Deep thoughts and feelings about death and life

One of the great, great things about this digital transformation we’re going through is the amazing increase in interactivity. People can be in touch with others who are literally on the other side of the globe, in a number of ways.
Which brings me, again, to Gene Weingarten. He and other people who write for the Washington Post do their part for the cause of interactivity by communicating regularly with readers and fans and others online in live chats. As one of our leading humorists, Gene usually cracks wise about the chosen topic of the day (today’s was the meaning of God, and life, and death). But as one of our best writers, he also thinks deeply and seriously about the most important and sensitive things imaginable. I had to pass on his answer to this person:

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.

– May 24, 2011 9:21 AM

The 9/11 Memorial: How Beverly Eckert and other family members left their imprint

Ground Zero after 9/11

Ground Zero.

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.

Model of the 9/11 Memorial

As President Obama visits Ground Zero, Beverly’s voice on NPR

President Obama carries a wreath at Ground Zero

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.

For 9/11 families, a day of painful reflection instead of high-fives and fist-pumping

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.”

The end of bin Laden as seen by writers in the New Yorker

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.

What would Beverly say on this momentous day?

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.

The death of Osama Bin Laden: A watershed in post-9/11 America

My normal routine of late has been to retire for the day around 9:30 or 10 p.m. This past evening I tended to my daughter, tired after an Ultimate Frisbee tournament over the weekend, and together we watched some of the Washington Capitols hockey game. Then I started to watch a DVD on my computer that Beverly Eckert had put together. It contained video of news broadcasts dealing with the love she lost, Sean Rooney, the aftermath of the attacks, and the causes Beverly became involved in. I saw her face; I heard her words; I was re-living those terrible days and emotions.

I had started to watch the DVD a couple years ago, but could not get through all three discs. Now was time to go through it again, for some reason. I don’t know why I chose tonight. But as interviews of Beverly flashed on my computer screen, and scenes of that horrible day, the news came on television and on Twitter and the news online — from everywhere, literally! —  that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US forces in Pakistan. One of the leaders of al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of this mass murder, was finally tracked down and would plan the deaths of others no more. I watched as President Barack Obama carefully and intelligently explained what had happened and what it meant.

When he reached the end of his remarks, the president recalled the families of 9/11, and it seemed the spirit of Beverly was everywhere. That is a kind of eternity that happens every day, all over the world. We remember someone who has passed away, and they live in a way that is as real and vital as anything in this ephemeral existence of ours.

Here are the concluding words of the president’s memorable speech:

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.
And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.  I know that it has, at times, frayed.  Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.
The cause of securing our country is not complete.  But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.  That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.
Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are:  one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Thank you.  May God bless you.  And may God bless the United States of America.
Then came the images and reports on TV about the spontaneous outpourings of joy and patriotism and relief at the White House and Times Square and Ground Zero. People had heard the news of Bin Laden’s death, and voted with their feet. They were mostly young people, ones you would not expect to even care about 9/11 or Bin Laden or the war in Afghanistant and Pakistan. But the news of the death of this monster struck a chord, and out came the flags, the chants, the patriotic songs. God Bless America, the Land that I Love..

A place to browse and read quality longform non-fiction

I’m getting a kick out of being able to look over the shoulders of famous members of the Twitterati (like Gene Weingarten) to see who they are following. Gene has his serious side, having written a number of amazing in-depth articles, so it is not surprising that he follows, a web site which collects long non-fiction articles deemed of sufficiently high quality by the site’s editors. (They also have previously unpublished articles.) It’s nice to see there are people who value the well-written, thoroughly researched non-fiction piece.

The Weingarten article that sticks in my mind most searingly is his examination of parents who had forgotten they had their small children in their car, went about their business during the day, inadvertently dooming their child. You can hardly believe anyone would have the courage to talk to these people, and the sensitivity to tell their heart-wrenching stories, but Gene pulls it off masterfully. The article is one of Longform’s “Editor’s Picks.”

See also the similar site, Longreads.