Ghosts and Echoes: notes from Ground Zero
Warning: some on-the-scene descriptions may sear your soul
By Robin Morgan
This focus is on New York -- my first hand experience. But this doesn't mean any less anguish for the victims of the Washington or Pennsylvania calamities.

Today was Day 8. Incredibly, a week has passed. Abnormal normalcy has settled in.

Our usually contentious mayor has risen to this moment with efficiency, compassion, real leadership. The city is alive and dynamic. Below 14th Street, traffic is flowing again, mail is being delivered, newspapers are back.

Very early this morning, I walked east, then south, almost to the tip of Manhattan Island. The 16-acre site itself is closed off, of course, as is a perimeter surrounding it that is controlled by the National Guard and used as a command post and staging area for rescue workers. Still, one is able to approach nearer to the area than was possible last weekend, since the law-court district and parts of the financial district are now open and (shakily) working.

The closer one gets, the more one sees, and smells -- something no TV report and very few print reports have communicated. I find myself giving way to tears again and again, even as I write this.

This was a bright, cloudless, early autumnal day. But as one draws near the site, the area looms out of a dense haze and one enters an atmosphere of dust, concrete powder, and plumes of smoke from fires still raging deep beneath the rubble -- an estimated two million cubic yards of debris.

Along lower 2nd Avenue, 10 refrigerator tractor-trailer trucks are parked, waiting. If yhou stand there a while, an NYC medical examiner van arrives, with a sagging body bag.

Thick white ash, shards of broken glass, pebbles, and chunks of concrete cover street after street of parked cars -- for blocks outside the perimeter. Hand prints on car windows and doors -- handprints sliding downward -- have been left like frantic graffiti. Sometimes there are messages finger-written in the ash: "U R Alive".

You can look into closed shops -- many with cracked or broken windows -- and peer into another dimension: a wall clock, stopped at 9:10; restaurant tables meticulously set but now covered with two inches of ash; grocery shelves stacked with cans and produce bins piled high with apples and melons, all now powdered chalk white. A moonscape of plenty.

People walk unsteadily along these streets wearing nosemasks against the still particle laden air; the stench of burning wire and plastic; the erupted sewage; the smell of death, of decomposing flesh.

Your television probably shows the chain link fences, aflutter with yellow ribbons, the makeshift shrines of candles, flowers, and scribbled notes of mourning or of praise for the rescue workers. These shrines have sprung up everywhere, especially in front of fire houses, police stations and hospitals.

What TV doesn't show you is that near Ground Zero, the streets for blocks around are still, a week later, adrift in bits of paper, singed, torn, sodden pages. They are stock reports, trading printouts, shreds of appointment calendars, halves of to-do lists.

What TV doesn't show you are the scores of tiny charred corpses, now swept into the gutters. Sparrows. Finches. They fly higher than pigeons, so they would have explosed outward, caught mid-air in a rush of flame, wings on fire as they fell.

Who could have imagined it: the birds were burning!

From a distance, one can see the lattices of one of the Towers, its skeletal bones the sole remains, eerily beautiful in asymmetry, as if a new work of abstract art had been erected in a public space. Elsewhere, one sees the transformation of institutions.

The New School and New York University are missing persons' centres. A movie house is now a rest shelter; a Burger King, a first-aid centre; a Brooks Brothers clothing store, a body parts morgue; a record shop, a haven for lost animals. Libraries are counselling centres. Ice rinks are morgues. A bank is now a supply depot -- in the first four days it distributed 11,000 respirators and 25,000 pairs of protective gloves and suits. Nearby, a mobile medical unit, housed in a Macdonald's, has administered 70,000 tetanus shots.

The brain tries to process the numbers.

Only 50,000 tons of debris had been cleared by yesterday -- out of 1.2 million tons. The medical examiner's office has readied up to 20,000 DNA tests for unidentifiable cadaver parts. At all times, night and day, a minimum of 1,000 people live and work on the site.

It's the details, fragile and individual, that melt numbness into grief.

An anklet with "Joyleen" printed on it, found on an ankle. Just that. An ankle.

A pair of hands -- one brown, one white -- clasped together. Just that. No wrists.

A burly welder who drove from Ohio to help, saying softly, "We're working in a cemetery. I'm standing in -- not on, in -- a graveyard.

Each lamp post, store front, scaffolding, mailbox, is plastered with home-made, photocopied posters, a racial/ethnic rainbow of faces and names -- death, the great leveller. Not only of the CEOs, their images usually formal, white, male, older, with suit and tie -- but the mail room workers, receptionists, waiters.

