On Wednesday, the 25th of August I spoke at a press conference organized by a group called New York Neighbors for American Values in favor of the building of an Islamic Cultural Center two blocks away and around the corner from, as it has come to be called, Ground Zero. Ground Zero. Ground Zero. No matter how many times I say it, it doesn't lose meaning. Instead, it accrues meaning. It is the place where my pregnant daughter Vanessa Lang Langer was murdered. The site where her neck was cracked. Her femur broken in two pieces. She wore a size 2 black skirt that she bought at Banana Republic and a black blouse. (These are the details from a report no parent every wants to read and the details that flash over and again each time I see the image of the towers falling.) On the morning of 9/11/2001 before 2 World Trade Center became Ground Zero, she asked her husband, as she stood in the doorway of their bedroom, if she looked "okay".
Vanessa would be found by workers on "the pile" on the 24th of September, whole and intact, her body still holding the fetus that would never be born. And on September 10th, 2005 I would finally have the courage to see her file, the complete file, at the Medical Examiner's Office on 30th Street and I would look at her picture and, too, the pictures of the fetal bones arranged so neatly on a blue background that it was only a dream away from taking shape as a human being. On 9/14/2001 the area around 30th Street was covered in white dust. I traced her name in a car once as I walked through the streets of the city, always on the same mission--to find the baby girl I bore 29 years before. Since that morning, time in my world is no longer linear--it undulates, circles around the anniversary.
However, as we approach the 9th anniversary of the day I and the thousands of others who lost loved ones to a gang of mass murders will not be able to simply mourn the loss of our children, parents, cousins and siblings. Because until something in our public imagination displaces it, 9/11 will be a political football in the debate over the Islamic Center. Central to this debate, it seems, is the question of what constitutes "sensitivity" to 9/11 families. And, in a heated elections season, some elected officials and candidates for office including Representative Peter King and Rick Lazio have seized an opportunity to play on our collective fears in order to use 9/11/2001 for political gain. In nine years this has been the habit of our so-called leaders.
To them I ask this: what about the sensitivities of families like mine and hundreds of others who join me in supporting the Islamic Center? Are our loved ones somehow less worthy than those of family members who oppose its construction? I am sensitive to what I believe is a threat to religious freedom, to the First Amendment, to our hallowed Constitution. I am sensitive to the notion that, in the name of my daughter, an entire religion is being demonized for the acts of a group of heinous criminals.
One reporter at that press conference, two weeks ago now, pointed a microphone at my face and asked, her eyebrows oblique with sincerity, "How do you feel that 9/11 is just around the corner?"
For most of us who lost loved ones on that morning, there is no corner. There is no distance in time. We are still there. In the moment. At the site. Walking the pile. You don't leave your children or your mother or father or cousin or best friend there and walk away. Time collapses. For most people in America, 9/11 comes around once a year, but not for me. For me, it is always here.
Today, at the end of summer, when much of the thickness of the collective air loses its oppressive moisture, when the sun is still bright in the late summer sky, and the air is crisp though still warm, our televisions, our elected officials and candidates for office cannot fail but to remind us of the towers falling in endless clouds of grey matter. They exploit mercilessly our emotions. They use and have used these images to amplify the fears we feel, not of the criminal acts, but of Muslim people.
Here then is my message: if you really care about 9/11 families and their collective sensitivities please leave us to our memories and our pain and stop fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance - to me that would be an act of supreme sensitivity.
Donna Marsh O'Connor
Mother of Vanessa Lang Langer, Tower II, 93rd Floor
September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows