I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.
— John F. Kennedy
By: Eddie SantoPrieto
As we come to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which saw the senseless murders of thousands of innocent people, I can assure you, I will not be watching any of the commemorations. From my perspective, we have dishonored the memory of those perished on that day. We have trivialized and manipulated those murders for political and personal gain. And we have used it to kill more innocent people who had nothing to do with the tragic events that transpired that incongruously beautiful New City autumn’s day.
Most of us experienced the events that transpired at the World Trade Center vicariously through television.
I didn’t… I was there.
Since 1969, we lived the proverbial stone’s throw (a five minute walk, actually) from what is now called “Ground Zero.” When the towers collapsed, the tremors were felt in my building. I watched from the roof of my17-story building in horror as people jumped from the Towers.
I heard my neighbor’s hysterical scream as she stood next to me and watched those poor souls who chose to plunge to their death rather than burn. I saw, with my own eyes, that horror, something my mind refused to believe at first. I thought — I wanted so much to believe — those little dots were debris, but they were humans. And as my neighbor’s shriek’s intensified as the awareness dawned on her, I took her in my arms, but she was beside herself, as were others — the screams could be heard everywhere.
Realizing that staying in a high-rise was risky at best, we all evacuated the building and I walked in silence with the throng of humanity that marched through the streets of lower Manhattan, a mass shrouded in white ashes. The day was a beautifully clear early autumn day, the sun bright, as thousands walked in silence, ashen heads bowed.
I saw a woman walking aimlessly, muttering, obviously in shock, bleeding from a wound on her head. I saw another limping, whimpering to herself. I saw pieces of human beings mixed in with all those billions of bits of papers and files…
I lived, on and off, in the shadows of the towers all those years. I used to party every Friday there when I was a young man working in the Woolworth Building, almost across the street from the World Trade. When I was 14-15, I took a summer job as a messenger at a printing company where my uncle worked, and I would deliver blueprints to the architects at the World Trade site. I had just finished reading Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and had developed an interest in architecture and Frank Lloyd Wright, and it was pretty cool to see the architectural monstrosity rise (let’s not get too nostalgic, The Towers were pretty much bland-looking).
I even had sex in the shadows of the Towers — a youthful impulse early one hot summer morning in the throes of a passionate summer’s love.
One day, on my way to work, I happened to look up and saw a man climbing up the outside of the Twin Towers. The New York tabloids proclaimed him “Spiderman” on the next day’s editions. There was always something weird or fun going on at the World Trade. In the 70s, a famous tightrope walker walked across a cable stretched between the two towers. There was a lot personal history there in those towers — at least for me, anyway. I also had many friends who worked there, at one time or another. What I remember most was that no matter how drunk or stoned I got, all I had to do to make it home was point myself in the direction of the Towers.
I had just started working at my most current job and on Tuesdays and Thursdays; I worked from 12-8 PM. At about 9-10 AM, cursing under my breath for forgetting to buy coffee, I went to the store to and noticed a group of neighbors staring up at the Towers. I looked up to see the back end of a small plane sticking out of one of the Towers. I really didn’t think much about it. Things always happened at the Towers.
As I was returning home from the bodega, I felt the second plane hit as I opened the door to my apartment. I felt it. That’s when I knew something was wrong. I won’t retell that tale, we all know it… we saw it replayed on the TV countless times (was it really necessary?)
From my 17th floor apartment I watched… then I watched from the roof, where some of my neighbors had congregated. And that’s where I witnessed the horror of the inferno, the eventual collapse of both Towers.
I saw thousands of people walking silently, heads bowed, covered in white ash. It was strange to see so many people in one place and feel that silence. One of the things I will never forget was how quiet it was in the midst of 100s of thousands of people. It just wasn’t right.
And then I saw something miraculous and wonderful to behold, the innate human impulse to come together in moments of crisis. Some people went out into the middle of some streets and acted as traffic controllers. No one told them to, they just did what had to be done. I saw people helping one another, stores giving away free water, others helping the wounded.
A priest and I helped some who were walking around in shock. We helped dress their wounds and reassure them. We set up a table with water bottles and started collecting those hurt the most so that they could be picked up by medical staff.
