Category Archives: Current Events

The Death Recorder

Twenty years later, I can still smell the charged electrical burn of the pile as I walked by it, weeks after the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. The last standing piece of the twin towers, the braided steel facade known as the shroud, rose from the wreckage. NYPD officers were corralling tourists on Lower Broadway, urging them away from what was now a mass grave. As a New Yorker, I understood the pull—the incomprehension at a vast absence where there was once a living, vibrant presence, at one moment a teeming plaza, busy offices stacked up to the sky, the next, a pile of still smoking rubble, a void.

I was on my way to a training for the legal first responders of 9/11: a group of volunteer attorneys mobilized to help the victims’ families negotiate the grim bureaucratic gauntlet such a mass disaster presents. New York had initiated an emergency procedure for recording these unprecedented deaths, since ordinarily the family of a missing person (for that’s what their loved ones were, in the absence of a body) would have to wait three years before asking a court to issue a death certificate. The next of kin would still have to complete the paperwork to prove that their relative—spouse, child, grandchild, parent, grandparent or sibling—had been at the World Trade Center at the time of the attack, but they now had the option of requesting what was known as an expedited death certificate. 

My colleagues and I would be working with the New York City Medical Examiner’s office to provide the legal documentation the families needed to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives: to apply for emergency cash grants, file for social security and insurance benefits, initiate probate proceedings, plan funerals. (There were other sources of assistance available to those without legal next of kin status, such as domestic partners.) The staff of the Medical Examiner’s office would concurrently be working—as they still are, to this day—to identify victims through DNA analysis of remains recovered at the scene. The City of New York set up a Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 on the Hudson River to process these thousands of deaths and assist the families of first responders, office, restaurant and building workers, air crews and passengers. There were booths with representatives from federal, state and local agencies, companies that had employed people killed in the attacks, nonprofit and charitable organizations, trauma counselors, childcare facilities, a canteen, National Guard and New York City police and fire department personnel and, at our booths equipped with computer stations for the legal forms and resources we needed, the lawyers.

Our job was to interview family members so that we could record in affidavit form the information needed to issue an expedited death certificate. Names and birth dates and addresses. Biographical, family and employment details. We had to see the next of kin’s photo ID and proof of their relationship with the missing person, such as a marriage certificate or a child’s birth certificate. All of that paled next to the question that was crucial for stating the basis of their belief that their loved one was in the World Trade Center at the time of its collapse: their last contact with the missing person and the details of that contact. The hurried goodbye as she rushed off to work. The phone call from his office on the 101st floor. It must have felt horribly insensitive, but more often than not the family members displayed grace, fortitude and patience.

One thing was not at issue: the manner of death. All the reported deaths of the 9/11 victims would be classified as homicides.

Working in disaster relief settings like this can be stressful and emotional, if also gratifying. My role was a small one, but such experiences tend to leave vivid impressions. Here are some of mine: 

The community liaison officers of the NYPD, who escorted the family members to our workstations. I ran into one of these cops years later, a compact woman with curly brown hair, a freckled nose and kind eyes. We recognized each other immediately, with the connection of people who have shared the aftermath of conflict. One evening, the officer saw me get up from my chair to trail after one of the family members, a new widow pregnant with her first child, as she made her way down the corridor to the next station. It was the end of my shift, but I felt helpless, wanting to do more for her, for all of them. But there wasn’t any more I could do. ‘Go home,’ the officer would say to me. ‘Get some rest.’ She knew the feeling. We’d be back again the next day, and the day after that.

The American Red Cross mental health counselor who was my partner, on hand to assist family members during the interview if needed. She gave me her Albany chapter Red Cross pin to remember her by. I would later honor that partnership by volunteering with the New York City chapter’s disaster response unit, doing emergency relief work after Superstorm Sandy and the Miracle on the Hudson, the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549. As a Red Cross volunteer, I would also attend memorial ceremonies for the families at Ground Zero when it was a construction site for the rising towers of the new World Trade Center.

What I recall as a surreal bus stop at Pier 94, a waiting area for families who would be ferried to the pile to see the spot where their loved ones drew their last breath. I still wonder if I imagined it.

The mounds of comfort donations. I was given a teddy bear by my Red Cross partner. Someone else was handing out moisturizer and lip balm, surprisingly useful for hours spent reciting legal requirements, eliciting information, apologizing for intruding on precious and private last moments to record the details needed for the death record. For years I kept these items, the smell and tactility of them evoking what memory had elided. 

But most of all, the gentle gratitude of these families faced with unimaginable loss, who only wanted their loved ones’ deaths to mean something so that in the future such tragedies could be prevented, sparing others their bottomless pit of grief.

—post by Suzanne Solomon

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Pride Month at the American Library: ‘Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II’ by Allan Bérubé

The American military has come a long way since the days of dishonorable discharges of gay service members and the discriminatory policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. In early June, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke at an event celebrating Pride Month at the Pentagon. Secretary Austin praised those LGBTQ+ service members who ‘fought for our country even when our country wouldn’t fight for them. Even as some were forced to hide who they were… or to hang up their uniforms.’ 

