Heather Conn Blogs

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9/11: In One Degree of Separation, a Growing Distance

This week, my guest blogger, again, is Frank McElroy. As I  mentioned in last week’s 9/11-related post, this is his follow-up piece to what he wrote about September 11 a decade ago:


The loss of the Trade Center was deeply personal to me.  My brother and I know the man (Karl Koch) whose family company erected the buildings; for decades, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, treated Karl and he was often in our home.  My brother and I had a wonderful visit with him in October 1968, looking, through the night, over all of New York from the top of one of the towers.  In that view, seemingly of the entire world, it was palpable that there was something about and among us, a sense of shared purpose and identity.  Today, that sense has been drowned by an endless and immeasurable lack of civility, a contrarian and senseless interaction, an absence of concern about our larger family and each other.


It is a mere ten years since the World Trade Center in Manhattan was consigned to its grave.  In that short period, Americans have given up their optimism, their belief that if we work together, good and some measure of prosperity will come.  We have ceded our privacy to dubious authority in favor of asserted needs for endless security, our calm and good will to fear and paranoia.  We have reaped the “neither” and nothing of Ben Franklin’s astute warning: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”


Now, after a commission’s investigation, countless hours of testimony and seemingly endless documentaries, we are privileged to learn that in this single event, America experienced the greatest string of failures, possibly complicity, in every part of government. This, particularly, applies to our President (George Bush), his Cabinet, the FBI, and the CIA.  Incompetence at the level of the tiniest failure that occurred should have led to firings, indictments, incarceration.  Nobody responsible for the massive failure is on trial, in jail, accountable.


But our nation was glad to wrap itself in the flag as the smoke continued to emanate from the hole in southern Manhattan. This marked a coming together, it seemed, in some ways, to celebrate the heroics and  unending courage of so many who dealt with the mess.  Yet, now, with a bit of distance in time, we ignore the claims for health benefits made by those same heroic and courageous members of our big family.  And we can do that easily because Americans are no longer anything like a family.  Nothing America is about is shared commonly —  any number of charlatans falsely claim the history of the country and claim to have the answers to every problem we face, individually and as a country.  Thrown overboard, the commonweal has sunk to the bottom in favor of the furious drumbeat of fear, pushed by desperate politicians currying favor with business and by the largely spineless and insipid media our Constitution so powerfully protects.


Not long after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans and many small towns — another event that demonstrated both the failure of our government and our character as Americans.  Seven years later, that disaster continues, but is largely forgotten except by those who continue to exist in its endless wake.


Yesterday, just before Labor Day, I watched footage from Newfane and Jamaica in Vermont, two small towns on Route 30, places I love and mentioned in my piece back in 2001. After 9/11, I was driving north from Marblehead, through a flag-waving America in New England, so desperately wanting to feel like a family, to share something common and comforting after a foreign force had ripped the American fabric to shreds.  Looking now at the roads and bridges lost to Tropical Storm Irene, days after it happened, I didn’t see any flags being waved, any response at all except the sadness and desperation that come when we reflect, in the face of real disaster, that we really are alone, that all is lost.


That has become a mean calculus in America, seized by some to  enhance the division of the country by wealth, race, religion, sex, politics, employment, and every other factor.  The degrees of separation between us might be the same as they were in 2001, but the distance between us has grown dramatically in the last decade.


Anticipate, hope, and work for better days.  Peace.










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September 15, 2011 at 7:27 pm Comment (1)

Tenth anniversary of 9/11: one degree of separation

In this past week, marking a decade since the 9/11 disaster, I have watched several powerful documentaries about that horrific day, including “9/11: Heroes of the 88th Floor.” (This focuses on Port Authority workers Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz, who saved the lives of dozens of people trapped in the World Trade Center, only to die themselves in the collapse of the towers.) I find such tales of selflessness, and the pay-it-forward response to those rescued by such heroes, truly uplifting, despite the horrendous circumstances.

But my husband, a New Yorker, refuses to watch such shows. He thinks that they over-hype the event, exploiting tragedy, and manipulating sentiment. He finds reminders of 9/11 too upsetting. For two days, following 9/11, he heard the U.S. military jets continue their deafening flight between Boston and New York, circling the skies night and day, and zooming directly overhead his home in Marblehead, Mass., north of Boston. (Who needed such overkill, when all flights were grounded?) He bears his own connection to what happened that September day, which I share below.

To honor his response to 9/11, and those who died that day, their loved ones who remain, the survivors, and those who worked so generously in the clean-up and aftermath, I include my husband’s article, which originally appeared in the Marblehead Reporter. It was later reprinted in The New York Times. This year, the editor of the Reporter asked him to write a follow-up piece, which I will include next week. Stay tuned.

One degree of separation

Frank L. McElroy


On the 11th day after the 11th day of September 2001, I found myself in escape driving through the heart of New England from Marblehead to southwestern Vermont. It couldn’t have been soon enough or more necessary to try to leave behind, even for a moment, the horror of the destruction in southern Manhattan and in Virginia.

Ellen, Mad and I drove along the winding roads of New Hampshire and Vermont, the names of the small towns passing by – Wilton, Peterborough, Dublin, Dummerston, Newfane, Jamaica, Winhall and Peru.

These are tiny places far away from the island of Manhattan, where I was born and where Ellen produced and directed broadcast advertising. Yet people in these places are more closely connected to New York than one might imagine.

The connection was made obvious in the messages which lined our route. There were innumerable flags displayed, beginning in Nashua and continuing the entire route, the greatest density on the roadside likely being in Dublin, N.H. Sign boards related a supportive or conciliatory thought: “Stand Tall America,” “Pray for those who died on Sept. 11,” and “Proud To Be An American/Proud To Be From New York.”

America is a nation of small towns and New York City just happens to be the biggest of all. People in the little towns have always known this – now New Yorkers have learned the same.

I didn’t think I knew anyone who died in the conflagration. My father was safe, as was my niece who lives on Manhattan. A week after the bombing, I connected to the Cornell University Web site. That early list of alumni dead numbered three, and I knew one. Not well, just an occasional acquaintance in the class below me who was a remarkable lacrosse player.

When I saw that name, all courage drained from me. I couldn’t search for any more friends or classmates that day or for days after, because I knew there would be more. And there will be, for everyone.

When the final list is made, many of us will discover that a lover, friend or classmate has been lost. What we won’t directly observe is that this calamity is so awesome and extreme that the six and seven degrees of separation which supposedly connect us all have been pared to one, maybe two.

When we are able to read the final list of the dead, I fear it is safe to say that nearly every one of us will either know someone who died or someone who knew or was related to a victim. In this there is a parallel to the Second World War. Other parallels include extraordinary acts of bravery and heroism, during the attacks and afterwards and continuing.

Driving along New Hampshire 101 and Vermont 9 and 30, I found no relief from the fear and heartache of the earlier 11 days. Looking at the messages, remembering the images, I cried, Ellen cried, Mad, too. We have grown accustomed to our even existence, won and preserved by so many who have come before us and made immeasurable sacrifice.

That existence is forever changed, but I am calmed by the knowledge that the loss occasioned by the brutal attacks is one shared so directly, by so many.

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September 9, 2011 at 9:38 am Comments (0)