Debris -- Murder and Regret

regret
v. feel or express sorrow or disappointment over what one has done or should have done

n. a feeling of sorrow or disappointment
Origin — Old French, regreter, ‘lament the dead’

On September 11th 2001 I was listening to WFUV and drinking my morning coffee when the first plane hit. I heard about it on the traffic report. I joked with my wife that it was probably some asshole in a Cessna. I jumped into the shower. My wife came into the bathroom to tell me when the second plane hit. I had promised my wife that I would take it easy at work at ABC News that week, since we were planning to move from our apartment in Marble Hill (just north of Inwood) to Astoria on the 15th of September. I promised that I would help get everything ready for the move.  Another broken promise.

The NYPD had closed the Broadway Bridge but I dodged them easily on my bike. I rode down the Westside bike path like I did every day. Everyone was stopped listening to the radio. The sky was clear and blue; a perfect September day. I took my time.

I got to work and went to my desk. The phone was ringing. It was my wife. She was crying and was begging me to come home. I told her to relax and I looked up at the TV monitor showing the news feeds. I saw the tower come down. I said “holy shit, the Tower just came down.” My boss, whom I shared my office with said:

“That’s the second tower, they’re both down.”

My little brother, a Captain in the US Army, had just been stationed back home, in Fort Totten, Queens. That day he jumped on a fire truck with some of our fire fighter friends and went to Ground Zero to try and help. My sister, in the NYPD, was called in immediately, and was also sent to the scene.

Our friend L, a fire fighter, was approaching the Towers in full gear before they came down. The gear is extremely heavy and he was dragging his ass to the scene. He wasn’t dragging his ass when the first tower started to come down. He was running back and a cop car, driving in reverse, pulled past him. He screamed at the cops to slow down, to let him jump onto the hood. He made eye contact with the driver. The driver sped up. To this day L says he remembers the face and will beat the shit out of the guy when he finds him.

My wacky drugged-out bike messenger friends went immediately to the scene after the towers came down. Since the phone cells and radio relays were located on the towers, communications where completely down. With no safety equipment, no pay and no recognition, they spent the day relaying messages for the FDNY and NYPD.

My mother was one of the head civilians in the FDNY at the time. She spent the next few weeks trying to assess what had been lost that day. What she already knew had been lost was several of her best friends, people I had met at my Grandmother’s funeral a few years back.

I begged to go down to the scene or at least downtown. Begged to work on a camera crew, to carry cables, to do anything to help. They told me that there were too many people down there already. After about ten hours they sent me to Pier 96 to be a soundman. It was supposed to be the morgue. I waited there for about six hours, but no bodies arrived. They were crushed to dust.

I spent the next three days doing button-pushing monkey work. I wanted to help and they told me the best way to help was to do what I was told. I did. That’s how I got my Emmy. For doing what I was told and watching people jump out of the Twin Towers about a thousand times, in fast forward and reverse. Sixty times I watched the Towers fall. Like a chimp in a Skinner box.

My wife spent the day alone in a city that wasn’t her home. The TV was out. The only news she was able to get was the BBC web feed off our dial up connection. She couldn’t get through to anyone on the phone. Then the phone rang and she picked it up. It was a crazy Armenian friend of ours who said: “Don’t you think it’s time we reconsidered some of our policies in the Middle East?”

Drop a book on a swarm of cockroaches and they scatter. This might be one of the few things that separate our two species. When human beings are killed en masse, the living rush to help those who might have survived. For this reason it is both terrorist and military doctrine to attack the same point twice. The first time to kill who is there, the second to kill those who try to help the fallen.

The value with which we esteem our own lives is largely determined by the value we perceive in the lives of others. Not in an empathic sense; but because our lives are so miserable that the value of them is tenuous. If the life of the other has no value then the value of my life is imperiled. That’s why we are so jeopardized by acts of suicide. For another to toss their life away makes us question our own.

Terrorists value the lives of others; lives are the coin of their realm. The value is calculated with the blood of innocents. The more blood spilt, the more valued the goal. The suicide bomber has an even greater respect for life: if I take the life of another, my own life must be forfeited. Murder becomes a system of exchange, as blood sanctifies the desired ends. They lay their own necks upon the altar along with those who had no choice.

Those who retain the highest value of life are those who put their own lives in peril just for the slightest opportunity to save life. By example they state life is worth living and to prove it put their own forward as collateral.

I saw heroes rush to the scene over the days and weeks that followed. They came forth from across the nation, fire fighters, police, EMS, construction workers, priests, and people who just wanted to help. I remember there were people who risked years of continual health problems just so they could cook for those involved in the rescue efforts.

All of these people were trying to salvage whatever they could. It was all a battle against loss, which in those days encroached with every step of the clock’s second hand. The quest to get people out of the buildings, became the race to pull people out of the rubble, became searching for bones in the dust. As hours turned to weeks, we began to realize the extent of our loss.

The nexus of heroism and regret is loss. There was once something we had, perhaps we were not even aware of it, and now it is gone. What is gone suddenly has value for us, because we feel its absence. Regret is the realization of meaning, in relation to the meaninglessness of our own position. In this sense regret gives value to existence; just not to our own.

We regret decisions, and mistakes, not occurrences and accidents. Regret is the stain of freedom and the agony of responsibility. There is neither consciousness nor freedom without regret.

I regret that I rejected the value of my own life just because I was told to. This did not come from the nobility of  cowardice, a human emotion, but from a mechanized subservience to a process which had failed, and its failure was written in a catastrophic tragedy that I was watching on TV.  In the process, the screams on tape drowned out what I felt as I hit play and record over and over again.

This is what I remember from those first few days.

I do not mean to belittle the experiences of those people with whom I worked with on those days, what they did remains an achievement. They had served the nation as both professionals and as citizens and I was proud to be listed among them. I speak only to my own sense of regret, which comes from my subservience to a process that, obviously, had failed horribly on that day.


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