In the 1940s, as recruitment and conscription for the war reached record numbers, homosexuality was regarded by the US military as a mental illness, disqualifying gay men and women for service. Prior to and during the war, the commission of ‘homosexual acts’ was considered a crime for which service members could be court-martialed. In the 1980s, the Department of Defense instituted an enlistment ban, which was modified by 1994’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, in which ‘service members would not be asked about their sexual orientation, but would be discharged for disclosing it’, according to a Department of Defense-affiliated website for members of the military.

Coming Out Under Fire: the History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, author Alan Bérubé’s account of the gay troops of the ‘Greatest Generation’, was first published in 1990. Bérubé, a community historian, began collecting the accounts that would lead to his book in the 1970s, and the book became an invaluable resource for activists and lawmakers alike. A 20th anniversary edition was published in 2010, still highly relevant to the debates taking place around military exclusion policies.

Coming Out Under Fire is far from a grim account of unrelenting prejudice. Through extensive research in government records, archives, personal collections and interviews, Bérubé looks at the US military’s efforts to screen out, discharge, manage and, finally, recognize and appreciate the contributions of its gay service members. He also relates his interviewees’ moving personal stories of discovery, conflict, loss and love. Many of Bérubé’s subjects found supporters and allies in the brotherhood and sisterhood of the armed forces during the war. In addition to the barriers and challenges they faced, which for some included the double bar of racial discrimination, Bérubé recounts their experiences of the conflict’s toll, along with the victory celebrations and the simple but significant act of survival. 

Years of activism by gay service members, along with their allies, from challenging and reforming the US military’s discriminatory and punitive policies to the courageous and proud statement of refusing to deny their sexual identity while under fire, finally led to the repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ in 2011, allowing openly gay men and women to serve; the extension of spousal and family benefits to gay and bisexual service members in 2013; and the 2021 removal of the ban on transgender troops. However, as Secretary Austin said in his speech, there is still more progress to be made, including addressing sexual assault and harassment in the force and creating ‘a safe and supportive workplace for everyone–free from discrimination, harassment, and fear.’ 

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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The 2017 Charles Walker Memorial Lecture

By Danielle Prostrollo

Charles Walker, decorated B-24 Liberator pilot for the 445th Bomb Group at Tibbenham, was an active supporter of the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library throughout his life. In memory of his life and support, a yearly lecture is organised as a joint effort between the 2nd Air Division Memorial Trust and the Department of American Studies at the University of East Anglia which is titled the Charles Walker Memorial Lecture.

Each year a guest speaker, specialising in different facets of American histories and culture, is invited to Norwich for the annual Charles Walker Memorial Lecture. This year we are anxiously awaiting Professor Susan Castillo Street’s talk titled The Dark Side of Paradise: 21st Century Florida Gothic in Carl Hiaasen and Karen Russell. The money for this annual lecture is lovingly donated in Chuck’s memory by his widow Dr Dede Casad.

The evening will, no doubt, delve into each author’s depictions of modern Florida and those wanting to become more acquainted with the material (or simply refresh their memory) can pick up or reserve a copy of your favourite Hiaasen or Swamplandia by Russell from Norfolk libraries.

Please join us for an afternoon with Professor Castillo Street whether you are a well-read fan of the authors or are simply interested in learning more about American literature. The event is free and no booking is necessary.

Charles Walker Lecture (13-11-17)

 

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Book review: Hope in the Dark

By Danielle Prostrollo

hope in the dark

Rebecca Solnit is perhaps most famous for her book Men Explain Things to Me which birthed the phrase “mansplaining” to describe a man that speaks condescendingly to someone (usually a woman) about a topic he does not necessarily know a great deal about (see: Merriam-Webster’s history of mansplaining). And because of this, I have come to know Solnit as an activist, feminist, and essayists.

Hope in the Dark was written in 2003 shortly after the start of the Iraq war, when the 9/11 attacks were still very fresh and tender in the mind of America, but covers several events from the (relatively) recent past: Zapatistas in Mexico, the Central Park protests for nuclear disarmament, the Berlin Wall. The thread that binds all of these events and essays together is an underlying reason to believe in the human spirit which makes this a great read for anyone fatigued by the news each night and finds themselves in a place of unease.

Our copy is a 2016 edition with a new forward written by Solnit and even just within the first few pages there is fuel for a realistic hope dotted throughout:

“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings” (p. xi-xii).

“Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away. And though hope can be an act of defiance, defiance isn’t enough reason to hope. But there are good reasons” (p. ix).

“Hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal…” (p. 4).

To reserve Hope in the Dark and to explore our stock of social action and American history books of an array of topics, visit us in the Memorial Library!

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Filed under American Culture, American History, American Politics, Books, Current Events