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Archive for August, 2010

In the autumn and winter months following my husband’s death on 9/11, my strength came from the architects and designers with whom I’d been associated for several years. I was at the time public relations director of a large architecture and interior design firm in New York. I loved the job. Working with architects and designers taught me to visualize; I, in turn, helped them express the intent and the context of their projects through words. It was a good match.

So when I had the opportunity to work with architects, designers, planners and a variety of civic activists, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the devastation first-hand; stood by the crumbling steps that were all that remained of the World Financial Center; gazed upon the sculptured ruins of my husband’s building glowing gold and grey in the filtered sunlight. I’d seen the hell that had crushed my open-minded, optimistic mate and sent his ashes to the four winds. Now I wanted to be a part of a new and better vision, one that would embrace memory, yes, but also vision. Where before there were ungainly monuments to finance, there might be a university or an educational facility, perhaps some sort of journalistic enterprise,  a cultural center, even a museum of tolerance and understanding—because to understand was not to accept terrorism but to seek its opposite. All of this might be encased in a beautifully landscaped environment with buildings of inspired architecture. The signage—I was a big fan of signage—would be how we would tell people that they were entering “sacred” ground; made so not by the deaths at the site but by the lives that would be remembered.

Throughout the fall of 2001, even as I worked as a families’ representative in my home state of New Jersey, I stayed part-time in the city to facilitate a series of public meetings where devastated New Yorkers talked about their dreams of an inspiring skyline. In December I huddled in unheated raw space at the South Street Seaport adjacent to ground zero with members of the Regional Plan Association to come up with ideas that would be complimentary to those suggested by Mayor Bloomberg. No, I didn’t live in New York City (although I worked there), but I felt passionately that the best possible direction for us to move forward, to prove we as Americans were not about to give in to the hatred that perpetrated the act, nor the grief it sought to instill, was to make the place where my husband died something truly special.

Nine years later, I’m not simply disappointed, but wounded. Some of it is thoroughly selfish, I admit. The hopes and dreams of organizations like “Renew New York” and projects like “Imagine New York” were mine too. To look now at the blandly functional commercial buildings finally rising at the site is to feel a pang for the days when so many of the deeply wounded, not just family members, thought to create a living, visual and visible symbol of resilience.

But what is worse is the pitiful symbolism ground zero evokes—death over life, prejudice over tolerance, grief over hope, and a backwards, stuck-in-place mentality that tramples the visions of a better future some of us once had. The air of controversy surrounding ground zero is as toxic as anything I ever breathed that long-ago September.

I am laid low about this time, every year since 2001; it’s hard to shake memories of the shock and confusion played out in such a public setting. But I had been feeling better, truly. At heart, I am a forward-looking person, or at least someone learning to live in the moment.

It’s going to be much harder this year. I hate what 9/11 represents, not just the loss of my husband but the loss of our better selves. This is not how I want my husband remembered. And this is not my ground zero.

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The powerful image that appeared on the cover of the recent issue of Time Magazine in one sense represents the terrible problem of global violence against women, sanctioned by a hodgepodge of tribal customs, religious misinterpretation and government-sponsored terror campaigns against citizen populations. But the image is just part of a cover story, accompanied by its own question: “What happens if we leave Afghanistan?” 

Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

Anticipating a reaction, managing editor Richard Stengel wrote:  “Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival.” 

Stengel goes on to acknowledge the disturbing effect the image might have on children and to detail the elaborate security measures taken on behalf of Aisha, who also faces the promise of reconstructive surgery in the United States. And then he makes this statement: “I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”  

In the final paragraph, he makes reference to the Wikileaks report on the progress (or lack) of the war. Stengel insists the story is not a corrective to those reports; “We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.”

He concludes, however, by noting that, “What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.”

Emotional truth: the phrase has the same effect on me as “the real story”; it’s often a disingenuous way of skewing the story and pulling the reader/viewer to one side. Maybe that’s what all good storytelling does; certainly it’s what an opinion piece does, but then why the disclaimer?  

Most of us realize that the Taliban represents a local cultural interpretation of a religious way of life that is obscenely oppressive to women. We also know this sort of interpretation allows many cultures to subjugate its women, a fact that compels my involvement with organizations such as Women for Women.  Yes, there could be dire consequences for women and for all citizens if the Taliban were to return to power. 

But the picture, coupled with the question that is really a statement in disguise (“this WILL happen after we leave Afghanistan) is designed to shock and, I think, to manipulate. The implication is that we readers will have allowed these sorts of horrific mutilations to continue should the U.S. withdraw. I appreciate that the author at least addresses the difficulties in getting the government to speak out forcefully against these crimes committed against its own citizens. Afghanistan President Karzai seems to believe that negotiation with the Taliban is his only option, and that he finds himself in an  either/or situation, whereby he must sacrifice the rights of girls to attend school in order to save lives. His government could do both if it had the will to shake off the corruption and commit resources to building a strong army along with a strong infrastructure. But it doesn’t and we’ve left U.S. troops to engage in simultaneous efforts of changing local hearts and minds (and customs) while maintaining a highly visible and active military presence.  

History is supposed to have taught us that trying to counter a persistant homegrown insurgency that combines tribal instincts with modern weaponry is something of a fool’s errand. That doesn’t mean that we don’t remain fully commmitted to human rights around the world, only to recognize the limits of military intervention. 

Maybe the editors of Time were sincerely trying to present another view of the conflict in Afghanistan; maybe they were trying to shock or guilt readers into considering the consequences of a hasty peace; or maybe they were engaged in a bit of sensationalism, not to mention competition with Wikileaks’ domination of the news cycle over the past week.    

So no, there’s nothing wrong with the image, which says everything about the horrific abuses women suffer every day in the name of custom or tradition or religion. But in assessing the cover as a whole, we might remember when presented with claims of emotional truth: there’s never just one.

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