Volume 20, Number 32 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 21 - 27, 2007

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‘Legend’ conjures up those 9/11 fears again

By David Stanke

People racing on foot to find a way off the island of Manhattan; military vehicles taking positions around the city; historic bridges destroyed; the futile efforts of a population to escape an unimaginable disaster: these are the visions of “I am Legend.” The latest movie featuring the destruction of Manhattan is not simply frightening. It reached into my gut and reignited the embers of 9/11 induced fear, irrational fears that I thought had burned out.

Most survivors of 9/11 were subject to some degree of post-traumatic stress syndrome. It manifests itself in overwhelming fear at the mere possibility of disaster. In December of 2001, for instance, a fire alarm went off in a Maryland movie theater. As the only person to leave his seat, I was prepared to climb over the rows of complacent people to escape. People in our neighborhood cowered for years at the standard roar of airplanes overhead. During the steam pipe explosion in Midtown six years later, people phoned family Downtown to prepare for evacuation. For many of us, the legacy of 9/11 is to expect the worst.

Potential disasters have dominated the public discourse in recent years. We’ve seen planes hitting buildings, people jumping to their death, and buildings collapsing over and over again. Politicians have warned us that the threat is real; even certain. Weapons of mass destruction, biological agents, global warming, drug resistant infections, tsunamis, and illegal immigrants: all these are used to ignite the fears that will motivate the population into action. How many attacks did Giuliani say have been stopped? I don’t know of one that seemed viable. We just know that we had better be afraid.

On the corner of Church and Liberty Sts., a couple recently approached me: “Where is Ground Zero?” I paused to consider. Is this a trick question? Directly behind me in plain view, if I am not mistaken, are 16 acres of empty land visibly and audibly under construction. What more are they possibly expecting to see, smoking ruins, perhaps? The land behind me once evoked pain and fear with every glance, and every glance stretched into a gaze. Now I look the visitors in the eye and point over my shoulder. “Right there.” I look back to confirm that “it” is still there and to understand what they saw that prompted their inexplicable question. I look back to them with no fear; smile and cross the street.

While running along West St., I used to glance nervously at the Statue of Liberty. I could not escape the thought that this “target” would be destroyed before my eyes. Intellectually, I knew it was unlikely, but emotionally, I was prepared for the worst. With time, emotions catch up with intellect.

I recently watched a 9/11 Truth video with footage of the worst of 9/11. It is sad certainly, but it no longer possesses me to run to my kids. But if the reality of 9/11 does not terrify me, how can I sit in Madison Square Garden, fighting the sinking feeling of despair, while watching a Will Smith movie? Is Hollywood really that good?

There is a measure of comfort in a known event, even a terrible one. We understand the dynamics, how it unfolds, and what we would need to do. If airplanes hit a building and you survive the initial impact, you have a high probability of survival. Get under cover. Get to your family. Grab essentials. Move quickly and calmly. Evacuate.

But in the face of a real disaster, or one that appears real, I still cannot control the despair. I feel it when I read about the human flights in Sudan, Ethiopia, or Iraq. Any picture of a man carrying a wounded or critically ill child can start it. A video of a bombed out village, a flooded village, or an occupied village can do it.

Even when not personally at risk, despair invades me. The experience of 9/11 trauma has connected me to the plight of humanity. For 40 years, I lived in a world where the downside was not that bad. Much of the world lives closer to the edge of real disaster. I understand the fears that these people endure every day. Perhaps it is not fear that shakes me, but empathy with the reality of the human condition.

Some say everything changed after 9/11. In reality, only our perception changed. A low probability event like 9/11 felt like a real possibility. Worst case scenarios can happen. With time, our consciousness reassesses the risk and we adjust to new realities. Our fear fades. But our emotional memory persists.

How can a fictional and unlikely movie strike such strong emotional cords? Zombies on viral steroids are not real. We may be frightened, but we can walk away laughing. But millions of people evacuating their homes, praying for survival; this really happens. And I know, in a small way, how it feels. And watching it happen, even in a fictional movie, is still disturbing.

David Stanke lives and writes in Downtown Manhattan. His e-mail is

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