Ten years later, the failure of terrorism

August 30, 2011

Last weekend, we were all about Hurricane Irene. Before that, it was the earthquake. Now starts the run-up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

Is there a theme here? Well, yes -- three themes.

Fear is one theme, or rather the determination of New Yorkers not to live in fear. Not that folks here are unusually brave; it's just that you couldn't live in this city if you were paralyzed by fear. Too many things go bump in the night.

So you learn to say, "No, I'm not going to be afraid" -- even when the situation looks dangerous, even when you know you're a target.

With similar bravado, people worked right through a mild earthquake and told funny stories afterward.

9/11 is a different story because it was such a pivotal event here. And yet, what I see 10 years later is a determination to live on. People visit Ground Zero, tell 9/11 stories, and remember the pathos and heroism.

New Yorkers know their home is still a target. Even constant vigilance won't prevent another terrorist attack. Yet they live on. If religious extremists hoped to terrorize a city into paralysis, they failed.

A second theme has to do with control. This city deals in wealth and investments, and that means this city deals in uncertainty. It deals in high technology and entrepreneurial ventures, and that means it deals in risk and failure. It deals in immigration and hopes for new life, shop owners trying to scratch out a living, young professionals flocking here to launch careers and to find mates -- and those, too, mean uncertainty, a fundamental absence of control.

Irene largely spared New York. But if the worst had happened, we would have counted the cost and lamented the losses, but I doubt anyone would have cried, "Unfair!" or "Why is God doing this?" or "This is God's punishment!"

As coastal residents of Florida, the Carolinas and Gulf Coast learned long ago, hurricanes happen, and then you clean up and move on. Control is an illusion, both in weather and in the rest of life.

Politicians like to study tragedies and determine who was to blame. They'd do more good if they focused on cleaning up and moving on.

Religious bullies, too, like to pin everything on God and declare the punished and the rewarded. It's pure nonsense. It would be better to realize we have a mess on our hands and figure out how to resolve it.

A third theme is human connectedness. This city got pretty bad in the 1970s and early 1980s -- bankrupt government, epidemic drugs and crime, people fleeing to the suburbs. But then it got better, thanks to people working together and, among other things, supporting law enforcement.

The tragic events of 9/11 seemed to deepen and accelerate that recovery of connectedness. People reached out to each other in a deep way after 9/11, and they continue to do so. This is no longer the brusque, in-your-face, out-of-my-way city that it once was. Sure, it's still a long way from Mayberry, but it's not a cold, anonymous jungle. I can feel it on the street.

From what I see in my travels, other areas also know these truths about fear, control and connectedness. Now we just need to get politicians and religious provocateurs out of our way.

-- Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus" and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.