Monday, September 11, 2006

Bad Memories
In my mind at least, September 11 has become something like a secular Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day devoted to contemplation. The fasting isn't a part of it, and I don't go to the "atonement for sins" part of that particular analogy (though to suggest that the attack on America that fatally beautiful morning was an isolated incident in history is to court repeating all kinds of mistakes), but in terms of how I view the day, it feels the same. Minimal TV and media, time for quietude and reflection.

Monday was no exception. I watched a few minutes of survivors reading the names of the dead when I woke up, and that was pretty much it as far as "coverage." I've no wish to see blow-dried bobbleheads try to impose their test-marketed and sanitized view of "what it all means" on something that I, like millions of New Yorkers, experienced in a searingly personal way.

I do feel a strange kind of pride, though, that it was New York City where the killers chose to strike. The terrorists' hatred of New York stems from some of the same reasons Hitler did: our concentration of Jews, the unique admixture of tolerance, competition and general attitude that one former city official recently described to me as "street-fighting pluralism"; and indeed from some of the same reasons why American social conservatives fear, if not hate, NYC: the perception of licentiousness, the proliferation of "alternative lifestyles," the wretched excesses. They attacked us, in other words, not because New York City is distinct from America, but because we are the concentrated essence of America. It's all here--stunning success and unbearable failure, enormous wealth and grinding poverty, all manner of unique and worthy voices and the unending background roar that usually drowns them out.

I don't want to get too deeply into the politics of the day, but this piece sums it up pretty well. Where I differ from Dionne is that I never thought Bush was especially "heroic" or worthy of particular respect for his immediate responses to 9/11. I just thought of the guy who seemed to be peeing his pants in fear, flying around the country after reading to those schoolkids in Florida. Granting that he said some of the right things in those first few weeks, there was little to me that suggested he had either the strength of character or sense of history to really unite the country as it could and should have been united.

Still, it would have been wonderful if I'd been proven wrong on that one. Here, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter offers a look at what might have been. It's painful to read, because what he describes would not really have been a stretch. McCain grasped that the country wanted to be called to its "appointment with destiny"; Bush just wanted to ram through tax cuts and beat up on Democrats. The thing is, I agree with Alter that a response more worthy of our country's greatness would have been supremely effective politics as well as more productive in terms of results in the fight against murderous extremism.

On tonight, somebody dredged up an old thread from 2003 in which people recounted their experiences on that day. I was among them, and I reproduce my post here; but the whole thing is well worth a look, just to get a sense of how this event reached into pretty much every American life.

I was in a bagel shop on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn around 8:45, waiting in line. A woman was sitting at a table listening to a walkman and announced that a plane had hit the Trade Center. Back outside on Flatbush I could see the plume of black smoke from Tower 2 two or three miles away. I thought it was one of those small planes--the idea it could take down the building didn't even occur to me. I got on the subway and headed into work.

My stop is at Wall Street and William, maybe half a mile from the Trade Center. As I came out I saw men near tears, talking about bodies falling from the Towers--I think the second one had been hit by then. My office is at the other end of Wall Street and I still didn't grasp the extent of the disaster; I must have been on autopilot. I do remember wanting to call my family in Philadelphia to tell them I was okay. I got to the office and did that; others in the office filled in the unbelieveable details: the by then two planes, their mammoth size, the attack on the Pentagon. A bit before 10, there was a general announcement to evacuate the building. We went down by the stairs, from the 20th floor, but few wanted to go outside. Around 10:30 when the first building fell--after I'd seen people from the site, clothes shredded, covered in dust, some bleeding, stumbling in a shocked daze through the lobby--I decided it was time to go.

The walk from Wall Street to the Brooklyn Bridge and over was the most unforgettable part of the whole experience. When I left my building the pulverized concrete hung so thickly in the air that I couldn't see beyond 15 feet or so. I'd taken a surgical mask they were handing out in the lobby and tried to breathe as shallowly as possible. I could faintly see hundreds of others moving in the same direction, up the Seaport road, past the Fulton Fish Market. By the time we got close to the Bridge, the air had cleared. As many have pointed out, it was a perfect late-summer day: warm, no clouds, deep blue sky. I passed a group of guys who looked like contractors, listening to a radio that announced a Palestinian group in the West Bank had claimed responsibility for the bombing (I never heard this rumor again).

The walk across the Bridge felt almost like a hallucination. Occasionally an ambulance or police car would come to part the slow-moving thousands trying to get home to Brooklyn; otherwise, deep silence. A woman walking next to me asked if I thought the next attack would be directed at the Bridge, and I tried to convince her that was unlikely. I had my own panic moment after passing into Brooklyn, when I saw uniformed officials brandishing shotguns outside a building; they told me it was a federal building and they'd been deployed to protect it. They seemed relatively calm and professional, as virtually everyone in uniform was that day.

I got lost walking home and wound up on Court Street, relatively far from my home on 15th in Park Slope. I passed a Mormon church where some kind volunteers were passing out bottled water to folks like me who were obviously coming in from Manhattan. All through the streets were silent, except for the occasional radio left on for news. As I finally got close to my house I heard some kids laughing and had to restrain myself from an angry reaction.

I got home around 12:30. One of my roommates had been sick and never went into work; before I woke him up he knew nothing of what had happened. Our other roommate worked in the Trade Center for J.P. Morgan. We had a half-hour of utter black panic before some level of common sense returned and we listened to our messages. She had called around ten to let us know she was alright; she had been in the lobby of her building on the way in when the other tower was struck, and left immediately. She made it home by late afternoon and we spent the rest of the week watching news, drinking and generally in shock.

That Friday night was a candlelight vigil for our local fire company, which had lost 12 men in the rescue effort. I will not try to describe the heroism of those men or the grief shared by their comrades and their community. A lot has been made of the commercialization of Sept. 11, its appropriation for political purposes and related mischief, but those 12 and hundreds of other police, firefighters and rescue personnel demonstrated the very best of America, and of values core to our humanity.

This morning I was in the same bagel shop. It's a beautiful day again, maybe a bit cooler. The children of victims are on TV, reading the names, and we're all left to deal with this tragedy that continues to disorder our lives and disfigure this city.

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