One Year Later

The ruins are gone now. The last of the incomprehensible pile of rubble that was the World Trade Center towers has been cleared away for months, though the tourists still come and gawk. They leave their tokens of sympathy and grief along the wooden viewing ramps. Dessicated flowers, molding teddy bears, photographs of the dead; great, ink-run sheets, with now indecipherable sentiments and signatures, hanging off the chain-link fences that surround the site.

Behind the fences and the ramps, men in hard hats are busy laying down long, seamless slabs of concrete, smoothing over the jagged wound in the ground. They are propping back up the crumpled subway tunnels, the damaged sea wall; the whole, immense labyrinth of piping and wiring, sewer mains and fiber optic lines, air ducts and steam valves and electrical cables that lie beneath the vertical city, and make it run.

The city aboveground is stalled right now, on the related questions of what to build on the site, and how to honor those who died there. As for what to physically replace the Trade Center towers with, the little men who owned the buildings and who run New York’s Port Authority produced six proposals, all of them remarkably similar—all in the same dreary, dehumanizing style that has become the defining characteristic of modern architecture. Four, or five, or six glass and concrete boxes, fifty to sixty stories apiece, all built around a blank space, grudgingly left open for some sort of memorial.

Fortunately, there was an outbreak of democracy. A few raucous, public meetings sent the authorities scuttling back on their drawing boards. They seemed genuinely amazed at the negative reaction to their plans, which only shows how successfully they have isolated themselves from the people they claim to represent. Within hours of the World Trade Center’s destruction last September, New Yorkers were feverishly constructing totemic images of them in Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Like the possessed characters building images of mountains in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they built their own twin towers out of wax and wood, out of wire and paper, and any other material at hand. It has been obvious from that moment on that what the people want is, if not the towers themselves, just as they were, every inch of them, then something of incandescent beauty. Something that will speak to the world of our pride, and our defiance.

Just how to honor the dead is a thornier problem. Our civic leaders, perhaps chastened by the fiasco over the design proposals, now do not even trust themselves to come up with any appropriate words for the memorial services scheduled for the one-year anniversary on September 11. Instead, various politicians are planning to recite the Gettysburg Address.

Maybe it will be appropriate after all. Never will Lincoln’s words be more apt—that the world will little note nor long remember what is said here, but that we will never forget what was done here. It is the firemen who still live in our hearts, and nothing the politicians say, after all, can measure up to what they did. The way they walked into the burning towers without hesitation was the most courageous act by any civil servants since the firemen of Chernobyl went out to extinguish the burning reactor. They will be with us always, the long lines of men in their black-and-yellow coats walking stoically into the burning buildings.

Yet how best to remember them? Our public commemorations these days are either mawkishly sentimental, or superficial, or both. There are, to be sure, two new memorials to past catastrophes within a few blocks of the World Trade Center, a Holocaust museum and a tribute to the victims of the Irish potato famine. Yet these were not erected so much as expurgations of grief as they were dutiful reminders to remember. The stories they tell are meant to tell are of atrocities inflicted by foreigners upon other foreigners, from which the survivors fled to make a happier life for themselves and their descendants in America.

The fact is that we Americans do not much live in the past. We have no Field of Crows, no Battle of the Boyne; no fountain of the blood of the martyrs to adorn our downtown. Yes, we have our own atrocities, our own dark episodes that we should remember. For better or worse, we do not.

What is most remarkable about New York one year after September 11, 2001, is how little has changed—how quickly the dreadful events of that day have receded from our conversation, our public consciousness. There are still a few more American flags out than there were before. We are concerned about our troops in Afghanistan; about whether the Bush administration will decide to invade Iraq, or whether the fighting in Israel and Palestine can be contained. Some of us worry about the measures the Bush administration’s radical, right-wing attorney general, John Ashcroft, has taken to combat terrorism, including his recent claim that the federal government now has the right to ignore the principle of habeas corpus if it chooses to do so.

Yet none of this really preoccupies the average New Yorker. The economy is in a slump, but it’s the same for the rest of the country. There is a city budget crisis, but then there usually is. And all the while, new skyscrapers are still going up everywhere; the streets are still filled with tourists, and real estate prices are—somehow—higher than ever. No one is fleeing to the countryside.

