This time one year ago, I was touring America to see the country in the grip of the agonistic election campaign and to prepare, like other foreigners before me, to write a book. I had only one afternoon in New York. I also had a remarkable guide, a friend who had spent his childhood weekends—before the city descended into the criminal madness of the 1970s—getting on the train from suburban Connecticut and tramping around Manhattan with his friends.
We grabbed a cab at Grand Central in the morning and travelled all the way to the Battery, marveling at the gleaming buildings in New Jersey. Then we spent all day walking back to 42nd Street, through an almost empty city—it was Labor Day weekend. The only queue we saw was a long, spindly, but seemingly funereal procession of very pretty girls. I crossed the street to ask them why they were all lined up and seeming so morose only to be told the obvious: It was a casting call for models. I’m no more used to Manhattan than anyone else…
We only spent significant time in two places. The first was the Empire State Building, which felt like a tourist trap. I felt compelled to go up to the top, and it’s worth thinking about what this iconic building reveals about New York—but it’s not important right now. The other place was the World Trade Center site and the memorial to the 9/11 victims.
This, off course, was much more shocking. It is a heartbreak that sends the blood throbbing to the temples even now. The newfangled skyscraper is quite beautiful, but perhaps it is more impressive to Americans than to a foreigner. We did not enter to the memorial museum. Even so, we saw the twisted metal remains—the skeleton of the once-proud towers. That is the only thing that I can remember seeing there to remind me of the sheer scale of the atrocity.
I felt confusion and anger well up in me, all the more as I realized I was all alone in these emotions at this place. The Americans I saw at Ground Zero did not seem exactly to be tourists, but neither were they pilgrims. I thought I saw the heart of easygoing American law-abidingness there, and I did not like it. No one was revolted at the travesty that is Ground Zero. If you’re a student of American history, you know that public architecture died sometime around 1950, just after the Jefferson Memorial was completed.
Since then, and for complicated reasons, influential Americans of various kinds, from politicians to architects, have been busy using their prestige to plan and execute what amounts to the desecration of the great heroes of America and, accordingly, to remove from Americans their dignity as citizens. The Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial is a fearful joke, recalling Communism, as it does. The Dwight Eisenhower memorial is, thank God, never going to happen, having been taken over by madmen not fit to polish the Liberator of Europe’s boots. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the great, world-spanning war president of American history, has not fared significantly better. I am told American veterans treat the Vietnam memorial as sacred, which is altogether fitting and proper, but the memorial is no more fitting to the war or to the country than the reception of the returning soldiers was. I will not talk about the other war memorials. A conspiracy of incompetence and ignobility has robbed the American people of what ought to be the necessary focus of their reverence.
Then the 9/11 memorial happened. The efforts of two generations of influential people humiliating the public memory reached their apex and betrayed the need to memorialize the most shocking attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. Now there’s a black marble hole in the ground where one of the towers stood, and along its perimeter, water running down there endlessly, one supposes to symbolize the void where patriotism should be. Names are written into the marble on the edge. There’s a paved park around it. A few benches. A few trees. Everything screams, “Relax, nothing to see here. Carry on! Nothing more than tragedy happened here.” But it wasn’t a tragedy. It was an outrage.
The people; the parties; the politicians; the influential clever speakers on the radio, TV, and Internet—none of them seem to care much about this matter. What tremendous effort of the will would it take to raise a scandal so that Americans remember they deserve much better than this and that they owe more to the dead?
How do we make it understood that consigning 9/11 to the realm of sad tragedy is to consign ourselves to the role of victim? How can we account for this abandonment of public duty and spine? The generation that witnessed the terrors and horrors of 9/11 cannot be seen to just shrug it off. We need to see more of a spirit of public defiance.
With few exceptions, Hollywood was as irresponsible as the politicians and so were the popular musicians. All these paltry creatures, worshiped as they are like the new gods of the age, proved shockingly inadequate to the moment in emphasizing the tragic elements of that day over the outrageous ones of the terrorists or the heroism of ordinary Americans. In the many years since, the conspiracy of silence has continued, as though the public did not deserve some great statement—some great story that could bring people together. The purpose of such a unifying story would not be to obliterate each private fact or history—but to give people some sense of the commons, of what can be shared as they move forward to face this new reality. Instead, the only political legacy of 9/11 is a country divided in hysterical ways over wars the purpose of which seems neither clear nor attainable. The politics of 9/11 seem to await final defeat somewhere in the Middle East.
I do not ask that Americans treat 9/11 with piety. I am with those who argue anger and a sound war policy are the solution—not endless mourning or the simulation thereof.
But I am surprised always by how resigned Americans of all walks of life are to the debasement of the public memory. Nothing can be done?
Unless we count the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security, which have managed mainly to treat every citizen as a potential terrorist, where have we mobilized the country? How is it that a country once too proud to treat an act of war as a bureaucratic matter, now puts citizens through a humiliating, mindless bit of security theater, and abandons to insensate commissions the responsibility we all share to defend our country? How did we turn the suffering of 9/11 into an ongoing war of partisan hysteria.
I have lots of academic friends who know American politics. I discuss these matters with them on occasion, when I feel it would not be presumptuous or indelicate. I do not ask that Americans treat 9/11 with piety. I am with those who argue anger and a sound war policy are the solution—not endless mourning or the simulation thereof.
But I am surprised always by how resigned Americans of all walks of life are to the debasement of the public memory. Nothing can be done? What is the great song, the great movie, the great memorial for 9/11? Where should public sentiment turn? Where the public mind? How are adults not ashamed in front of their children, who must inherit all of this?
My friend took me to nearby St. Paul’s after I was done fulminating. The church was then undergoing some restoration work, so we could not enter. He told me the place miraculously had been preserved after 9/11. A holy precinct became a hub for first responders or at any rate the efforts later made to save everyone that could be saved. I told him the only 9/11 story I knew, that of the heroic Manhattan boatlift, which was not summoned or commanded by political authorities, but rather was a show of the love Americans have for each other, taking incalculable risks for very uncertain successes, because they could not endure the shame of doing otherwise. Something of that kind of patriotism should be honored and celebrated.