Passing enough of the "Missing" posters, the faces, names, descriptions become familiar. The Albanian window-cleaner with the bushy eyebrows. The teenage Mexican dishwasher who had an American flag tattoo. The janitor's assistant who'd emigrated from Ethiopia. The Italian-American grandfather who was a doughnut cart tender. The 23-year-old Chinese American junior pastry chef at the Windows on the World restaurant, who'd gone in early that day so she could prep a business breakfast for 500. The firefighter who'd posed jauntily, wearing his green shamrock necktie. The dapper African-American mid-level manager, a small gold ring in his ear, who handled "minority affairs" for one of the companies. The middle-aged secretary, laughing up at the camera from her wheelchair. The maintenance worker with a Polish name, holding his newborn baby. Most of the faces are smiling. Most of the shots are family photos. Many are recent wedding pictures.

I have little national patriotism, but I do have a passion for New York, partly for our gritty, secular energy of endurance, and because the world does come here. Eighty countries had offices in the Twin Towers; 62 countries lost citizens in the catastrophe; an estimated 300 of our British cousins died, either in the planes or the buildings.

My personal comfort is found, not in ceremonies or prayer services, but in watching the plain, truly heroic (a word usually misued) work of the ordinary New Yorkers that we take for granted every day, who have risen to this moment unpretentiously -- too busy even to notice they're expressing the splendour of the human spirit: firefighters, medical aides, nurses, ER doctors, police officers, sanitation workers, construction workers, ambulance drivers, structural engineers, crane operators, rescue worker "tunnel rats" . . .

Meanwhile, across the U.S., the rhetoric of "retaliation" is in full-throated roar.

Flag sales are up. Gun sales are up. Some radio stations have banned playing John Lennon's song, Imagine. Despite appeals from all officials (even Bush), mosques are being attacked, firebombed; Arab Americans are hiding their children indoors; two murders in Arizona have already been categorized as hate crimes: one victim a Lebanese-American man and one a Sikh man who died merely for wearing a turban. (Need I mention that there were no nation-wide attacks against white Christian males after Timothy McVeigh was apprehended for the Oklahoma City bombing?)

Last Thursday, right-wing televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson (our home-grown American "Taliban" leaders) appeared on Robertson's TV show, The 700 Club, where Falwell blamed "the pagans and the abortionists, and the feminists and the gays and lesbians . . . the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way" and groups "who have tried to secularize America" for what occurred in New York. Robertson replied, "I totally concur."

After even the Bush White House called the remarks "inappropriate", Falwell apologised (though he did not take back his sentiments); Robertson has not. (The program is carried by the Fox Family Channel, recently purchased by the Walt Disney Company -- in case you would like to register a protest.)

The sirens have lessened, but the drums have started. Funeral drums. War drums. A State of Emergency, with a call-up of 50,000 reservists to active duty. The Justice Department is seeking increased authority for wider surveillance, broader detention powers, wiretapping of persons (not, as previously, just phone numbers), and stringent press restrictions on military reporting.

And the petitions have begun. For justice, but not vengeance. For a reasoned response, but against escalating retaliatory violence. For vigilance about civil liberties. For the rights of Muslim Americans. For "bombing" Afghanistan with food and medical parcels, not firepower.

There will be the expected peace marches, vigils, rallies.

One member of the House of Representatives -- Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, an African-American woman -- lodged the sole vote in both houses of Congress against giving Bush broadened powers for a war response. She said she didn't believe a massive military campaign would stop terrorism. (She could use letters of support: e-mail her, if you wish, at barbara.lee@mail.house.gov )

Those of us with access to the media have been trying to get a different voice out. But ours are complex messages with long-term solutions. And this is a moment when people yearn for simplicity and short-term, facile answers.

Still, I urge all of you to write letters to newspaper editors, call in to radio talk shows, and, if you have media access, do as many interviews as you can. Use the Internet. Talk about the root causes of terrorism, about the need to diminish this daily climate of patriarchal violence surrounding us in its state-sanctioned normalcy; the need to recognise people's despair over ever being heard, short of committing such dramatic, murderous acts; the need to address a desperation that becomes chronic after generations of suffering; the need to arouse that most subversive of emotions, empathy, for "the other"; the need to eliminate hideous economic and political injustices, to reject all tribal/ethnic hatreds and fears, to repudiate religious fundamentalisms of every kind. Especially talk about the need to understand that we must expose the mystique of violence, to separate it from how we conceive of excitement, eroticism and "manhood", the need to comprehend that violence differs in degree but is related in kind.