I suspect that a deeper fear does lurk just around the corner of most New Yorkers’ unconscious. One more terrorist attack—and not even with a nuclear “dirty bomb,” or a biological weapon, but simply a suicide bomber, or one man with a machine gun—and everything could change in a hurry.

The people I talk to tell me that they have nightmares about nuclear war, or that they look up in the sky whenever they hear a particularly low-flying airplane. We find ourselves cringing at sirens, car alarms, even nearby lightning strikes. Some friends I know have adopted an attitude of living each day as it comes. One tells me that he has lost his fear of riding his bike in Manhattan traffic, and that at the same time he has taken up Zen meditation. Another one has taken to going into grocery stores to stare at boxcutters, where she wonders at how such a weapon could be used to kill three thousand people.

I know that for myself, I was walking downtown one night this winter, returning from a party, when I smelled the oily stench of burned jet fuel even though I was still many blocks from Ground Zero. I was filled with a sudden, murderous rage against everyone who had done this senseless thing, although it was months after the crashes and I thought I had regained a certain equilibrium.

And yet, we have adjusted. We obsess, just as we always did, over our careers and our appearances. We worry over how to get our children into the best schools, or if we should refinance our co-ops. We live and die with our favorite sports teams, we rush to the theatre or the movies, or the latest bistro. We plot and finagle over how to escape the heat for a few days in the Hamptons, or New England.

We are shielded by our banalities. I do not say this as a criticism. No doubt it is more profound to sit on a desolate plain and think about God, but what kind of society would you rather live in?

The enormous, all-encompassing organism that is Western media and society has digested the assault on the Twin Towers, and has already begun to place them in context. We had girded ourselves for holy war, but Osama bin Laden’s little surprise, which was so hideously spectacular, so gruesomely redolent of Hollywood disaster movies, now seems to owe more to Freud than to Wahhabi Islam. A family outcast, whose father was killed in a plane crash in the United States, wreaks his revenge by crashing more planes into office towers.

It reads like one more, outsized version of all those stories of senseless mayhem we have already become inured to. Another Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, the “trench-coat mafia” in Columbine; those monsters who killed the children at the pre-school in Scotland or the high school in Germany. Only another madman, exorcising his personal demons by shooting up his school, his office, a playground, a McDonald’s.

Like all those other stories it is horrible, horrible beyond words, particularly for those who lost friends and loved ones. But for the rest of us it fades. It becomes one more terrible story, written off as the price of existence in the shiny, new, modern world. In a hundred years, one wonders if we will even be able to distinguish bin Laden from Ted Bundy or Charles Manson, or Hannibal Lecter.

Yes, we should remember better. I spend plenty of time myself haranguing our banalities, in my self-appointed role as writer and Disapproving Intellectual. I am as disgusted as the next man by the seemingly endless drek that pours out of American culture: the fast food, and the awful television, and the need to make every movie into an ever closer simulation of a video game. The McMansions filling our suburbs, and the shortsightedness of our foreign policy; radio shock jocks, and our indifference to the environment, and the sort of education we give our children these days—

The list can easily go on and on. Yet as Salman Rushdie, wrote less than a month after the attack on the World Trade Center, in order to present a viable alternative to the fundamentalist world order, “We must agree on what matters…” His own list was a wonderful combination of the great ideas and, yes, those small, banal pleasures, that an urban culture also provides. It included “kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love.”

What speaks more eloquently to what is worth preserving in our life? Riding back to my home in upper Manhattan one night in a taxi, I was struck by the sheer, physical complexity of our life in the city. I was doing what New Yorkers often do in taxi cabs, which is to peer into the countless, lighted squares of windows as they flash by and wonder—half in envy, half in pure curiosity—what it must be like to live in this apartment, or that one; if they have more room, a better view, or pay less rent.

But for one moment I was stunned simply by how much there was of it—all the warrens and back alleys, the shops and restaurants, all of the thousands and thousands of people living cheek by jowl—and most of it on land that was small farms or vacant lots just a century ago. This inutterably beautiful, intricate way of life, all thrown up in the course of a hundred years! No doubt, there is much that is wrong with it. But so many people could not live together, in such equanimity, without all the very human doubts and desires, the self-centeredness and the tolerance and, yes, even the wonderful banalities, that we may give vent to in a free society.

This is the idea of a city, and it cannot be banished with one bomb, or a thousand. We refuse to be a mausoleum, thank you very much, but our monuments are all around us.

© Copyright The Frankfurter Rundschau 2002