Eichah -- Ground Zero

Article excerpt

She that was great among nations
Is now become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a thrall. (Lamentations 1:1) (*)

In the beginning, on Tuesday, when we saw the TV video clip of the United Airlines jet piercing the skin and the heart of the North Tower, a sound bite often played along with the image. We could all hear the voice of someone far below on the streets of New York shouting something like, "Oh my God." But as the days have gone by, and that horrible moment has become almost iconic, we don't hear that voice anymore.

   The image is enough. The cry to God has disappeared.

The workers digging through the rubble at ground zero, the enormous pit that was the Twin Towers, say that more than the exhausting and dangerous physical labor, more than the heat, the smell, the fear and the pain, more than anything else, the worst part of working in the pit is the silence. Every now and then, someone will shout that he's heard something or that a dog has sniffed something, but this will turn out to be a false hope. The workers, straining so hard to hear a human voice, a faint whimper, anything, hear only silence, an eerie quiet.

   O Lord, God of my deliverance,
   When I cry out in the night before You,
   let my prayer reach You;
   incline Your ear to my cry.
   For I am sated with misfortune;
   I am at the brink of Sheol.
   I am numbered with those who go down to the Pit;
   I am a helpless man
   abandoned among the dead,
   like bodies lying in the grave
   of whom You are mindful no more....
   Why, O Lord, do You reject me,
   do You hide your face from me? (Psalm 88: 1-6,15)

On Tuesday, moving north from the World Trade Center, the people fled in silence, like refugees from Pompeii, covered in ash and dirt; a silent army of gray people moved uptown.

The streets of New York, the following Friday, were also silent. Where I was, between 14th Street and Canal, had just been reopened to cars and there was some traffic, but far less than usual. But the real silence is felt on the streets. Stores are closed or almost empty. People are out but conversations are few, shy quiet interchanges. It's rare to hear loud music or laughter. Dealings with shopkeepers are tender but subdued, almost brittle. People still seem embarrassed to talk about anything else and conversations tend to fade away with phrases like "It's so unbelievable." "Still so horrible."

   While at ease, I once thought: Nothing can shake my security.
   Favor me and I am a mountain of strength.
   Hide Your face, O Lord, and I am terrified. (Psalm 30: 7-8)

The farther you go from the pit, Ground Zero, the more noise there is. This is odd, really, because, everyone I spoke to who was close to the World Trade Center on Tuesday, talks about the huge loud noise first and then the smoke and fire. That first noise was like stone dropped in a quiet lake -- a big splash and then concentric ripples retreating farther and farther away. Example: I was on a train going into the city when the conductor ran through the car telling us that a plane had crashed into one of the Towers. We looked out the window and could see a huge mushroom cloud of smoke, but we heard nothing.

There was silence in the car for a moment, and then everyone began talking or dialing cell phones. But when we got to Hoboken, just across the river from the World Trade Center, it was silent again. We all just stood and stared at the burning buildings.

   And Aaron, the high priest, was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

Aaron said nothing after his two sons, Nadav and Avihu were killed. The commentators ask, "What does his silence mean?"

There is a difference, though, between telling and understanding. I was unable to concentrate or write anything for several days. I discovered that when I tried to write this, I felt compelled first to write down in elaborate detail what I myself had witnessed, sort of like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. …