Meanwhile, we cry and cry and cry.

I don't even know who my tears are for any more. I keep seeing ghosts. I keep hearing echoes.

The world's sympathy moves me deeply. Yet I hear echoes dying into silence -- the world averting its attention from Rwanda's screams.

Ground Zero is a huge mass grave. And I think. Bosnia. Uganda.

More than 5,400 people are missing and presumed dead in New York alone. The TV anchors choke up. "Civilians!" they say. "My God! Civilians!" And I see ghosts. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Dresden. VietNam.

I watch the mask-covered mouths and noses on the street turn into the faces of Tokyo citizens who wear such masks every day against toxic pollution. I watch the scared eyes become the fearful eyes of women forced to wear the hajib or chodor or burka, against their will.

I stare at the missing poster photos and think of the Mothers of the Disappeared. And I see the ghosts of other faces. In photographs on the walls of Holocause museums. In newspaper clippings from Haiti. In chronicles from Cambodia.

I worry for people who've lost their homes near the site, though I see how superbly social service agencies are trying to meet their immediate and longer-term needs. But I see ghosts: the perpetually homeless who sleep on city streets, whose needs are never addressed.

I watch normally unflappable New Yorkers flinch at loud noises; parents panic when their kids are late from school. And I see my Israeli feminist friends, like Yvonne, who've lived with this dread for decades and still -- even yesterday -- stubbornly issue petitions insisting on peace.

I watch sophistocates sob openly in the street -- people who've lost work places, who don't know where their next pay cheque will come from, who fear a contaminated water or food supply, who are afraid for their sons in the Army, who are unnerved by security checkpoints, who are in mourning, who feel wounded, humiliated, outraged. And I see my friends, like Zuhira, in the refugee camps of Gaza or West Bank, Palestinian women who have lived in precisely that emotional condition, for four generations.

Last weekend, many Manhattanites left town to visit concerned families, try to normalize, get away for a break. As they streamed out of the city, I saw ghosts of other travellers: hundreds of Afghan refugees streaming toward their country's borders in what is, to them, habitual terror -- trying to escape a drought-sucked country, so war-devastated there's nothing left to bomb. A country with 50,000 disabled orphans and two million widows whose sole livelihood is begging; where the life expectancy of men is 42 and women, 40; where women hunch in secret, whispering lessons to girl children who are forbidden to go to school -- women who risk death by beheading, for teaching a child to read.

The ghosts stretch out their hands. Now you know, they weep, gesturing at the carefree, insulated, indifferent, golden innocence that was my country's safety, arrogance and pride. Why should it take such horror to make you see, the echoes sigh. Oh please, do you finally see?

This is calamity. And opportunity. America could choose now to begin to understand the world. And join it. Or not.

For now, my window still displays no flag. My lapel sports no red, white and blue ribbon. I weep for a city and a world. I cling, instead, to a different loyalty, affirming my un-flag, my un-anthem, my un-prayer -- the defiant un-pledge of madwoman Virginia Woolf, who also had mere words as her only tools in a time of ignorance and carnage: "As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world."

If this is treason, may I be worthy of it.

In mourning -- and absurd, tenacious hope, Robin Morgan in New York City, Sept. 18, 2001.
This text is Copyrighted 2001 by Robin Morgan, all rights reserved. It may be shared freely for non-commercial purposes only. It may not be posted on websites or published in print, electronically, or in any other manner without the author's express permission. In lieu of payment, the author would be grateful if persons so moved would make a donation via cheque to: The Sisterhood is Global Institute, Atwater Library, 1200 Avenue Atwater, Montreal, Que. H3Z 1X4 (website: www.sigi.org ) In response to numerous requests, the audio of this text, read aloud by the author, together with her other "Letters from New York's Ground Zero," is being made available on CD by The Engine Company, solely at cost (US $6.99 including shipping and handling). To order, email TheEngineCompany@aol.com .

Robin Morgan is an award-winning writer, a feminist leader, a political theorist, a journalist and an activist. She has published 17 books, including six of poetry, two of fiction, and the now-classic anthologies, Sisterhood is Powerful (Random House/Vintage Books, 1970); and Sisterhood is Global (Doubleday/Anchor, 1984, Feminist Press edition 1996); and her own acclaimed The Demon Lover; On the Sexuality of Terrorism (Norton, 1989). Her latest books of poetry are Upstairs in the Garden (Norton, 1990) and A Hot January: Poems 1996-1999 (Norton, 1999). Her memoir, Saturday's Child, was published by Norton in December 2000.