The story of how longer works of literary non-fiction are migrating from old-school printed media to new-school ones online continues to trend. David L. Ulin, book review editor of the Los Angeles Times, adds to the growing body of articles on the subject with this nice summary. He talks about Byliner and the Atavist, which I’ve already blogged about. But he also notes that the Virginia Quarterly Review has a fairly recent but growing online presence.
Here is a long post, quoting an email Beverly sent me a few weeks before she died. It contains a detailed description of the memorials she created for Sean.
Question: Taking this poll [about life, death, and God] was interesting for me because I recently had a recurrence of the cancer I beat last year and now it turns out that it’s likely terminal. I’m 31 years old. I was never baptized, not raised in a religious home, etc. And I still don’t know what to believe, even when confronted with my impending death at a time when I was not expecting it. I used to think people who turned to religion as they were dying were copping out, but I’m starting to understand it a little better now. But I still don’t know what, if anything, to believe.
GENE WEINGARTEN : When I was 40, I was where you were: Facing likely death, and doing it as an atheist.
In my case, I tried to make myself feel better any way I could. I did research, learned that in the year 1012, the average life expectancy was 29! I was already waay ahead of the game! I started reading the obituaries, and took solace from anyone who died younger than me. It’s gruesome, but a school bus crash filled me with joy!
I noticed with amusement the fact that when your friends think you are dying, they treat you differently, like you were Socrates, as though impending death imbues a person with some sort of infinite wisdom and knowledge of the Truth, as opposed to, you know, blind panic. I abused this fact. I made shallow statements that sounded profound, then laughed until my friends did, too. Then I wrote a book about how funny death was. The final chapter was titled: “Is Death A Laughing Matter? Of Corpse Not!”
In short, I dealt with it all like a smartass. We are what we are. Don’t change who you are.
But I do have some helpful advice for you, too.
There’s some small validity in that Socrates notion. Nothing is “copping out.” It is the nature of life, and the signal strength of the human animal, to adjust our thinking as we learn new things. You are, philosophically, in a fertile place to learn. You are being forced to face great questions earlier than most of us do. Use that opportunity wisely. If it leads you to faith, that is not a bad thing, nor is it, necessarily, an accommodation with yourself — a concession to fear. It can represent a higher state of philosophical awareness.
And lastly, I want to tell you that I am still here, 20 years later. Doctors are not always right. And the philosophical contortions I went through 20 years ago have helped me better order my life since. In retrospect, I feel as though I’d been given a gift. You may be, too.
This article by James Rainey captures the power of the oral histories collected by StoryCorps, and the special drama and personal poignancy of Beverly Eckert’s story, before 9/11 and after.
It is the place where nearly three thousand people perished one September morning, and many others were injured, sickened and emotionally scarred. For the loved ones left behind, the place where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood so very tall became the most hallowed of grounds. To properly preserve that space, and to erect a memorial that would honor the dead and inspire the living, became a cause very close to the heart of Beverly Eckert and other 9/11 family members and friends. It was the last place on this earth where so, so many took their final breath. It was where Beverly’s husband, Sean Rooney, said his goodbyes.
There was news about Ground Zero this week, and it wasn’t just about the president’s visit. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum announced that the memorial was complete and ready for visits — at least digitally. The 9/11 Memorial web site allows visitors to search for the name of a person to see where it will appear on the real memorial. There are digital renderings of the entire memorial/museum complex, as well as illustrations showing all sections of the memorial inscribed with the names of victims. Even from this relatively cold and distant artificial perspective, the memorial is a moving place to visit. And its design was strongly influence by the concerns of Beverly and other loved ones of the departed. But at one time, there were conflicting visions about Ground Zero’s future.
After 9/11, everyone agreed that the place where the towers fell was special, and that there should be a memorial built there. But in the months that followed, views diverged on how the site should look after the debris had been cleared, the remains sorted, and construction completed. The bigwigs in government and business had in their sights one of the most potentially lucrative pieces of real estate in Manhattan. Sure, they recognized the need to be sensitive to the site’s new significance, but often their vision was dominated by dollar signs. Ground Zero, after all, was hard by Wall Street, which is not noted for its sentimentality, the softness of its heart.
