into tears.

Local author Vicki Houston was scheduled to be the featured speaker at the Rhinelander District Library’s first author series program the evening of September 11. We debated whether to cancel as the day wore on, finally deciding to go ahead out of the conviction that those who would come needed a touchstone of normalcy in a country turned upside down.

There were rumors of panic lines at gas stations as I phoned radio stations to confirm the program would be held. An angry call from an anonymous someone who labeled our decision disrespectful and dangerous added to the general tension. Hyper-vigilant, I kept an eye on two unfamiliar roughhewn men in the back of the room, only to learn during the question and answer period that they were fishermen, fans of Houston’s mysteries.

The forty-five people who attended observed a few moments of silence in sympathy with the victims’ families, as well as in recognition of our freedom to assemble, speak our minds and read what we choose. Our democracy rests upon a foundation that includes the free exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal. Libraries are an important part of that and not allowing the terrorist acts we had witnessed to shut our doors that night represented a small act of defiant patriotism.

Thousands of books have been published about 9-11. New information and opinions about events leading up to that day and its aftermath still swirl around us like gray ash floating out of the New York sky.

Among our freedoms is the ability to ask questions, check facts, and challenge the slogans we hear over and over again. Information and reason are key weapons in the arsenal against terror. Knowledge triumphs over fearful imagination. Librarians are the arbiters of knowledge and purveyors of the power it provides.

The Washington Post: New books about 9-11

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