I witnessed, that day, the nobility of my fellow New Yorkers — my fellow human beings. Complete strangers giving comfort to one another, others rushing into the maws of the site to lend help, to assist, to just be helpful in even the smallest of ways. And many of my fellow New Yorkers were downright heroes that day, but what really got me, what will never leave me, was how this sea of compassion and care rose to meet the ugliness of death and destruction. I witnessed and was part of, an emergence of the human spirit that I have never felt before and will probably never see again. And I saw, as many of you did, the world unite with us in this spirit. I saw the true potential of the human spirit that day, even in the midst of all that carnage and ugliness
But it was what I saw immediately after that scared me. And as it turns out, I had every right to be fearful.
I saw the religious whackos and fear mongers come out in full force before the dust had even settled, handing out pamphlets proclaiming “the end of the world.” I saw people buy right into that. It was a scary time, and people were confused, easily swayed.
I saw pure, unadulterated hatred.
There was a story going around a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. An American Indian grandfather was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful and angry, the other understanding and kind. The young boy asked his grandfather which wolf would win the fight in his heart. The grandfather answered, “The one that wins will be the one I choose to feed.”
And this is our challenge in a nutshell. A challenge we have failed to answer skillfully, unfortunately. It is the challenge we face as individuals and as part of this world gone slightly mad. How can we draw upon our inner potential to see what helps and what harms, what escalates war and aggression, and suffering? With the precarious nature of the current times — a planet in financial chaos and the environment on the precipice, the time for sitting back has long gone. And though you might feel there’s nothing you can do, know that even the slightest gesture toward feeding the right wolf will help. Now, more than ever, you need to understand and act on this human potential for transformation.
For days after, there was a call for volunteers to escort Muslim women and children because they were being attacked. I saw a lot of anger and fear and I feared that forces who craved fear and vengeance would use that tragedy to exploit, to manipulate, to seek retribution, to kill. I witnessed a bellicose and washed up mayor Giuliani resuscitate his political career while literally standing on the charred bodies of the dead. He has since made millions from the events of 9/11. Never mind that it was due to his incompetence and hubris that he had chosen to place the emergency system in the World Trade (against the advice of his own experts) and hence during the worst attack on our shores, the greatest city of the world had no real central operating location. Never mind that 100s of firefighters perished because he refused to upgrade walkie-talkies, Giuliani would be rewarded for his lack of vision and leadership by being hailed the Man of the Year.
I saw an incompetent president his administration lead us to a meaningless war and to the shredding of the Constitution as we cheered, “We’re No 1! We’re No. 1” — all in the name of all those dear dead people, in the name of my fellow New Yorkers, all who stood bravely and came together when it was most needed. I saw our leaders take that nobility and turn it into a force for hatred and greed. Ten years later we like to say we’re “winning” the war on terror, but the fact is that we played right into their hands. It’s on record that terrorist leaders had intended to provoke us into countless little wars and in that way bleed us to death. Today, we’re closing down schools, firing teachers and firefighters, neglecting our crumbling infrastructure while we spend countless trillions and needlessly sacrifice the lives of our young. Like a huge inept elephant, we’re drowning in the quicksand of our own collective ignorance and we’re doing it while dishonoring all those who died that day.
I smelled, everyday, that strange disgusting odor emanating from the charred pile that was once the Towers. It had a strange odor — something like rotted meat mixed with something entirely unidentifiable. Against the pleas of my friends and family, I refused to leave my apartment. Every day I went to my home though my area had the look and feel of a demilitarized zone — with blockades and checkpoints — and it took me an extra hour to get home just to get through all the security. I refused to leave because in my own way, leaving my home was the same as giving in to the terror.
As a result, I was breathing the powdered debris on a daily basis and developed a cough, what some of us began to call the “downtown cough.” It was like a smoker’s cough except I didn’t smoke. My lungs have never been the same since that day. Through varying degrees of separation, everyone one in New York was connected somehow to a death in those towers and I heard the many stories, the sadness, the anger, the confusion…
We must never forget those who died that day, those ten years ago.
We must strive to feed the right wolf. To do otherwise, is to spit in the face of the human spirit that arose that day — that one sliver of light in the midst of all that ugliness that transpired — where we all came together as one. But we must also never forget that some used the events of that day to lead us into darkness. If we forget that, if we dishonor that, then all those people will have died for nothing. It comes to pass that we have been feeding the wrong wolf.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…