Friday, July 10, 2009

BUSINESS AS USUAL AT GROUND ZERO

A REFLECTION

Three days ago, I walked past the World Trade Center site for the first time since 9/11. In the eight years since that day, I never really had a reason to. I moved to New York in 1996. I have been here ever since, with a five-year interlude in Chicago. During the 1990s, I used to admire the Twin Towers. As a newcomer to the city, I used to orient myself by looking for them. In a strange way, I liked them. They were unique. They looked strong. When you’re a kid in New York, you like the idea that your city is bigger and stronger than any other city. It makes you feel special. The Trade Center conveyed that strength.

I knew that terrorists tried to destroy the towers in 1993. The plan was to blast one tower’s foundation so that it would fall into the other one, knocking them both down. One summer day in 1998, I distinctly remember looking up at the towers from the corner of Park Row and Broadway—near the J&R Music World. From that intersection, you had a perfect view. The south tower was on the left and the north tower was on the right. The corners faced you, and there was a narrow gap between the two structures that cut a vertical line straight into the sky. From that intersection, the towers filled the sky; they dwarfed everything around them. You were just close enough to appreciate their every detail. And you were just far enough to appreciate how massive they really were.

I remember thinking: “Wow, imagine if I were standing here that day they bombed the Trade Center and I saw one tower fall into the other? My God, that would have been frightening. I’ll bet 50,000 people could die if that happened.” At the time, this was just nightmarish daydreaming. I never really thought something would happen to the World Trade Center again. When it did, I was just as awestruck as everyone else. I remember thinking that “New York would never be the same” after that day. And I didn’t mean it in an ominous, symbolic way. I meant that the city would just look different. The Trade Center anchored the whole skyline. It made New York seem like a strong city with those two powerful columns firmly entrenched in the southern tip, like two brawny shoulders. When they collapsed, the city’s image suffered a crushing blow. In an instant, its physical profile changed for all time.

In a strange twist of fortune, I was on vacation outside the city when 9/11 happened. I even took it as a signal to “get out of New York for a while,” so I moved to Chicago. I came back to New York in 2003 and stayed another year. During 2003 and 2004, I went to law school on Worth Street in Tribeca, no more than eight blocks from the World Trade Center site. Yet I never went there. Something held me back. I didn’t really feel the need to see it. In those days, politicians and architects constantly talked about how “a new trade center will rise from the ashes of the past.” They talked about “fearlessness.” They said that terrorists would never “intimidate them.” I was ambivalent; I really did not care. All I knew was that terrorists had struck a damaging blow, and no rhetoric could erase the evidence at Ground Zero. In mid-2004, I drove back to Chicago. At that point in my life, I wasn’t sure whether I would ever come back to New York.

But here I am back in New York. Finally, after eight years, something drew me to the World Trade Center site: I had an interview in the World Financial Center. To get to the World Financial Center by subway, you take the “E” train. The last stop on the “E” train is defiantly called “World Trade Center,” even though the World Trade Center isn’t there anymore. I got off the train at the “World Trade Center” station and walked upstairs. It was about 8 A.M. on a clear July morning. Upon reaching the street, I first noticed blue plywood walls that channeled commuters in particular directions. There was a lot of construction going on. A handwritten sign pointed us toward the “World Financial Center.” Two long columns of commuters passed each other through the plywood corridor. One column headed east, the other west. I headed west.

I looked up to my left and saw sky. There was nothing there. Then a strange feeling came over me: “I remember looking up from here and seeing the towers!” From this distance, the towers used to overwhelm you and blot out the sun. They used to cast enormous shadows that cascaded down the street. But now: Nothing. Just emptiness. It is strange to see empty sky in Manhattan. It strikes you immediately. You accustom yourself to seeing buildings on all sides, some of which rise far up into the sky. Yet at the World Trade Center site, sky is all you see. It was genuinely eerie. I felt like I had just stepped onto historically important ground not long after a historically important event. The emptiness above me only confirmed that something significant happened here.

But the commuters didn’t find it eerie at all. They marched along without looking up, tuned into iPods or iPhones. They had places to be and schedules to keep. They did not want to be late for work. In short, they were doing what commuters probably were doing before the planes arrived on 9/11. On 9/11/01, commuters on this street had to scramble for their lives. But on 7/7/09, commuters on this street shuffled more than scrambled. It was just another day. Something significant happened here eight years ago. Yet it had no effect on the commuters.

I have always been overly sensitive to history. When I know that something historically important happened in a particular place, it affects me. Recently, for example, I learned that English settlers in my hometown in Connecticut murdered 700 Native Americans in a place I know very well. Since learning that, I cannot look at the place in the same way. The same feeling overcame me when I walked past the World Trade Center, but with much greater immediacy. Here, a massacre happened only eight years ago, not in 1637. Here, an event happened that fundamentally changed the way Americans think about themselves and their country. Here, thousands died on an otherwise “regular business day.” You would think that would affect people doing precisely the same thing at the same place eight years later. You would think that would make people question whether it would ever be possible to “get back to normal” after such a monumental event. Apparently, it did not. On 7/7/09 it was “business as usual” at the World Trade Center. History did not intimidate these commuters.

