The morning of Sept. 11, 2001 was unusually beautiful in Brooklyn, fresh and cloudless after the previous day’s thunderstorms, with temperatures in the mid-60s. It was Primary Day, and around a quarter to nine my wife had set out for our polling place at a local school to vote.
Just short of arriving, she looked across the schoolyard toward Manhattan and saw flames and a cloud of smoke rising from the North Tower of the World Trade Center, about three miles away across the East River. Someone told her an airplane had just crashed into it, so she called me and asked me to find out what was going on.
The radio could only confirm that an airplane had hit the tower, so I went up to the roof of our row house to take a look. From there I saw several floors near the top of the building were on fire, with ugly red flames visible and thick black smoke pouring out on all sides. I and others who had climbed to their roofs stared, wondering what it meant, while passing along fragments of information and speculation by cell phone.
After ten minutes or so we saw a large airplane coming in over New York Harbor at an unusually low altitude. I couldn’t make out whether it was heading over the Hudson or East River, but when it reached the South Tower it disappeared. For a split second I concluded it was on the other side of the tower over the Hudson, but then there was a huge fireball followed by the sound of two explosions, one from the impact and one from the explosion of fuel and air.
We saw most of the other developments that day on TV like everyone else. They caught us flat-footed. I was surprised when the South Tower collapsed, and equally surprised when the North Tower fell. While still on the roof, I called some friends who worked near the World Trade Center to tell them to stay away. They were annoyed I was bothering them while they were getting ready for work. They went off by subway as usual, and came back hours later without having reached their destinations.
Later that day we went to the corner half a block away and saw the endless stream of dust covered escapees who had walked across the Manhattan Bridge and were now making their way home on Flatbush Avenue. Earlier, a couple of blocks to the west, we had seen dust and pieces of charred paper falling, blown there by the wind from lower Manhattan. Our two daughters eventually made their way home, from Manhattan and outer Brooklyn. It was a relief to see them.
What could any of us do? I walked to a nearby Blood Center to see about donating, but the line went around the block. It seemed unlikely there would be many nonfatal injuries so I dropped the idea.
Rumors of miraculous escapes were everywhere—one story told of a fireman surfing down from the 80th floor when the tower collapsed and surviving!—but all were false. Even so, casualties were a fifth or a tenth of what people had expected based on the large number of workers usually at work in the towers that time of day. Most had escaped, many by ignoring official instructions to stay put.
A few days later we went to have dinner in Chinatown, a mile uptown from the site of the attack, and then walked down to see what was happening. The roads had been swept, but other surfaces were covered with a thick layer of dust, and the walls of buildings were plastered with missing person notices—pictures, names, telephone numbers, pleas for information.
We couldn’t get to the site itself. A couple blocks away, the wrought iron fence around Trinity Church was topped by the shoes of firemen. They had left them there while changing into their boots and never returned.
above: a rescue worker’s boots left on the spires of the iron fence outside Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, steps from Ground Zero (Trinity Church)
At first disaster brought us all together. Everyone praised the heroism of the police and firemen who lost their lives. Mayor Rudy Giuliani drew universal acclaim for his decisiveness. Private and public donors contributed billions to compensation funds for the victims and their families. People began to say “God bless America,” and even talk about “firemen” rather than “firefighters.”
It could not last. Goodthinkers wrung their hands about Islamophobia. Badthinkers whispered that people they didn’t like had cheered when the towers came down. People complained that victims’ families were getting millions while other families in worse situations were getting nothing. High school seniors strategized how to work the disaster into their college admission applications.
Arguments about how to rebuild, and how to remember the dead, ate up years. The involvement of “starchitects” meant the memorial to an act of inhumanity would be made of huge abstract structures, all plate glass and metal. In the place where each tower had stood they put a monument to nothingness, an enormous square fountain with water cascading into a dark sunken pool, and then, at the center of each, into a black pit. Even so, they gave the plaza around the fountains trees, greenery, places to sit, and far more varied spaces than the barren wasteland that had been there before the attack. Life always springs eternal.
The culture wars soon returned. The Fire Department chaplain had been killed, a homosexual priest, and progressive Catholics wanted him canonized. Workers found girders broken into the form of a cross and set it up as a memorial to the dead. Atheists sued to get rid of it, but lost. A photo of three firemen got turned into a huge bronze statue, with one of the firemen converted into a black man and another into a Hispanic. The firemen complained about appropriation (they didn’t use the word, but that was their complaint) and their betters were outraged.
Then the Republicans decided to give their 2004 convention a 9/11 theme and hold it in New York, their first convention ever to be held in the state. New Yorkers didn’t like it. Their city outranks other cities, and they didn’t want people they disdain to grab on to their victimhood, which is also very special. The consensus response was to show bare civility, since New Yorkers can deal with all kinds of visitors, but some couldn’t manage that and demonstrated against the invasion.
Slowly, the attack disappeared from view. For a while we were all on edge, but that wears off. Life goes on, everyone has an angle, and most of the dead were from the suburbs and elsewhere rather than the city. Money, immigrants, expatriates, and hipsters were pouring in, and a building boom was on, so the past became as much a specialized interest in this regard as it is in others. People still remember 9/11 on Staten Island, where police and firemen live, but not so much in trendier areas.
The War on Terror, intrusive searches at airports, and photo ID to get into everything, even something as mundane as a dentist appointment, have been the same here as elsewhere. They became part of the unquestioned background, while New Yorkers obsess over more gripping public issues, like the looming threat of Christian theocracy, skyrocketing real estate prices, the need to reform gender relations in Afghanistan, and the election of Barack Obama, which the hipsters in my neighborhood celebrated into the early morning.
There are still Islamic terror plots here, some of them deadly. Four years ago an Uzbek jihadist killed eight people by ramming them with a U-Haul truck in lower Manhattan, near the rebuilt World Trade Center. But such incidents are now considered random events that prove nothing and are soon forgotten. New York opinion-makers instead worried about the police monitoring Muslim communities, and about the opposition to the city’s plan to build an Islamic center and mosque next to the site of the 9/11 attacks.
So what does all this show? Maybe that 9/11 is disappearing from public consciousness, and it is only remembered when some use can be made of it. That is why officials and commentators now tell us that the Jan. 6 protests at the Capitol outrank 9/11 in shock value and significance. This disintegration of historical meaning reinforces a lesson of 9/11 itself: our modern world, which aspires to be totally managed and rational, is in reality a totally fragmented reality in which boundaries vanish, reason disappears, anything can happen, and anything can prove anything.
Ironically, the World Trade Center was a symbol of the very global and technological system that dissolves our grasp of truth and reality, and of the meaning of the buildings’ own destruction.
But the people who died were not symbols. They were real people of all kinds—fathers who coached Little League, widows working to maintain a dignified way of life, young people trying to make their way in a chaotic world.
And the disaster had genuine heroes. Men who lost their lives helping others get to safety. The partners of a financial firm, Cantor Fitzgerald, who gave hundreds of millions of dollars to support the families of employees who were killed, and the victims of other disasters.
The global merger of capitalism and bureaucracy has been bad for life and culture both in New York and elsewhere, but attacking a system by physically attacking those entrapped by it is criminal.
In any case, the ultimate meaning and consequences of events can only—at best—be known long afterwards. Christianity offers hope that in the end we will find out what they were, but its founder noted that we cannot know the day or hour when all will be made clear.
In the meantime, in the words of the English writer and Anglican cleric Sydney Smith, we can only “take short views, hope for the best, and trust in God.”