‘Children are pre-political,” Hannah Arendt once wrote. “I’m not sure if she was right.”
Jay Rosen New York City, September 13 2001
Large candlelight vigil last night in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, possibly the gentlest event ever held there. I grab my wife and daughter, and we take our candles to be with the other candles.
Hoisting Sylvie on my shoulders, I slowly walk her and her four years around the great circular fountain in the middle of the park. Normally filthy, the fountain tonight is shining, a big ring of light reflected in the faces. Many are NYU students, and as one of their professors, I make a mental note of that.
Around the fountain we walk, father and daughter, stepping carefully around those seated on the ground in circles, most talking quietly or just being there, with the candles. Some singing.
“This land is your land, this land is my land,” say the soft voices. More women are singing than men. Or does it just sound that way? “From California to the New York island…” Sylvie is up high and can see everything. So I tell myself. Actually, I want everything to see her.
Two days ago, you could spot the Twin Towers from Washington Square Park. That’s where I stood Tuesday morning and watched them burn. “Why are there so many candles?” Sylvie asks. I tell her: many candles, just one light. People are laying down flowers, too, not in any particular place, just around the park. The more people there are, the quieter it gets.
We don’t stay long because it’s her bedtime. I’m not worried about what she will ask her mother tonight. Quietly over 24 hours, her mother has found a way to tell the truth of what happened, one we can in good conscience share with a four-year-old. Last week Sylvie had stumped us when she asked, “How does your heart know to beat?” Tonight my wife is ready for the “why” question. She will say: “Sylvie, there are people who are makers, and there are people who are breakers.”
Of course this is a parents’ trick. But from there we know it’s easy. The breakers took over those planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers. To her “why” we answer with our what. But I’m satisfied for now. When she gets old enough to ask, “Why are there breakers?” her own answers will be as good as ours. That’s a good place to be. So was the ring of little lights in Washington Square Park. It made me think we shouldn’t underestimate the power of human meekness.
“Children are pre-political,” Hannah Arendt once wrote. Listening to the story of the makers and the breakers, I’m not sure if she was right. I do know this: I am so proud of my wife for thinking it up. At least we’re back in the same narrative universe with Sylvie, after TV’s promiscuity with deadly images. A picture is worth a thousand words, people say, even this late in the media age, and it’s true. It will take a thousand words to undo every picture Sylvie saw.
The winds shift and the smoke from Ground Zero is blowing out to sea.
Not just last night was beautiful—New York was beautiful. And I feel good that we have a story for our daughter. “Hey, Sylvie,” I say when we get back to our own building. “What if after they clean up the big pile of stuff from the Twin Towers, they make a park there with a playground there? Wouldn’t that be great?”
I wish I could tell you that she smiled.