Everyone old enough remembers where they were. They have discussed it and relived it time and again. The topic has come up on dates where, painfully aware that the way I experienced the event reveals my age, I have shyly declined to comment. Nevertheless, it serves as a moment in each of our personal histories that is larger than our individual selves- a blip when people everywhere were connected. Even then I understood the gravity of it enough to document it in newspaper clippings and hours of taped radio shows.
In our seventh grade middle school science class, slowly learning that something was gravely wrong and fearing for our D.C. based parents, who could have known the way this day would color how we transitioned into adulthood? The attacks, corresponding wars, and national fervor radicalized many of my classmates and rallied them into service. For others it was the first politically and socially polarizing event in our lives.
It made our mothers fear for us to fly. It made TSA arguably one of the more miserable parts of the modern condition.
I try to imagine how I would have processed 9/11 had I been an adult, had I been in the place I am now. This is in part because it is impossible to live in this New York, in this America, and not wonder somewhere in the back of your mind if you will be here if it happens again (for we are conditioned to fear that it could, that evil people want it to), and because you cannot move through the anniversary without reliving the event like an even worse version of Groundhog Day.
Today I am traveling from New York to Washington D.C., and the air is so thick with memory that it is palpable. The ghosts of the dead, of leadership who promised swift justice, of communal rage and pain are thick throughout these two cities, and I suspect in fields afar. You cannot move through New York without touching them. The sun rises behind the skyline of my home and I watch golden clouds wrap themselves around lower Manhattan in an embrace. You cannot live in this New York and deny the powerful symbolism it embodies.
What is it that echoes in our public memory? We don’t forget, can’t forget, the incredible gutting of our public responders, the visceral reaction of bearing witness to the destruction of our physical fortresses. Each year I witness a kind of renewed anger, a froth of cultural viscousness that suggests we have not done enough.
Instead, we forget the way a city feels when it comes to an unexpected grinding halt. We grow numb to the numbers lost: the victims of the day, the hearts still broken, the living gradually being consumed by disease and slipping silently from us. We forget who has won this war: it isn’t Americans or Democracy, and it isn’t Terrorism or Radical Islamic militant groups. It surely isn’t justice, despite what many who still ascribe to the idea of American Exceptionalism might suggest.
A slender, twisting spire rises from the Earth at One World Trade Center. We did not let that “field lie fallow”, as Lewis Mumford called for. Neither, some say, did we do much with it symbolically or physically. Bells will ring near pools of reflection, names will be read, and silence will be had. But what of justice? Did we find it in millions of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in the thousands of veterans with debilitating PTSD and no medical care? Where was justice the night that Osama BinLaden was murdered for his crimes without being brought to trial? Many celebrated this murder, for some this was what justice looked like and you could see it in their faces as they reveled near Ground Zero.
I cannot see how the murder of this man, the continued inhumane torture and detention of humans in our most internationally reviled prison, the brutal hate crimes against Muslim-Americans and immigrants, and people who just ‘look’ suspicious is justifiable, much less just. Do we find Our Justice in Congressionally approved drone strikes, censoring of the press, or increasing surveillance of our citizens? Is your justice here, America?
On a recent trip to Norway the city I visited held a “Meet the Military” day. As we walked past the parade ground with its tanks, helicopter flights, and service people my companion informed me that some of the largest private American corporations in Military & Defense had opened offices in the country, and that Norway was designing and creating some of the most state of the art missile systems in the world.
“Cool” was my response. My friends’ face darkened, and he said simply “I do not think it is cool. I wish my country did not help produce war.” I felt hot shame rise to my cheeks, realizing that I simply accepted the war machine. As an American I am learning that we are a violent group, and if not outrightly so, we are a people complicit with and numb to the violence in our world. Our country produces a staggering volume of war. So much war comes from America that our cities are militarizing. We have the largest, most powerful military in the world but politicians continue to sell us the idea that we need more. We spend more money, more human effort on this machine than we spend on education, on infrastructure, on our climate, on helping people. As a country, the message this sends is that we prioritize the need to be prepared to kill than the need to be prepared to help. Do not try to convince me that the military helps people worldwide: we spend our money on the tools for killing, not on our service people.
This is not a pacifist’s reflection: I did a lot of talking about peace and pacifism when I was young and before I understood that violence in some forms is often part of social transformation. Our paranoia and faith in the war machine blurs our ability to reconcile the morals we claim as our national foundation with the ways in which we are numb to violence and destruction.
On the corner of West Side Highway and Murray Street I stood and watched the building I used to live in be disassembled and the rubble sorted. Two blocks south I craned my neck to follow the shrinking needlepoint of 1WTC, and imagined “what if…”. Not what if it happens again, but what if we move forward? The cities have returned to normal, their fabric repaired in one way or another: steel and concrete do not remember. What if we did allow ourselves to forget the rage, the blind pain, or the political posturing it took to rebuild? What if, instead of holding onto these memories, we stopped fueling the war machine? What if it slowed down and we found, in that stillness, that we were safe: safe without new missile defense, safe without more semi-automatics, safe without wire taps and black lists?
I had the chance to take a tour of Ground Zero before the memorial and museum officially opened to the public, and before 1WTC was completed. We rode the construction elevator up from the 90th to the 110th floor and let the fall wind whip our hair around our helmets. We fell silent, our city a vast and humbling thing. Remember, you cannot uncouple the building here from symbolism. It felt like we were at the edge of a new precipice. At the top of that tower, before they finished the interior with sleek marble, a lucky few signed the poured concrete. Their messages were of love, and hope for America and humanity. This one is, too.