And why should it? After all, 9/11 panicked American society. In the days and weeks following the attacks, Americans really wondered whether they could ever “get back to normal.” They did not know whether society as they knew it was coming to an end. But then the politicians stepped in and assured them: “If you don’t get back to normal, the terrorists win. If you don’t go back to work, the terrorists win.” In essence, a new American rhetoric developed in response to the panic created after 9/11, a rhetoric of “defiant normalcy.” To defy the faceless terrorists who caused so much panic, politicians encouraged Americans to simply live as they always had. They encouraged Americans not to think about 9/11 anymore, except when it was necessary to justify some new encroachment on civil liberties. 9/11 became a justification for drastic governmental action. Yet government cultivated a patriotic vision of 9/11 that carefully avoided mentioning the panic, fear and uncertainty that reigned on the day itself. In short, Americans have been taught to “remember 9/11” in order to reaffirm “normal, working lives,” but not to “remember 9/11” for the profound shock waves it sent through American society. Memory about 9/11, in other words, is “selective.”

On 9/11, nothing really mattered anymore. People really were terrified. They just wanted to survive; they didn’t care about their jobs. But for a government trying to run an international economy, these are unacceptable sentiments. That is why politicians after 9/11 did their best to help Americans forget the terror and uncertainty they felt on that day and its immediate aftermath. On 7/7/09, they clearly had forgotten. It was back to business as usual.

Yet this ignores history. No matter how much President Bush and the Federal government attempted to channel 9/11 fear into a new patriotism of “defiant normalcy,” 9/11 was not a strong moment for America. America took a profound beating on 9/11. After the fact, politicians and pundits contemptuously labeled the attackers “cowards.” Yet this is really because America lost the fight on 9/11. No matter how painful it may be to admit, the 9/11 attackers were not “cowards.” They did not fear death. They did not shrink from bold action. No, they were about as far from “cowardly” as you can get. They ruthlessly organized a plan to crash airliners into skyscrapers, killing themselves in the process. From a linguistic perspective, this is not cowardly at all. In fact, it reflects undaunted courage. Americans simply did not like the results of their courage, so they called it “cowardly.” Courage means fearlessness in the face of danger. Cowardice means fear and panic in the face of danger. Neither word refers to the subject’s political or national affiliation. By these definitions, the 9/11 attackers definitely had courage, not cowardice. This is certainly not a politically popular thing to say in America. But “cowardly” means something in the English language; and it does not describe the actions of men who fearlessly face death to accomplish a political mission.

President Bush and the Federal government transformed shock and embarrassment over “defeat” on 9/11 into a defiant new patriotism. But this patriotism was “reactive;” it arose because America suffered so much humiliation on 9/11 that enraged Americans vowed to avenge it. Their fear turned into anger. Still, no matter how defiant Americans became in 2002 and beyond, this does not change how terrified they were on 9/11. They did not like the way they felt that day. Before 9/11, they had become accustomed to feeling secure and strong. Yet on 9/11, they saw how weak they really could be. Such moments scare anyone, and no one likes to feel weak. That is why America “reacted” to its embarrassing weakness on 9/11 with a cocky new “strength” in its values. Yet no matter how much America defiantly postured after 9/11, it does not change the fact that America suffered a defeat on the day itself.

Very few admit that 9/11 was a defeat. Even fewer reflect on the terror that reigned that day. No one likes to remember bad times. We naturally suppress negative memories. We try to push them away with assumed strength. This is precisely what America has done with 9/11. It is like a bad memory, an uncomfortable experience. It does not fit our collectively strong self-image; it fact, it showed us how vulnerable we are. So we simply ignore it. This is exactly what the commuters were doing on 7/7/09. And they were doing it extremely well. It was commerce as usual at the World Trade Center, just as it was eight years ago. But history has left its mark, no matter how much we choose to ignore it. That empty patch of Manhattan sky speaks for history. Something happened here that forced us to change the way we look at the world. Yet how few actually changed the way they live—or think—as a result?

Unchecked international commerce provoked 9/11. Now it simply grinds on—in exactly the same place it suffered it worst day ever. As I walked to the World Financial Center three days ago, I could not repress that tangible—and profound—irony: “What have we really learned?”

2 comments:

Cassie Bishop said...

Well said. I appreciate the candor you've woven throughout this piece, and the consice, raw nature of your reflections.
Now I'm left to wonder were the genocide of 700 native americans took place in 1637?
Needless to say, the 'colonization' and abuse of power that took place there, (or anywhere in this nation state, for that matter) is a bloody shame...

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thanks for that comment. Just so you know, that massacre happened on the Mystic River where it intersects with Clift Street. In essence, it destroyed the Pequot Nation; only a few half-bloods survived, most of whom were captured by the Mohawk tribe in New York then killed as a "tribute" to their English allies.

Colonization... don't get me started! On the other hand, it is obliquely relevant to this piece because colonization is part of the "international commerce" that provoked 9/11. More to follow on that, of course! Suffice it to say that colonization is a risky venture for the colonizers: They might gain profitable resources and land, but if they cannot completely subjugate the native population (as happened in the United States) they engender real resentment that culminates in "terrorism" or "freedom fighting," depending on your perspective. (the Middle East... the British and the French could not exterminate every Arab).