As we remember the victims today, also remember the historical context in which the attacks took place…
A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, I received a stack of drawings and poems in the mail. They were by schoolchildren whose teacher had given them the lead article from The New York Times about the attacks and told them to write and illustrate a poem. Because I wrote the piece, she sent them to me. Many of the children picked up on my description of the planes as “gorged” with fuel, and their jets were huge and red, dwarfing the doomed black towers before them. Some of the drawings also had disproportionately huge stick figures falling from the towers.
I thought it was wise of the teacher to help the children come to grips with horror this way. That’s how we all struggle with sudden and enormous terror, searching for images and words that might help us fit the event into a framework we can understand. From the time the first hijacked jet ripped into the north tower of the World Trade Center, we had to find ways to explain and describe an event whose enormity and evil were almost beyond understanding. Crisis focuses the mind on the immediate tasks at hand, but it was hard that day to fend off thoughts of the final, horrifying moments of those people in the planes and the buildings before they died.
I had covered several suicide bombings in Israel before 9/11, and I always admired the way Israelis rushed to clear away the carnage and reimpose “normal” life, as if to say you can hurt us, but you will not change us. And I had always wondered how Americans would react if it happened to us.
We can certainly be proud of the dignity with which New Yorkers, and Americans, and much (alas, not all) of the world responded that day, whether it was the police and firefighters who rushed to the scene, or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani taking charge, or the thousands of people who lined up to give blood until the hospitals could accept no more. At The Times, several reporters commuted to ground zero by bicycle, showing up in the newsroom covered with ash and sweat to file a report and then heading back into the hell. Yet I also remember, monitoring the rush of information in the newsroom, a sense of shame that our president chose to fly around in silence all day, as if his safety was more important than standing with his badly wounded nation.
And how should we assess our actions since? Millions of words are being written around this 10th anniversary about the meaning and the legacy of that day; on its consequences for America and the world; on whether Americans rose to the challenge; on whether we got suckered into needless wars and, worse, into betraying our values; on whether we have become nobler or meaner.
There is a lot to criticize and regret. But can we really determine at this stage to what degree 9/11 was a cause, a symptom or a harbinger of all that has come to pass over the last decade? Perhaps if it had not happened, Americans would not have consented so readily to the erosion of their cherished liberties, and we might not have become so obsessed with homeland security. But in many other ways the world was already in flux since the end of the cold war a decade earlier. The Bush administration was already beginning to irritate the world, and already plotting a war in Iraq; the Middle East, as usual, was smoldering.
The fact is that that single day soon became associated in our national narrative with all that has happened — the military quagmires in the Middle East, the resentment of the Islamists, the decline of American global authority, the erosion of American self-confidence. Like “the fall of the Berlin Wall” a decade earlier, “9/11” has become shorthand for a momentous shift in geopolitical tectonics.
But this is not what comes to my mind when I think back on that day. I see the long river of ashen, dazed people flowing up 11th Avenue as I made my way down to Times Square. I recall the brilliant clarity of that morning, which must have made it easier for those murdering pilots.
Most often, I don’t know why, I recall the subway ride home in the small hours of the morning. A woman sitting near me began humming loudly. My first, shameful reaction was damn, who needs this? But then a man across the aisle, slumped in his seat in exhaustion, began humming along. Someone else joined in, and soon I, too, closed my eyes and let the music take over. Drained of emotion and thought, we surrendered to the refuge of sweet harmony.
Within days, the first massive cranes were rumbling past my windows on their way to ground zero. Acrid fumes from the smoking ruins moved through the city with the shifting winds. American flags appeared in windows. From Washington there came talk of war. We were in a new era, which 10 years later we are still trying to define.