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A Return to Normal
An essay by Ellis Cose

audio Listen to Cose's essay.

Sept. 23, 2001 -- As America demanded, George W. Bush rose to the occasion, delivering last week the speech of his life. That picture of President Bush summoning Americans to an uncertain war on terrorism is likely to be the defining image of his presidency and one of the enduring, but unexpected impressions of this suddenly new age.

But then these last two weeks have brought us no end of indelible and unexpected images, beginning with the least-expected sight of all, the once-majestic World Trade Center towers collapsing, leaving the bodies, the dreams of some 6,000-plus human beings buried under a pile of twisted metal and rubble.

Normalcy, no matter what mask we wear, will be a long time coming. And for those of us who live in New York, whose world has been irremediably altered in both a physical and psychological sense, every day brings new reminders of what we have lost. They come in a million ways, through the images of tragedy that still pervade the airwaves, and from the recollections and worries we share with each other.

"From the stories circulating all around us, we draw disillusionment, anguish, hope and inspiration, sometimes at the same time."

Ellis Cose

For in some horrific playing out of the six degrees scenario, it seems that everyone knows someone or knows someone who knows someone who is no longer of this Earth. Then there is the sense of something verging on guilt that many of us feel for somehow being spared, for not having been more directly affected, for not, in a more personal sense, sharing the tragedy that so many thousands could not avoid.

And it is a sense that is compounded by utter helplessness we feel in the face of horror, or the inadequacy or irrelevance of our abilities to the task at hand. From the stories circulating all around us, we draw disillusionment, anguish, hope and inspiration, sometimes at the same time.

Last week I spoke with Bob Strong, a battalion chief, one of hundreds of heroic New York firefighters who rushed to the scene of the desolation. Strong personally knew at least 50 of the firemen who perished during the rescue mission. But in the days following the tragedy, he had to put his grief on hold and try to save lives. He told a sad yet now familiar story of frantically searching for survivors and finding none.

Instead, he and his crew found the body of a colleague and he had to comfort himself with the heart-stopping thought that at least the man's family would get to have a proper burial.

My sister-in-law, a nurse who was called upon to assist victims of the disaster, tells of one woman who arrived at the hospital with a tale illustrating both the worst and best of human nature. The woman, who worked at the World Trade Center, had stumbled as she tried to make it down the countless flights of stairs. And for several horrible moments she was trapped under the weight of people rushing past her, physically trampling her chest and the rest of her body.

Then, miraculously, the terror ended. A strapping stranger sporting dreadlocks lifted her atop his shoulders and carried her down the several remaining flights to safety.

From such examples, repeated thousands of times over, we have drawn a spiritual sustenance, but what's bolstered us even more is the reconnecting with family and friends that this tragedy has occasioned. Even those of us who live and work many blocks away from the World Trade Center have been bombarded with calls and e-mails with urgent expressions of love and concern from people whom we have not heard from in some cases for months or years who suddenly felt compelled to let us know they care.

We have been showered, in short, with affection, that we have done nothing in particular to earn. And in the process we have been reminded in a way too powerful to ignore of how interconnected we are, of how important human connections can be.

But those calls and e-mails serve another, perhaps larger purpose, for they have ensured that along with memories of horror, we will also have memories of love, memories that will be essential in restoring a sense of purpose to our lives, memories that will help to sustain us in what promise to be some dark days ahead.

Ellis Cose is a contributing editor at Newsweek and author of The Rage of a Privileged Class.