A friend awakens me this morning with the news that the World Trade Center had been bombed. Far from being startled by the blast, I was still sleeping peacefully when he called from Connecticut.
The first thing I notice as I staggered over to the television, phone still groggily in hand, is that it is another beautiful, late-summer day. Just outside our fifth-floor window the sun is shining off the thick green leaves of the ailanthus theret—he scraggly, insistent tree that is so emblematic of New York, an Asian transplant that takes root here everywhere it can, fighting its way up through the smallest cracks or holes in the pavement.
Then comes the torrent of images on the television screen. The spectacle of the burning towers. The image of the airliner, like some cheap special effect in a movie, steering right into the southern tower. Even more unbelievable, a little while later, the shots of the towers actually collapsing into plumes of dust.
This juxtaposition persists all day—the disorienting contrast between the serenity of my neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the horrors that keep pouring in through the TV. I suppose this is not a new phenomenon in our media-saturated world but it seems particularly strange when the disaster is happening just five miles away, in the same city, on the same island.
My wife and I go out to vote in the city’s mayoral primary—only to be told that the election has been postponed. This is something new. No American election of this magnitude that I know of has ever been put off, for any reason—not even during World War I or World War II, or our own civil war.
Yet all around us life goes on more or less as usual. In Brooklyn, my sister-in-law tells us, burnt birds’ feathers are dropping from the sky, but the wind is blowing the other way and here there is no physical sign of the catastrophe. No acrid burning smell. No dark smoke and debris filling the sky. I walk down to the Hudson to try to catch some glimpse of it but even here I can see nothing out of the ordinary—the disaster hidden entirely around a bend in the slow—moving river.
There are only a few, subtle indications that something was wrong. Two small movie theatres have shut their doors—yet all the local stores and restaurants remain open for business. Outside a youth hostel at 103rd Street foreign students huddle together, looking slightly apprehensive. There are notices up for a prayer vigil at the cathedral of St. John the Divine, and it is announced that the baseball game scheduled for Yankee Stadium tonight has been canceled.
Here and there, people stop to talk about the news in low voices, or passed it on through their cellphones. Others look up whenever a military jet shrieks through the clear blue sky—all the thousands of planes and helicopters that usually pass over us grounded now. There is even a small group of people clustered around a TV in the window of a local appliances store, which is something I have not seen since the 1960s. America is lousy with televisions now; are they standing there for the company?
Most people, though, still seem to be going about their business. Taking their children to school and daycare, shopping for dinner and running errands. I feel that they looked a little stunned, a little more somber than usual, but this may simply be my own projection. I am old enough to remember the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and this reminds me so much of those times. Both Kennedys, as I recall, died on beautiful, sunlit days, and there was the same feeling of unreality—the same, schizophrenic split between the easy rhythms of American life and the horrific events taking place somewhere else.
Back then I was a child, though, living in small, suburban towns, and it seemed that everything happened somewhere else. Now, here I am, almost at the epicenter—and all there is to do is to answer phone calls and e-mails from friends and relatives, asking me if I am all right. I am very grateful for their interest—grateful that my wife and I are all right, and that as far as I know we have no loved ones in any danger, but there must be something more I can do.
I walk a mile uptown to a hospital, to try to donate blood. But there are already so many volunteers that they are turning people away, telling them to come back tomorrow, or later in the week. That’s all right. I’m sure there will be many more calls for blood in the days ahead.
Downtown Manhattan is sealed off and much of our subway system, which never closes, is shut down. There is nowhere to go but back to the television set. We are shown the collapsing buildings, the plane slamming into the southern tower, again and again. Now we are told a third building—a mere forty-seven stories—is on the verge of collapse.
What a propaganda coup this is for whoever is responsible! We have been reduced to stage scenery at a performance of the Grand Guignol—targeted for this attack mostly because its symbolism will be immediately recognizable around the world.
The irony is that New Yorkers have never much considered the World Trade Center towers to symbolic of the city—not as we do the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty, even the Chrysler Building. The towers were only some thirty years old and another modern architectural excretion, ugly and overblown. (In another irony—perhaps—they were built on the site of an old Arab enclave known as “Little Syria.”) They were simply office buildings, and places for tourists to gawk at the views, and eat at the pretentious restaurant near the top of their 110 stories.
