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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Selfishness

Yesterday, as you might have noticed, was September the 11th. Five years ago on that date the World Trade Center was destroyed and the Pentagon seriously damaged. Thousands of people, most of them innocent, lost their lives in a terrorist attack. The aftermath of these events have shaped U.S. foreign and domestic policy for the past five years and, in all likelihood, will be seen by future generations as leaving an indelible mark on the present era. Whether this mark will be for the better or, as I suspect, the worse remains for the judgement of history.

Of greater interest to me at present is what those future generations are like right now. How are children, growing up in this paranoia-rich post 9/11 world doing? I am, apparently, not the only one wondering because 60 Minutes recently ran a story on how the children of 9/11 victims are doing. Now, I want it to be understood that I have nothing against these kids. They've gone through a very difficult and traumatic experience and deserve to be treated a bit gingerly for a while. To claim otherwise would, indeed, be unfair.

But...

But, how long is "a while?" As it turns out there seem to be a number of organizations dedicated to taking care of these kids and they seem to have no intention of stopping. One organization in particular is named Tuesday's Children and sponsors summer camps, organizes regular meetings, and even recently took some of these kids (often young adults) to Costa Rica on a sort of thereapeutic trip. This is, of course, wonderful and is made possible by an outpouring of generosity that is a wonder to witness. Yet I am, frankly, a little disturbed by all of this.

My disquiet emerges at least partly from the length of time that has elapsed since that terrible September day. It has been five years. Is this a long time? Well, it's half a decade. It's nearly one-third of an entire childhood.* Yes, it's a good bit of time, and particularly so for young people. By the time five years have elapsed, we should probably expect grieving children to be, at least, beginning to get past their pain. Indeed, this does seem to be happening somewhat:

"Sometimes I remember from when my brothers put on his cologne I remember his smell but I don’t really remember him. I don’t remember what he loo…," Bridget Fisher [daughter of 9/11 victim] says.


Yet, all the same, why do so many of these children report that 9/11 feels like it was "just yesterday?" Is it because it was such a traumatic event, or because all of this attention is simply preventing them from healing? Indeed, a dulling of memory is a blessing when trying to come to grips with the loss of a loved one and, by the same token, working too hard to hold onto memory can make acceptance all but unobtainable. Is that taking place here? Well, you tell me:

Asked if she remembers her father's voice, Brielle [daughter of 9/11 victim] says, "I remember his voice because my mom keeps it on his voice mail."

"Do you remember what it is?" Pelley asks.

"Yes, he gets on the phone he says ‘Hi this is Victor. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Please leave a message, thank you.’ and then he hangs up. Sometimes it bothers me cause I know he won’t get back to me, sometimes. But, I don’t know. It’s the best we can do," Brielle replies.


It's as though we're seeking to keep the wounds open, rather than to allow them to heal. More than that, we're actually instilling wounds where, otherwise, they might never have existed. The youngest child in Tuesday's Children is four and a half. It's been five years since the event- that means that some of these kids are in a program meant to help them deal with a trauma that they can't have experienced:

"I forgot who said it, but they said that my grandpa went in after my dad," Jennifer remembers.

"Yeah, cause he knew that he might — he knew that my dad would go in there," Jacqueline adds. "And, even if my dad was home, he would have went because they called firefighters from all over the world. Even if you were on the other side of the world you would’ve came in you would have had to."

In these first five years, the 9/11 generation has been growing up. Some like Joseph Angelini III are in grade school with very few memories of that day.


I'm not saying that these kids wouldn't grow up wondering about their missing parent- without question they would- but is it healthy for them to be taught that it's such a big deal? Children have, after all, been losing parents at all ages for thousands of years. It's difficult, it's unpleasant, but it's survivable. Do we really think that the childen of 9/11 victims were somehow more deeply wounded than the child who saw his or her mother beaten to death? And where are all of those summer camps? Where are their trips to Costa Rica?

Where indeed. Treating the children of 9/11 victims as though they are made of glass doesn't end here, either. There are, it seems, plans to continue treating them as such for a long time to come:

"The youngest child in Tuesday’s Children is four and a half, which really begs the question how long do you go on?" Pelley [60 Minutes reporter] asks.

"Well we certainly go on to see that four and a half year old completely through college, for sure, and then into, you know, the job market," Murphy [Tuesday's Children representative] says.


So it appears that Tuesday's Children plans to continue their work for at least the next twenty years. How can a child who grows up with such attention not draw the conclusion that they should have a difficult time healing? How can this process not contribute to keeping those wounds open? I have a hard time seeing it.

Certainly, the children of 9/11 victims have a peculiar problem in that the events that took their parents' lives are so often discussed. These frequent reminders must make healing more difficult, as they indicate themselves:

"It feels like it was very recent. And, you know, it's buried there in your past. But at the same time, you have so many opportunities to see it all over again every time you pick up a paper, turn on the TV. There's always reminders there," says Zack [child of 9/11 victim].

Reminders come in the most unexpected ways. Like a receipt from his father’s desk that was found burned and blowing down a street in Brooklyn. An artist found it and framed it.


This is, however, no different from anyone who has lost a relative in a natural disaster. Perhaps it is felt more accutely for those who lost a parent in such a politically-relevant disaster, but it is nonetheless the same. Do we really expect that they cannot heal from this without twenty years of constant comforting?

Ultimately, my objection is not to providing these children with such resources. I would like to see all children who lose a parent have the same opportunities, granted, but I do not begrudge these children their comforts. Instead, I have the sense that these programs are not really about the children- they are about us. Many of us watched the television five years ago, and we saw the towers ablaze. We watched in horror as people jumped to their deaths, and as tons of concrete and steel rained to the ground below. I imagine that many felt as I did watching such a thing- utterly powerless.

And so, five years later, we have found ways to make ourselves feel powerful again. By intervening in the lives of these children we can feel like we are making a difference. We can tell ourselves that we're doing our part, and finally make our own peace with our limitations. There's nothing wrong with that, really, and much generosity is ultimately motived out of self-interest, but perhaps we should draw the line somewhere. Perhaps we should stop ourselves when our own "generosity" is making martyrs of thousands of children.

Perhaps we should acknowledge that by trying to help, we are only doing harm, and that continuing to do so is simply being selfish.

* i.e. in the U.S. we become legal adults at age 18 and 18/3=6.

As a side note: I really don't bear ill will towards these kids or the people who are trying to help them but, from time to time, I think we should question the methods if not the motives.

2 Comments:

Blogger TDEC said...

Maybe it is guilt, as well as selfishness, that motivates these people who are trying to "fix" this so badly. Overwhelming guilt at not being able to help then, at not being able to prevent similar events, similar deaths. Selfishness seems such a negative term for such well-intentioned people; which is not to say I don't agree. I tend to see the helplessness more, the helplessness of people to whom 9/11 is not over because they are still not safe from similar attacks, and still cannot protect their loved ones from them. It must be nice to have a manageable task, something that can be redeemed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 10:48:00 AM  
Anonymous bookmobile said...

I don't think it helps these children heal that we consider these parents to be heroes all, simply because they were killed in the 9/11 attacks, rather than as victims who were in the most horrible place at the most horrible time. That might be part of the answer to why we treat them so delicately: we are trying to help the children of people we consider to be heroic - we are trying to treat the parents as heroes by treating the children as such.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 8:03:00 PM  

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