So when re-development of the hallowed ground began to move forward, clashes broke out between the various interests. Beverly was among those who opposed plans by the site’s developers to have a relatively small memorial, and to build on top of the bedrock upon which the towers stood, and upon which they fell. Beverly and other family members wanted to whole site to be preserved “down to the bedrock.” She felt that covering it with train stations, roads and buildings would erase the very heart of 9/11, would diminish the quiet solemnity of this final resting place for so many.
Beverly and the other opponents of the developers were small in number, but they were committed to their cause. As the second anniversary of 9/11 approached, Beverly and others felt the situation had come to an impasse, that the developers were moving forward with their own plan to bury most of Ground Zero in buildings and transportation infrastructure.
It was time to act.
Beverly planned to lock arms with others at the main gate of the Ground Zero construction site, blocking any workers and their equipment from entering. She was dead serious, so prepared to be arrested for this act of civil disobedience that she consulted with a lawyer about how to go about the protest, and how to behave once arrested.
Beverly and other protesters arrived at the appointed place on September 3, 2003, but the gate was locked. After hearing about the planned action, the developers decided to have workers and vehicles use another entrance to the site. Still, Beverly was able to get her message out, and the story got wide coverage.
Eventually, a new plan for the redevelopment of the site was drawn up, which took into consideration the wishes of the families and friends of those lost. The footprints of the Twin Towers were preserved, becoming, in fact, the dramatic centerpiece of the memorial plaza at Ground Zero. Beverly and her allies had won another victory, and their vision of how to honor and remember those who died on 9/11 will stand for many, many years to come.
These are very busy times for Beverly Eckert’s sister, Karen Eckert. She continues to lobby US officials and members of Congress to strengthen airline safety. But last night she took the time to give me a quick heads up. She called to say that National Public Radio’s, “Morning Edition” news program would be running a recording made by Beverly about the death of her husband, Sean Rooney.
I just listened to it on my local NPR affiliate, WAMU FM, and though I’ve heard Beverly’s recording several times, it once again brought tears to my eyes. It is a short segment of a long recording in which Beverly described her life with Sean, the horror of those final moments when they spoke on the telephone, and her life as a 9/11 activist afterward. An edited version of the complete recording can be found on the StoryCorps web site. I will be releasing excerpts from the longer transcript.
Smoke and fumes were choking Sean as he said his last words to Beverly. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” he whispered. Beverly said she wanted to crawl through the phone and be there with him as he slipped from life. But then she heard the sound of the building collapsing. And it was over.
With the killing of Osama bin Laden this week, 9/11 is once again in the news. And today President Obama is visiting Ground Zero for the first time. He will meet with family members of those who lost a loved one, and spend some quiet moments remembering the thousands who perished in that spot and elsewhere. He will also lay a wreath at a memorial that Beverly and other family members fought hard to build.
Not many people know this, but even before the wreckage of the Twin Towers was cleared, developers were making plans to raise a new edifice on the same site. Beverly and other family members strongly felt that the footprint of the two skyscrapers was hallowed ground, the final resting place of the ones they loved, and should be preserved for eternity. When the developers and the city sought to push forward with their plan to build on the footprint, Beverly was thinking about going on a hunger strike, and actually organized an act of civil disobedience on the construction site. (In the end, Beverly and the family members won, and the present 9/11 memorial is a moving testament to their determined efforts.)
Karen lost Beverly in the crash of Continental Flight 3407 outside Buffalo on February 12, 2009. Pilot error was deemed a principal cause of that accident, in which 50 people lost their lives.
So, just as Beverly became an advocate for families who lost a loved one on 9/11, Karen and other families of Flight 3407 have been pushing to make our skies safer. They thought they were close to new rules that would improve such things as pilot training, but with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, the regional airline industry has found willing supporters in their effort to sacrifice safety for profits.
That’s why Karen and the other family members are so busy. There are still battles to be fought.
At best, there was some sense of relief and vindication. But mostly, there was the return of the pain and sadness of loss. Upon learning that Osama bin Laden had been killed, those who lost a loved-one on 9/11 were transported to the emotional turmoil of those days, eager to spend quiet time with the memories of those lost, in a quiet place, alone.
