I never really liked the World Trade Center towers. As a New Yorker, I mostly viewed them as an eyesore, and their value to me was largely restricted to the fact that on clear days I could see the lights atop them forty miles to the east– a reminder whenever I needed it that the city I loved was always within reach.
The terror attacks of September 11th changed the way the nation looked at New York and its famous skyscrapers (at least for a while). The towers became a symbol of an America under attack from people who resented our way of life. That that way of life was targeted because of its role as a beacon for a bloated and indifferent capitalism (along with the Pentagon, the center of American militarism) was irrelevant. In war, the particulars of grievances are often dismissed in the name of national identity. And the maliciousness of the attack did what all terrorism does: it ended the chance for rational discourse.
The national context of the event has remained largely unchanged for fifteen years. But for New Yorkers– as for all those immediately affected by the hijackings of the planes that crashed in Washington and Shanksville– the attacks are still first and foremost a personal tragedy. Most of us know people who survived the attacks or in too many cases didn’t, and those who don’t know somebody who does. Though most shared my opinion of the towers, nonetheless it was our city— our beloved city– that had been targeted. And for all our reputation for gruffness and indifference, we knew that it was our people that had paid the lion’s share of that day’s cost. Much of America may have been surprised to see how New Yorkers responded. New Yorkers, though, would tell you it’s always been like that. It’s no surprise that as thousands more have fallen victim to the effects of that day, almost none have suggested that they would have acted otherwise even had they known both the risks of helping and the political malfeasance of those who have repeatedly refused to acknowledge the causes of their illnesses and the national responsibility to do whatever is necessary to care for and compensate them.
I wrote about a survivor in the first section of my book. He was not a police officer, a fireman, a paramedic, and neither a first responder nor a second or third. In fact, September 11th, 2001 was the first time in his life that he visited the towers, and when I told him what I was doing he at first said he had no stories to tell. I’m not going to retell the stories he did have to tell here (though they are special, and worth your attention). But I am going to take this opportunity to speak to the fact that having survived the attack didn’t ruin his life. Rather, it clarified its essential meaning, most immediately in reshaping his understanding of the nature of time. I don’t have the space to get into it once more here, but again, I promise you it’s something worth your attention.
My conversation with this survivor came in the White Mountains– early in my project, when I was still questioning the feasibility of what I envisioned. The end of that day would convince me that seeing the project through was not only worthwhile, but in some ways necessary. It would be my great education in the country and countrypeople I love. It would be my great contribution to it, regardless of my eventual readership. Without everything that was said that night, things may have ended differently.
I don’t mean to say that this means it was heroic, what this man did. He would recoil at the suggestion, and most would expect him to given the respective contributions of men and women who ran towards their deaths despite the hopelessness of the situation. Rather, what I mean to say is that his resilience is reflective of much of the nation in the wake of the tragedy, and an even greater portion of New Yorkers and those immediately affected by the attacks. This is the great legacy of what we know shorthand as 9/11. America and Americans took the best shot of those who despise it and look to murder them, and save for the social and political missteps of those who refused (and continue to refuse) to trust in the essential fabric and purpose of the nation and the courage and principle of its people, America is still here and Americans are living lives of interest, purpose, and worth. Some, indeed, are living greater ones specifically because of the attacks. If there’s a greater indictment of the efficacy of terrorism, it isn’t in bombs and economic revivals and new buildings– it’s in the indomitable soul of a people. Fear and regression do not become us. And in memory of those who fell and continue to fall, may the legacy of 9/11 be that it never does.