Last month the wife and I were in New York City for a few days and we knew we just had to go to Ground Zero, the former site of the World Trade Center. Lots of weird and uncomfortable thoughts go through your mind when you are standing at a spot where such devastation and destruction took place, especially when you saw it happening on TV as it was happening. So much different from newsreel footage of historical events.
While you are standing there, trying to imagine the two massive structures as they stood just moments before the airplanes flew into them, it is inconceivable even to my practical mind, that such an act could have taken place. And as we walked through the mass of people all trying to get a glimpse of basically nothing, I found myself looking at everyone, trying to memorize their faces, trying to pick out the tourist from the local.
Because as we left the area and walked through the neighboring areas, it was clear that while the buildings were coming down, there were thousands of other people who experienced the destruction and horror first hand. And I must have been passing many of them as I walked in the vicinity. The people who own and run the storefronts just next door, the attorneys and accountants and financial advisors who worked in the offices next door, the kids walking through the area who, on that September morning must have been walking to school. These people who I was passing at that very moment had already witnessed such terror and panic as I had never experienced in my life and it felt to me as if I had to be deferential to that, to not push back when I was shoved out of the way by a rushing New Yorker, to say an extra appreciative “thank you” to the guy who worked in the pizza shop, to give a couple more dollars to the homeless guy on the street.
I felt like I owed it to these people who had already seen and experienced so much, that I owed it to them to be kinder, more appreciative, more respectful.
By comparison, when I was in Germany about 15 years ago, I felt the opposite. Every older person I passed by on the street was instantly viewed with suspicion, a curiosity as to what he or she was doing in the early 1940’s while their government was pursuing their reign of terror.
And at that point, comparing my thoughts of Germany to my thoughts of NYC, it occurred to me that we all have experienced, in some form or another, some sort of horror and terror, some kind of devastation and destruction. And we all deserve additional respect for having suffered that. For just as I was concerned for the shopkeepers who were at the base of ground zero in 2001, so might they feel the same about me as I tell them about my experience during the 1994 Northridge earthquake, or the girl next to me who discusses her experience in the New Orleans hurricane.
We all have stories and we all have experiences and some of them are unpleasant and terrifying. Because I was there in NYC at Ground Zero, I felt the magnitude of the destruction but also an alarming sensitivity to those who had suffered by surviving. While the deaths of the people on the planes and in the towers were certainly tragic, we must not forget the impact the destruction had on the living, the first responders, the volunteers, and simply everyone who had to move forward from that day and rebuild and regroup.
We all have experienced something like that, something that was so devastating that the process of rebuilding and regrouping was just as tragic as it was for the people who perished. Don’t we, then, owe it to each other to treat each other with that extra level of respect? I knew as I was passing people on the street at Ground Zero that they were there, that they had experienced the terror, that they survived and rebuilt. But the people on my street, or on other streets, I don’t know the same about them. But if I assume that they have some sort of similar experience and I treat them with that extra level of respect, then aren’t I being a better person?
And can’t we all be better people if we consider that when we are dealing with other people? Just because they don’t have scars on their bodies it doesn’t mean that they haven’t been scarred.