An article in the Buffalo News set out the emotions felt by some of Beverly Eckert’s and Sean Rooney’s siblings.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” said Susan Bourque, Rooney’s sister-in-law. “It opened up all the pain and tragedy of 9/11 all over again.”
And it stirred complex emotions in the hearts of Rooney’s family, like others.
“I can’t feel happy, not with all that has happened since 9/11,” said Karen Eckert, another sister-in-law. “This was all so much bigger than one man. I also feel sadness for all the innocent people who’ve lost their lives, and for those in our military who’ve died in two wars, all in the pursuit of the war on terror.”
Cynthia Blest, of Buffalo, one of Rooney’s sisters, summed up the conflicting emotions that hit many of the Sept. 11 families late Sunday and Monday.
“This won’t bring my brother back,” she said. “My brother is gone. But this may, in fact, end up saving more lives.”
Blest said she came to a clear conclusion about bin Laden after 9/11, when she watched a video of him.
“My take on him was that he was a very evil man,” she said.
And upon hearing that bin Laden had died, she added, “I guess it was a relief to a certain extent that at last the person most responsible for my brother’s death was gone.”
I have blogged on No truer hearts about some of Beverly’s thoughts about Osama bin Laden and his 9/11 minions.
Some of the best reporting on Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the US struggles against them have appeared on the pages of The New Yorker. Staff writer Lawrence Wright has written articles for the magazine, as well as the essential book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Here’s some of his reaction to bin Laden’s death:
Democracy and civil society are the cure for the chronic misery of Muslim countries that has fed the rise of Islamic extremism. The death of the most notorious terrorist the world has ever seen, whose mission was to create a clash of civilizations, will allow the door to open more widely to the tolerance, modernism, and pragmatism that is so badly needed and so long awaited in a part of the world where despair, corruption, brutality, and fanaticism have laid waste to so many generations.
Dexter Filkins, author of The Forever War, wonders whether Pakistani intelligence helped hide bin Laden, and what shape of future US-Pakistani relations will be:
Could Pakistani officials have helped hide Osama? The most obvious fact of Osama’s hideaway is that it was in a densely populated area, many miles from the Afghan border region that for years had been the focus of the hunt. This, by itself, is not remarkable: Since 2001, most of the senior leaders of Al Qaeda captured in Pakistan have been nabbed in cities: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Ramsi bin Al-Shib in Karachi, Abu Zubaida in Faisalabad.
There is no evidence that any of the above men were sheltered by Pakistani officials. Indeed, since 2001, the double-game has usually worked like this: While Pakistani officials may covertly support the Taliban, they have bought cover for themselves by coöperating with the United States against Al Qaeda.
But the fact that Osama was hiding in an urban area raises many obvious questions, like who was taking care of him, and how. Abbottabad is only thirty miles from the Pakistani capital, and it is home to a Pakistani military base, a military academy, and many retired Pakistani officers. Conspiracy theories abound in Pakistan; since 9/11, the most common has been that Bin Laden was being sheltered by the I.S.I.
There is a great bit of early analysis of the Osama bin Laden hunt and kill by Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Coll doubts bin Laden could have nestled himself so securely in Abbottabad without the knowledge of Pakistani officials.
I would not presume to know exactly how Beverly Eckert would have reacted to the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed. But I do know she would have wholeheartedly endorsed the sentiments of Barack Obama regarding how America should resp0nd in the wake of 9/11. David Remnick, who has written a book about the early years of the president’s life, unearthed a telling quote from Obama shortly after the terrible attacks on our country. Here it is, from his piece in the NewYorker.
The essence of this tragedy, [wrote Obama, in the Hyde Park Herald] it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others.
Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity….
We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad. We will have to be unwavering in opposing bigotry or discrimination directed against neighbors and friends of Middle Eastern descent. Finally, we will have to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin American, Eastern Europe, and within our own shores.
These are sentiments which I’m sure Beverly would have espoused, as her various activities post-9/11 illustrated. Each day, she had been striving to create peaceful tomorrows.