Wednesday, 14 March 2012

A Long Decade

On that day, I was getting off a bus at Taman Tun Dr Ismail when I saw the burning towers on the newsstand. The days that followed passed in a blur. Far removed from the scene of the largest terrorist attack in the US, something of it reached our shores.

'A Decade of Hope'
Several days later, the workplace was evacuated due to a bomb threat. I remember feeling more relieved than panicked; it'd been a lousy day and I couldn't wait to leave.

There were wars in the Middle East. Regimes toppled. Reprisals. But they couldn't get the one who was said to have inspired the 9-11 attacks.

Until May 2, 2011.

After all the anger and blood, however, one wonders whether any ghosts have been exorcised at all with the killing of the avowed terrorist leader.

That's the impression I got after finishing A Decade of Hope. This seemingly hasty compilation of interviews by Dennis Smith, with the editorial assistance of his daughter Deirdre, appears to be some attempt at burying the spectre of 9-11 with stories of how New Yorkers coped with the change wrought by the 19 airplane hijackers and the loss of friends and loved ones on that day.

Most of those featured are first responders to the tragedy: firefighters, police personnel and paramedics, with a civilian or two and the token American Muslim. And most of them are still grieving. Some cannot forgive. But all of them cannot forget, and aren't likely to.

The choice of interviewees may be more than coincidence; Smith was a firefighter before he became a writer, and it would've been easier to speak to people within that group. That would explain the strong firehouse camaraderie emanating from the pages.

I found the book a long, laborious and lugubrious read, mostly because I couldn't relate to any of the interviewees. Should I be moved, inspired? Is the publication of the book meant to be cathartic, the push we all need to move on?

Many of the interviews are lengthy, and while preserving as much of each as possible honours the spirit of the book, some substantial editing could've helped make space for a few more points-of-view. For one, there's too much background info on the interviewees and the people who died.

That some of the characters refer to each other throughout the book reinforces the - dare I say it? - the cliquishness of the collection. Over 3,000 was said to have perished that day; surely there were more people who'd be willing to come forward with their stories? Apart from the first responders?

Given the superhuman expectations we mere mortals have for first responders, seeing these men and women of steel grieve and bleed in the face of the disaster would show us the enormity of what happened to them and what they went through. It does, but I don't think it affected me the way the author wanted it.

The shadow of terrorism is still with us, but 9-11 just doesn't have the same gravitas these days. Bin Laden is gone, and Bush is no longer president. And we have other worries keeping us up at night.

The author has good intentions, which makes me ashamed to feel this way. Despite the honest, heartfelt outpouring of grief and hope, I just couldn't empathise; were I to try I'd end up sounding glib. Nor can I imagine the weight of the burdens they've borne and will continue to bear.

Nevertheless, whatever has been said about their leaders and foreign policy, one should note that the views and behaviours of a government don't always reflect those of the populace. Nobody deserves a 9-11.

With Bin Laden's death, the Americans can sigh away a collective breath held for ten long years; for many, some measure of justice has been reportedly done. But Smith's collection of voices suggest that the healing has only begun and that full closure may only be a matter of hope.

This point of view is based on an advance reading copy.

A Decade of Hope
Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends

Dennis Smith, Deirdre Smith
Viking (2011)
356 pages
ISBN: 978-0-670-02293-9


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