Analyzing why eyes still dry a year after 9/11 attacks

September 10, 2002

LIKE MOST Americans, I can tell you where I was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001: on my way to a routine doctor's appointment. It was a chore so mundane as to underscore the unreality of the next few hours.

I was listening to the radio news, something that isn't possible when my 16-year-old daughter is riding shotgun in the van, and by the time I tuned it, the Pentagon had been hit. My husband worked not a mile from there, and I was increasingly frantic until I reached him by cell phone.

But then I slipped into the familiar role of journalist and headed for downtown Annapolis to report on the status of the U.S. Naval Academy.

There, the next generation of this country's military leaders live in one great, big dormitory built in the shape of an "H." From the sky, I thought, Bancroft Hall would look to a suicide pilot as if it had an arrow pointing to it: "You Are Here."

I was too busy to cry on Sept. 11. The firehouse dog instinct is very strong in reporters. When the bell clangs, we jump on the truck. There was no time for tears.

In the days that followed, there was more work and still no time for tears. Even at rest, as I embraced my husband and children in gratitude for their well-being, I didn't cry. Even as television introduced me to the powerful grief of those families in Washington and New York I did not cry.

Alarmed at my own implacability, I asked a friend who is also a psychologist if there was something wrong with me. "Am I dead inside?" I wondered aloud.

She assured me that those who have a role in disaster are quite rightly dispassionate during such a calamity, even if they are not directly involved.

Rescue workers, disaster response teams, medical people, police and firefighters, even reporters, watch events unfold with an eye toward how they would do their job under such circumstances.

"It is perfectly normal, and it makes perfect sense. The professionals can't cry at times like that," she said.

But weeks and months passed, the holidays came and still I did not cry. Nor was I angry.

My sister's son, a member of the Marines' special forces, went cave to cave searching for the al-Qaida members who did this thing. I did not shed a single, fearful tear for him, though I held my breath for eight months.

Now, the anniversary of Sept. 11 is upon us. Newspapers and television are thick with the testimony of widows, children and co-workers who lost someone that day, and how they are coping a year later. There is unimaginable grief shown on every channel and in every newspaper, and still it does not make me cry.

The TV commercials, however, have dissolved the eerie composure inside me.

Standing at the kitchen sink, the television on the counter near me, I weep inconsolably at the carefully crafted words and pictures designed - intended - to squeeze my heart. My back bends and my shoulders hunch as if I am collapsing from the inside and my tears cascade into the dishwater below.

How is it that the real stories of real people and their suffering do not move me in the way that 30 seconds from Madison Avenue does? The best advertising minds in this country have reduced 9/11 to a Kodak moment, and I am putty in their hands.

On CBS' 60 Minutes, Ed Bradley ends his interview with a Sept. 11 widow and, with the cameras still rolling unnoticed, he kneels before her, clasps both of her hands in his and lifts them to his forehead.

Have you ever had anybody who meant the world to you, she whispers to him? Can you help me?

I watch without moving, but I do not cry.

A moment later, smiling children of all races and faces gambol at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. Singers sing some evocative lyrics, and I am gasping with sobs and choking on my own tears.

I may not be able to feel, but I sure can be manipulated.

Now, not during the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, when all of us were stunned into silence, might be the time to ask if I am dead inside - if some part of me sensed the enormity of the pain that had been unleashed by those exploding planes and simply stopped working.

Like most Americans, I can tell you where I was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. But a year later, I don't know.

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