In the first few years it seemed as if they were still there, stark lines rising into the sky, tall shadows falling on the streets, a missing space that your eyes filled in without even thinking. You walked past, and your eyes said, "Of course they're there. They're always there" and for a moment you saw them as they were, grey ghosts of steel rising above the rubble. You saw the city as it was and then you remembered that city is gone.
But the site has always attracted its share of exploiters. On a good day you can see South American and African vendors peddling commemorative patriotic knickknacks and on a bad day the Truthers show up howling their contempt for the site. Tourists stop by and pose for snapshots with their families. Office workers walk by without thinking. The site, like the towers, is just something that's there. And lately even the vendors and Truthers hardly bother showing up anymore. Like so many others, they have already moved on to exploiting the next tragedy and the next outpouring of grief.
The neighborhood had grown less grim over time. The 99-cent stores and shops selling used clothing have given way to cafes and chain stores. The months during which the entire area was closed down, in part or in whole, took its toll on local businesses, but over time they bounced back. And so has the city.
Tonight and the night before as the towers of light cast blue beams across the sky, we remember but memory is a destructive medium. Each year the memories grow fainter. At lunch counters people ask each other where they were that day and exchange stories. But the stories grow fainter each year and the memories of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge or stumbling through the ash or handing out sandwiches to rescue workers have grown dimmer too.
This was the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. How many people are still moved by that date, how many less so than were in 1822 or 1862? The anniversaries that we hold on to are the ones that mean something to us. And what does September 11 mean to us? What did it mean to us eleven years ago and what does it mean to us now?
The fundamental narrative of war is, "We were attacked and we fought back." It's the same story for everyone regardless of how true it may be. But it is mostly true in this case. We were attacked and we tried to fight back. But we weren't attacked on September 11. We were attacked long before then. That was just the date when one of the attacks got out undivided attention and the enemy elevated itself above a petty nuisance.
To walk through the darkness toward the towers of light is to pass through a city of shadows. In a stray glimmer of light reflecting from a storefront or a puddle you can still see the old MISSING posters and see khaki trucks tearing apart the street asphalt. You can still see glimpses of a city that was still reeling from the incomprehensibility of what had happened to it. It isn't reeling anymore, instead the incomprehensibility has become routine.
New York City is used to tragedy. Terrible things happen here all the time. The oldest photos of the city show the same stunned faces, the legs lying in a puddle of blood, the gawking children and the police frowning at something we cannot see. And relentlessly the blood is washed away, the tears are dried and the city moves on. September 11 left behind more blood, more broken legs and more frowning police than ever before... but the ashes have still been dumped in a landfill, the tears dried and the city moved on.
September 11 has become a tragedy and tragedy is an experience, not an explanation. It is a bonding experience that gives way to catharsis. The dead are mourned, the grief is expelled and the horror of it takes on the faint silvery tinge of memory. It is no longer what is, but what was. It is not how we live now, but how we lived then. There is no longer a need for answers and that for many is also a relief.
In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot arrives at the solution by realizing that only in America could such an unlikely collection of characters have met.
By America, he means New York, and the city is still the ideal place to
find unlikely characters. There is still a murder to be solved here and
the suspects come and go in the streets below. The crime did not end with the murder of 3,000 people and the destruction of two towers and several lesser buildings around them. New schemes of mass murder are hatched every day across one river or the other. Maps are studied, charts are drawn up and the tools of the trade are gathered up by the latest man who would be Bin Laden.
New York cannot move on, neither can the country, because the murderers are still on the loose and what happened on September 11 was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of attacks taking place in a clash of civilizations. New York, the crossroads of civilizations, is a natural target for the attacks. New York is to the world what Mecca was to Arabia and the new Mohammeds are eager to do to it what Mohammed did to Mecca.
The crowds will cheer the hundredth time they are told that Bin Laden is dead, but the man in the turban was irrelevant long before he was killed in his hideout, and the Muslim Oilsphere is full of wealthy sons looking to lead a war against the West. Bin Laden is dead, but his backers are very much alive, and the drone attacks that kill Al Qaeda leaders don't touch their money men in the Oilsphere. The clerics who teach young Muslim men about the glories of martyrdom have little to worry about from drone strikes, unless they help them plan those attacks a few times too many.
This is a conflict of ideologies, a collision of cultures and a war that for the enemy encompasses the religious and the racial, that is nothing less than a primal battle against the Other. And where better to wage that war than in the places where others meet others every day? What better target than a World Trade Center for a violent ideology built on merchants turned robbers and robbers turned merchants?
In a city where everyone is different, it can be difficult to understand that the attackers were motivated by those differences. Their war against us, at a primal level beneath ideology and faith, is an attack on people who are fundamentally and incomprehensibly different than they are. Islam is xenophobia written into scripture, a long chain of conquest, subjugation and cultural destruction by desert nomads who know how to drive a sharp bargain, but have never been anything more than the jackals sniffing around the ruins of greater civilizations. It is as natural for them to attack us as it is for us to wonder why we were attacked.
Americans hold the peculiar belief that life need not be a zero sum game. That we can learn from other people without turning them into our subjects. That we can make more of something instead of stealing from a finite amount that someone else has. That is the great creative power of American exceptionalism. It is a transcendent force that turned a land full of refugees into a world power brimming with technological wonders.
New York, that strange part-Dutch, part-English, part-Everything-Else city, runs on the creativity of the impossible. Starving artists, aspiring actors, failed musicians, real estate mavens without a dime and brokers trading thin air. This is a city that always seems on the verge of total anarchy and destruction. It is the city that filmmakers repeatedly choose to destroy in alien invasions and other catastrophes. And yet it is the city that keeps going on that strange half-mad creativity of making things happen.
The American who shares his good fortune with the rest of the world cannot understand that there are some people who would rather steal than accept a gift, who would rather destroy than build and who would rather drown the world in darkness than accept someone else's light. With difficulty he might accept the existence of a small number of people who think this way, but the notion of a civilization built in this mold is too obscene an idea for him to accept.
As with so many other strange things that wash up in the concrete streets of a strange city, it is easier to leave the mystery unsolved, to let the blanket fall back over the clash of civilizations and go on forward. It is the way that things have always been done in the city and as twin rays of light bisect the sky, they remind New Yorkers of their own fortitude, and not of the enemy waiting outside the light.