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How 9/11 Should Be Remembered

The extraordinary achievements of ordinary people.

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 3:31 PM EDT

We Are the Monument

It could all have been different. It's too late now, but not too late, never too late, to change how we remember and commemorate this event and that other great landmark of the Bush era, Hurricane Katrina, and so prepare for disasters to come.

For the 99 years before that hurricane hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the biggest urban disaster in American history was in my city, San Francisco. Half the city, including more than 28,000 buildings, was destroyed, and about 3,000 people probably died. The earthquake early on the morning of April 18, 1906, did a lot of damage, but the fires did more. Some were started by collapsed buildings and broken gas mains, others by the army troops who streamed in from the Presidio at the northern tip of the city and ineptly built firebreaks that instead actually spread the fires.

The presiding officer, Brigadier General Frederick Funston, presumed that the public would immediately revert to chaos and that his task was restoring order. In the first days after the disaster, the truth was more or less the other way around, as the Army and the National Guard prevented citizens from fighting the fires and collecting their property, shot people as looters (including rescuers and bystanders), and generally regarded the public as the enemy (as did some of the officials presiding over the post-Katrina "rescue"). As with many disasters, a calamity that came from outside was magnified by elite fears and institutional failures within. Still, on their own, San Franciscans organized themselves remarkably, fought fires when they could, created a plethora of community kitchens, helped reconnect separated families, and began to rebuild.

Every year we still celebrate the anniversary of the earthquake at Lotta's Fountain, which, like Union Square after 9/11, became a meeting place for San Franciscans in the largely ruined downtown. That gathering brings hundreds of people together before dawn to sing the silly song "San Francisco," get free whistles from the Red Cross, and pay homage to the dwindling group of survivors. (Two, who'd been babies in 1906, arrived this year in the backseat of a magnificent 1931 Lincoln touring car.)

Some of us then go on to the fire hydrant at 20th and Church that saved the Mission District, the hydrant that miraculously had water when most of the water mains were broken and the men who had already been fighting the fire by hand for days were exhausted beyond belief. The oldest person at the gathering always begins an annual repainting of the hydrant with a can of gold spray paint, and then some kids get to wield the spray can.

San Francisco now uses the anniversary to put out the message that we should be prepared for the next disaster — not the version the Department of Homeland Security spread in the years after 9/11 with the notion that preparation consists of fear, duct tape, deference, and more fear, but practical stuff about supplies and strategies. My city even trains anyone who wants to become a certified NERT — for the nerdy-sounding Neighborhood Emergency Response Team — member, and about 17,000 of us are badge-carrying, hard-hat owning NERT members (including me).

Every city that has had, or will have, a disaster should have such a carnival of remembrance and preparation. For one thing, it commemorates all the ways that San Franciscans were not defeated and are not helpless; for another, it reminds us that, in disaster, we are often at our best, however briefly, that in those hours and days many have their best taste of community, purposefulness, and power. (Reason enough for many of those who are supposed to be in charge to shudder.) For the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians were invited to ring bells, lay wreaths, pray, encircle the Superdome, that miserable shelter of last resort for those stranded in the hurricane and flood, and of course listen to music and dance in the streets to second-line parades, but also to keep volunteering and rebuilding. (Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of that disaster is the vast army of citizen-volunteers who came to the city's aid, when the government didn't, and are still doing so.)

New York has its pillars of light and readings of names for the anniversary of 9/11, but it seems to lack any invitation to the citizenry to feel its own power and prepare for the next calamity. For there will be next times for San Francisco, New York, New Orleans, and possibly — in this era of extreme and turbulent weather, and economic upheaval — a great many other cities and towns in this country and elsewhere.

That hydrant on a quiet residential corner of San Francisco is about the only monument to the 1906 earthquake and fire. The rebuilt city, the eventual rise of disaster preparedness, the people who go on with their everyday lives — these are the monument San Francisco needed and every city needs to transcend its calamities. New Yorkers could gather in Union Square and elsewhere to remember what happened, really remember, remember that the heroes weren't necessarily men, or in uniform, but were almost everyone everywhere that day.

They could open their hearts and minds to discuss mourning, joy, death, violence, power, weakness, truth and lies, as they did that week. They could consider what constitutes safety and security, what else this country could be, and what its foreign and energy policies have to do with these things. They could walk the streets together to demonstrate that New York is still a great city, whose people were not frightened into going into hiding or flight from public and urban life. They could more consciously and ceremoniously do what New Yorkers, perhaps best of all Americans, do every day: coexist boldly and openly in a great mixture of colors, nationalities, classes, and opinions, daring to speak to strangers and to live in public.

The dead must be remembered, but the living are the monument, the living who coexist in peace in ordinary times and who save one another in extraordinary times. Civil society triumphed that morning in full glory. Look at it: remember that this is who we were and can be.

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