By Lou Young, CBS 2 HD News
It’s taken nine years for the fog to lift. That’s a long time, and I know for some it is not long enough. That strange blend of horror and adrenaline we experienced under the smoky fog climbing up into that impossibly blue sky did something to me I have had a hard time shaking. Visual triggers would set it off — the season, a roadblock, a surly cop, or a powdery veneer of white dust on the pavement. The reaction came deep in the gut as an approaching dread, the kind of thing that would send you back to bed on a beautiful morning, unable to eat, wanting only the escape of sleep. Time and care have put the feeling in its place, but the echo of it is like remembering a second disaster.
For weeks after the towers fell I knew the place was haunted. It was a confusion of loss, a mix of dismembered spirits cut down in mid-movement. So many of the fallen were heroes, but not all. We knew that from the start, but we never talked about it, at least not in public and always in confided whispers, with promises not to tell. We buried the few stories of naked fear, avarice, and regret under a mountain of memorials for our dead, many of who earned their hero status with bravery few of us can imagine mustering. We instinctively shaped the event for our own collective purpose, and in doing so we also changed it. We needed to mythologize what had happened to them and us for our own sanity, and so we did.
If that were the only compromise we made in the days following that morning, we could, perhaps, be forgiven. The attacks, though, became a kind of Rorschach test for our Americanism. Vengeance, violence, control, and naked political ambition all attended the smoldering crime scene at Ground Zero. People in authority were willing to change our principles out of anger. An American anti-war demonstrator was savagely wrestled to the ground by a police officer growling, “THIS is war!” A national guardsman held his middle finger up high in the air seeking to spoil the video news crews were taking of the scene, soldiers tried to stop foreign journalists from taking video of a street in lower Manhattan.
The first initial impulses for openness and access to the relief and recovery effort gave way quickly to an illegal and high-handed decision to try and seal off all of lower Manhattan. We were held back, often at gunpoint and threatened with arrest while I saw actors and celebrities individually escorted to the center of Ground Zero. The Police Commissioner who was often bringing his own cameras and biographers to the scene was also secretly meeting his mistress in a vacant apartment overlooking the horror and is now doing time in a prison for unrelated offenses. TV crews have been forcibly removed from the same building on the grounds the police were protecting “the dignity of sacred ground.”
We defied the orders and risked arrest every day for weeks, but it took a little more out of me each time I ran the gauntlet of checkpoints, looking for the one cop sane enough to realize we weren’t a national security threat so I could hide in my own city from police officers that were supposed to be protecting me. At the end of two weeks I couldn’t wait to get away.
It was almost a year before I went back: The first anniversary, at the very end of the day. I had taken an assignment in Brooklyn on the first anniversary of the attack and watched inspiring impromptu gatherings along the promenade overlooking the Lower Manhattan skyline. The TV pictures from “the pit” showed the wind whipping up swirls of dust into the air as mourners placed flowers in a shallow pond. When I got to the site that night I decided that must have been the ghosts finally leaving, the craven along with the brave. The place felt different, quiet, more serene, less agitated.
Of course that’s my imagination, but we are all wrestling with our own memories.
This fall is the first year since the attacks that I have not had to drag myself through the day. I worry about those who lost someone close and have only question marks about their loved ones’ final moments. For them, season will NEVER be the same; for others EVERY day brings the same reminders. It is difficult to lose someone close to you in any circumstance, but there is something about the public nature of the attack, the stain of warfare, the lie of religious justification that makes this harder to shake.
We have to shake it off, though. We are still here and we need not change who we are.
CBS 2 HD News Reporter Lou Young
A native New Yorker, Lou Young joined CBS 2 in June 1994. He has served as a broadcast journalist in the New York market since 1981, working at both WABC-TV (1981-1990) and WNBC-TV (1990-1994). His blog, “Through A New York Eye,” is the longest-running blog on CBSNewYork.com. To send a message to Lou, click here. You can also follow Lou on Twitter.com by clicking here.