Another anniversary. Not decimal like last year’s and therefore not as important. But to be observed nonetheless.
There’s a new tower where the Twin Towers used to stand. I could see it if I wished from the rooftoop of my building. But I haven’t done so yet, maybe for the same reason I didn’t go up there to watch the original buildings burn and fall. I was too far away to have seen people flying out of windows above where the planes struck, but I was on the phone with someone who was a good deal closer and was watching from her own rooftop. Quite a different matter from observing via television–one channel was still managing to broadcast, all the others having had their antennas on the roof of WT2. Television made it seem less real, like the person a friend at Ground Zero saw emerging from a nearby subway exit who looked up and said,”‘Oh, they must be making a movie.”
There’s a memorial at the base of that new tower. The governor and the city’s mayor are wrangling about who pays for what, so the planned museum is on hold. Once it got under way, the new tower, Freedom Tower, went up quickly, or at least that was how it seemed to me. I find the name embarrassing, reminiscent of George Bush’s insistence that “they hate us for our freedoms.” His, though, was the only explanation I heard anyone of national prominence try to make for why those nineteen, mostly university-educated, hijackers did what they did. At least, his was the only reason I can recall being put forward by anyone who had the nation’s attention. Of course, it wasn’t so much an explanation as an assertion, self-explanatory, axiomatic.
One of my own first and most lasting thoughts about what happened that day is, what a luxury to be able to memorialize, at one’s leisure, as it were, a horrendous event like 9/11. Other people in other places where terrible things happen don’t have the time to memorialize, their attention already taken up by the next horrible thing that’s taking place, and then the next. But our own national tragedies are discrete, one-offs, separated by such long gaps of time that we can afford to wrangle about who pays for what and who is an appropriate speaker and who is not (no politicians this year, I understand). The violent events that took place on our soil stand out in our historical memory, begging for books to be written and documentaries to be made.
Pearl Harbor. The Shirtwaist Fire. The sinking of the Maine. The Alamo. The burning of the White House. Oklahoma City. Even the Civil War. And now, 9/11. They are singular and fixed in time, ripe for mythologizing and memorializing. We may worry and take care that nothing of the kind reoccurs. And nothing has in fact happened since September, 2001, unless you count what took place in New Orleans in 2005, an atrocity we seem to have cooperatively agreed we will not think about because it was our own fault and therefore who else can we blame.
Elsewhere, it’s another matter. If you happened to be living in a place that is experiencing war firsthand, you don’t have the luxury of forever memorializing. Who in the Congo can be thinking of memorializing the 6 million dead there since the start of that war several years ago? Less recently, who in Vietnam could start worrying about who would pay for which memorial while the bombs were still falling? And before that, who worried about memorials for those incinerated by incendiary bombs dropped on apartment houses and houses made of paper and tinder? Did anyone find the time to care how many and what kind of memorials would be erected to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps when a war still had to be fought and won? Has anyone put up a memorial in Baghdad to the 500,000 children who died as a result of the economic sanctions of the 1990s? That figure was not only not denied by our government, it was pronounced “worth it” by our secretary of state. You can see her do so on YouTube.
But no bombs have fallen on us, unless you count those passenger planes as such. In any case, 9/11 took place in one day and ever since we have had the time to think about it and fight about who pays for the health care of workers made sick by the debris and whether the state or the city should foot the bill for a museum. Life has been normal since then, at least on the surface, though legions of police and other government agents are at work day and night ferreting out new plots, and laws that used to be considered unthinkable in a democracy like ours are accepted without much objection.
Today, like September 11, 2001, is bright and blue and breezy and a Tuesday. A couple hours after the planes hit, the plume of smoke, blown by a northerly wind, deposited ash and debris on the trees and parked cars outside my windows. It looked like a snowfall on a planet devoid of water. Later, in the afternoon, I was sitting in Prospect Park when a fresh wave of foul-smelling air descended, and paper–memos? computer printouts? files?–floated down, singed but otherwise intact. Souvenirs, I thought. Memorials.