Yet their loss has come as a shock, there is no denying it. They had seemed as permanent and indestructible as mountains—particularly after the terrorist bombing there in 1993. We snickered then, when it was reported that the perpetrators had walked a few blocks away to watch, fully expecting that the single truck of liquid fertilizer they had driven into a basement garage would bring down the towers. How ineffectual they seemed, how backwards and pathetic!
That feeling of invincibility has already vanished. A friend of mine, who watched from a downtown street when the first of the towers collapsed, told me that the people around him wept and screamed. One man ran around in little circles, as if insane. Then, within seconds, they all moved on, averting their eyes, like people who have witnessed something shameful.
Like any city nearly four hundred years old, we have suffered disasters before. Devastating fires; a terrible, four-day riot during the Civil War. The Triangle Factory Fire that killed 146 young women in fifteen minutes. The fire on the excursion boat General Slocum that killed 1,021 people—most of them German immigrants—and wiped out the old Kleindeutschland neighborhood in an afternoon.
But the death toll from these bombings promises to be at least ten times that number. There may even be ten times the number killed at Pearl Harbor, the only other significant bombing to take place on American soil, when some 2,400 sailors and soldiers died. As a city, as a nation, we are as vulnerable and shocked as we have ever been.
The scenes coming in from the networks grow ever more horrifible. The camera follows a man while he falls sixty stories to his death. Downtown Manhattan is covered in ash a foot deep, like some modern Pompeii. Herds of people walking across the bridges into Brooklyn, like so many refugees.
I suppose we have been lucky to have been spared such scenes before. So far, at least, we have reacted with a certain dignity and restraint. A former secretary of defense did come on one network, demanding that we “retaliate” against any nations known to harbor terrorists—whether they are responsible for this or not. Another station insists on repeatedly interviewing Tom Clancy, the bloated writer of bloated techno-thrillers, including one that featured just this sort of airborne attack. (Is he wondering what this will do for sales?)
But the streets remain calm. There are no hysterical outcries for revenge, no panic. For the most part the television commentators have been careful, loathe to do more than mention the major suspects. There are no official assumptions—yet—that it is Osama bin Laden, or some other Islamic group.
We have been shown, over and over, a clip of Palestinians celebrating wildly on the West Bank, ululating and tossing candy in the air. I realize this is our television’s own form of propaganda, but it is still disappointing.
Have we really done anything to deserve such sweeping hatred? I suppose that we have inflicted enough collateral damage of our own over the years, in “strategic” air strikes against various terrorists, or Baghdad. Certainly, there are plenty of us in America who have our own qualms about the belligerency, the thoughtless self-interest of George Bush’s foreign policy.
Yet there has been nothing to warrant the likes of this—nothing as cynical or cruel, nothing so contemptuous of human life. It is terrorism, and one can think only of the terror the passengers in the airliners must have felt as they plunged down toward the towers—the terror of the men and women clinging from window ledges sixty stories above the ground.
These people were not soldiers or politicians, and while the television keeps describing the area as the financial center of the world, precious few of the dead were wealthy. Most were simply office workers, or the people trying to rescue them. We are now told that as many as 300 firemen—men whose lives are dedicated to nothing but saving other human beings—may be dead, including their chief and deputy chief.
But only the number of dead is new. In the last attack on the World Trade Center, the bombers managed to kill a pregnant woman, a young Honduran man delivering sandwiches. This is the cold heart of terrorism. If you have a grievance, anyone—anyone at all—can be made to suffer for it. New York is the most cosmopolitan city in the history of the world, and one of the most tolerant places on earth, but that doesn’t matter anymore to the men who have desecrated it than it mattered that, say, Sarajevo was a tolerant place to the thugs who shot it to pieces.
The room in which I am writing these words looks out on the small inner courtyard of my apartment building. It is a hive-like place, and as my neighbors prepare their dinners the smells from half-a-dozen cuisines drift in through my window. I can hear people quiet conversing in three or four different tongues, and somewhere there is a man ringing small bells while he chants Buddhist prayers.
This is not unusual, in this city. Like so many buildings in New York, mine is filled with people who hail from all the ends of the earth—Sikhs and Bengalis; Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Haitians; Africans and Chinese and Slavs and Irish. As I write into the night, the sounds and smells gradually fall away, but often I can look up, into the little patch of sky visible above, and see an airliner gliding silently by, far above. Not tonight. All planes are still grounded. And I have never been more aware that to attack this place is to carelessly drop a bomb anywhere into the world.
© Copyright Frankfurter Rundschau 2001