Sept. 12, 2001, was the day the concept of “the disappeared” made sense to Americans
By Ed Griffin-Nolan
Sept. 12 seemed to go on forever. It was the first day of many spent staring at smoke. And smoke, like running water, is something you can’t ever really see. The eye tries to hold on to the image, but, in an instant, it’s gone. On that day, Sept. 12, 2001, the mind of an entire nation was trying to grasp something that couldn’t be seen and couldn’t be compared or processed.
Sept. 12 was the day the first aid squads and emergency services stood at the ready, awaiting the wounded, and instead found themselves with little to do but to watch the smoke rise.
It was the day America learned the meaning of the term “disappeared.” We sent people we loved off to work the day before and, as night fell, we didn’t know if they were stuck somewhere without communication, if they were about to walk right through the door, if they were laying injured in a hospital, or if they were simply, incomprehensibly, gone, mingled with that smoke from which we could not distract our gaze.
All we could see in the smoke was the reflection of our own hopes and the multiple mirages those hopes created. Yet we had to keep looking, as if to turn away would be to break faith with those whose fate we feared but did not yet know.
A dear cousin of mine, Lorraine Greene Lee, worked on the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower. Proud daughter of an FDNY captain, she had volunteered to be the fire marshal on her floor after the 1993 bombing. After the plane hit the neighboring tower, Lorraine and a colleague did what they were assigned to do—check if there was anyone left in their office—when the second plane hit. She wasn’t heard from again, and no remains of her have been identified. (Months later, her mother did receive a call and went to retrieve her purse which was found, oddly intact, amid the rubble. It is now on display at the Smithsonian).
Like a lot of families, we hung posters.
When the phones would work we called frantically, and followed every lead that appeared. But the truth none of us could face on the 12th was that our loved ones had just disappeared. Bruce Springsteen wrote about it later on the album The Rising (Columbia), when he described someone who was gone but not dead, in “You’re Missing.” He depicted lives vanish ing in smoke, not ending in the ground, but in the air, an image that gave comfort in its own way, eventually.
It was up to Lorraine’s husband and mother to decide when they would believe that she was gone, but on that day, on Sept. 12, she was just missing. Disappeared. We learned the meaning of a word that until that date had been the province of people in other lands.
Sept. 11 was already a loathsome date for many people, myself included. In 1973 on that date in Chile a military coup brought in a 17-year reign of terror in that South American country. Gen.
Augusto Pinochet, along with his colleagues in Argentina, perfected the use of the tactic of “disappearing” their political opponents. Students, union leaders, political activists and sometimes people mistaken for one of the above would simply be picked up on the streets. Unlike the gulag, they were not sent to a known prison. Unlike the tactics used by Central American death squads, their bodies were not dumped on the street to intimidate their followers.
They just disappeared. When someone disappears, you live between hope and terrified grief. In the southern cone of Latin America, this had a mafia-like tactical value for the military regimes. The families of the disappeared were petrified that, if they themselves acted up, and their loved ones were alive, they might be tortured or worse. The twisted logic of it was that if you believed your loved one was dead, you could do something about it, but in those moments when you chose to hope, you feared that a misstep might cause them to be killed. So disappearances, which in many cases lasted years, were a very effective means of social control. Up to a point.
Eventually the family members of the disappeared, in both Chile and Argentina, found the strength to confront the regimes that had hollowed out their families and ruined their lives. If you’ve ever heard the Sting song, “They Dance Alone,” you may recall its portrayal of Chilean women dancing the cueca, the national dance, with photos of lost sons and husbands. Those were the women who began the struggle to regain decency and democracy.
Eventually the families of the victims of Osama bin Laden banded together in various forms of activism, much of which continues to this day, following a universal impulse to insist that those who have disappeared will not be forgotten.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times. You can contact him at edgriffin@ twcny.rr.com.