During the glorious summer of 2001, my daughter and I lived in New York City while she attended a summer session at NYU. We rented an apartment from a woman who was spending the summer in Greece, which gave us the chance to thoroughly experience the city as only a resident can.
The apartment was in one of the few tall buildings in the West Village, an older 14-story structure that had been grandfathered in when the Greenwich Village passed an ordinance restricting the height of buildings to preserve the small-town feel of that part of Manhattan. We would take the elevator up to the rooftop at dusk to take in its breathtaking unobstructed view. To the north was the Empire State Building, to the south the World Trade Center Towers.
We were always the only ones up there except for an elderly gentleman who came up every night to smoke his after-dinner cigar. He loved to identify all the buildings for us. "I come up here to watch the planes come in to LaGuardia," he would often repeat. "See how it looks just like they are going to hit the Twin Towers? But they never do." We would marvel with him at the optical illusion - how the planes always seemed headed right for the Towers.
I think of him every Sept. 11. I wonder if he still goes up there every night. I'll bet he doesn't.
The pain of that day is never more than a nanosecond away from every New Yorker. The rest of the country doesn't really understand it. I'm sorry to say that, but it's true. If the rest of the country understood how New Yorkers, and to a lesser extent Washingtonians, felt, they would never have allowed six years of nonsense to pass. They would never have re-elected a president who, when he couldn't find Osama, lost interest and turned to go after someone easier to hit. Or allowed Homeland Security to divvy up funds helter-skelter over 50 states, dithering it away and turning a serious matter into just one more pork barrel feeding frenzy instead of fortifying the places the terrorist will likely be hitting over and over again: NEW YORK and WASHINGTON.
New Yorkers feel abandoned. I'm not saying that you - Middle America - don't understand. You just don't feel it in your gut. Maybe, like the New Yorkers, you would have to breathe in the ashes of the dead to know.
Two weeks after 9/11, we attended a delayed orientation session for parents at NYU. After a subdued presentation - during which we couldn't concentrate - we took off walking downtown. Within a few blocks, the streets were covered with gray-white ash. The air was difficult to breathe. The ash puffed around our shoes and we walked carefully, sensing that we were trodding on the powdered remains of the dead. As we drew near, we became part of a stream of people silently walking to Ground Zero. No one talked. Not a word. Every surface was plastered with the notes and pictures of the missing. Scrawled handwriting pleaded, "Have you seen my Daddy? Have you seen my daughter?" The only sound was spontaneous, respectful applause whenever ash-covered firefighters or construction workers left the site to get a bottle of water or a sandwich handed to them by volunteers.
We should have changed the way we lived.
We should have refused to burn the bloody oil our enemies sell us.
We should have honored the dead.
My daughter lives and works in Boston, but her company has asked her to relocate to New York. The office where she will work is very near Ground Zero. When she went in for a meeting a few weeks ago, it was necessary to walk past the site to get there and she began to cry. Her Boston colleague, unmoved, hurried her along. When she reached the office to meet her boss and co-workers, she apologized for her tear-stained face. "That's OK, honey," said one older woman. "I've had to walk by it every day on the way to work for five years now. And I cry every single morning."
I do not know whether anyone - be they from Boston, Kansas City or Lawrence - can understand what New Yorkers live with every day. But maybe, just maybe, New Yorkers would be pleased if they knew that the island of Lawrence exists within the sea of Middle Stupidity. Perhaps that's because Lawrence still remembers and possesses the sensibility born out of their own terrorist event. Every year, Lawrencians gather on Aug. 21 for a candlelight vigil to mark the day more than 140 years ago when terrorist hate-mongers - Quantrill's pro-slavery band - massacred 143 freedom-loving Kansans on a rampage through Lawrence.
For the most part, New York has given up on Middle America. As well they should. When the 2004 election results were tallied, a sea of solid red covered the vast middle of the country. The vote was a resounding affirmation for the Texas team that brought us the trillion-dollar invasion of Iraq, even after the facts were known - no WMD, no al-Qaida connection. Yet somehow, Middle America bought the notion that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld War to impose American-style democracy on a land where tribal feuding between Sunnis and Shiites has been going on since the ninth century - that this was somehow a "War on Terror."
(Can you imagine what we could have accomplished after 9/11 if we had spent the Iraq War billions on beefing up our own security, perfecting our own democracy and improving the lives of our own citizens?)
Any New Yorker who hadn't given up by 2006 did so when - remember this - Homeland Security cut both Washington and New York's anti-terrorism funding by 40 percent, asserting that New York didn't have any "national monuments or icons" of interest to terrorists. Oh yes, that year homeland security funds went to an Indiana popcorn farm and an Alabama petting zoo.
If that didn't do it, a certain darling of the Strident Right suggested in her book that the 9/11 widows were deriving pleasure from their husband's deaths - all because these women opposed Bush's "War on Terror" in Iraq.
While their national government makes people take off their shoes and confiscates tubes of makeup at airports, New York does what must be done. The city devotes over 1,200 police officers and more than $200 million a year to anti-terrorism. CIA-like operatives work abroad tracking threats, working hand-in-hand with 10 other countries. NYPD's intelligence ranks have native Arab speakers who monitor jihadi Web sites and terrorist organizations. Other Arabic speakers walk the streets in the city's Muslim neighborhoods, working to forge strong community connections, which is the smart way to keep a city safe. Other specially trained officers monitor bridges, tunnels and ports. They dive under ships in the harbor, fly over the city in helicopters, drive vans with equipment that can sniff out radiological and biological weapons. They don't talk about it. They just do it.
New Yorkers know they can only depend on each other. But they shouldn't have to go it alone. It's time to require our government to conduct a real war on terrorism and to step up to the plate - and get ready for the next big one.