Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven Years Hence

I was asleep when I got the call.

I seem to have a way of being woken from sleep when disaster strikes. I was snoozing when the Challenger exploded on liftoff, woken by my mother, grumbling about her tendency to exaggerate. I was deep into a long-forgotten dream when my friend called to tell me that Columbia had burned up on re-entry, with all hands lost.

On Tuesday, September the 11th, 2001, it was, again, my mother who rousted me from my slumbers to tell me that the World Trade Center had been struck by a plane and was on fire. I tuned into NBC news in time to watch the second plane hit. I watched, stunned to silence, as the billowing mountains of smoke poured from the stricken towers into that preternaturally clear and lovely morning, blinked and rubbed my eyes as the first tower fell, longing for it to be an optical illusion.

I am an expatriate New Yorker, transplanted by initially reluctant choice to Pennsylvania, where the market was rather less saturated with other members of my profession. I had only lived in Philadelphia for 11 months. I had been in New York the previous week-end. Most of my friends lived in and near Manhattan.

I began scouring my memory for any people I knew who might have been in Lower Manhattan that morning, and seized upon my closest friend, Mike, who was working at Goldman Sachs at the time. Heart-wrenching hours passed, during which I called his cell, over and over. But, of course, the cell tower had been atop the building, which was no more. As with so many of the other people who were straining the cell network to the breaking point, I labored to prevent my mind from straying too far into a reality without him in it. Finally, he called me back and described his harrowing experience of walking out of the Financial District with thousands of dazed and dusty souls.

It would be days before I had confirmation that my oldest friend (since kindergarten, and inseparable through much of childhood), a NYC Police officer, had escaped unscathed.

In the blurry days which followed, I begrudged every moment I was separated from the television, flipping back and forth through the constant coverage. By dint of having been the first channel to which I tuned, I locked onto Tom Brokaw as an emotional anchor (in both senses), such that his voice will forever be associated with those days in my mind. I learned about al Qaeda, dimly recalled the connection with the first WTC bombing of 1993, the attack on the Cole, and on the African embassies, I recalled the Buddha statues getting blasted by the Taliban, learned of something called a “Fatwa” against the US by that fellow, Bin-something.

Once it became clear to me that I had been outrageously fortunate enough to escape losing any friends or even acquaintances, I began to mourn in earnest for the only direct loss I had suffered. I had lost the Twin Towers. It was simply safer than thinking about all the innocent people who had been snuffed out that day (though, weeks later, on my first visit to NYC since the attack, with the acrid smell of burning insulation still hanging in the air, I had a vivid image of drowsy office workers commenting on the weather, munching bagels and sipping coffee as the nose cone of an aircraft looms bizarrely in the window, and wept. Finally.).

I loved those buildings. I had the good fortune to go, several times, to “The Greatest Bar On Earth,” sipping single malt scotch and smoking cigars and marveling at the full moon's frost on the harbor. Earlier, during college, my friends and I, flush with free-lance neurochemical tinkerings, tottered about the deserted streets of Lower Manhattan, finding ourselves seated on the benches of the WTC plaza, our gaze swept up those improbable geometers' lines like superhighways to the center of the galaxy, waiting for the inevitable “Blade Runner” flying cars to arrive for their slalom.

Seven years hence, the phantoms still shimmer on the edge of vision as I behold the wounded skyline of my beloved City.

No politics. This is simply too big, too elemental a subject to be so reduced.

The will to perpetrate such horrors must be recognized as the primordial enemy that it is. Whatever one's narrative of how it arises, the chilling subordination of essential human empathy to the merciless logic of ideology must be resisted with every sinew of our civilization, for the sake of civilization itself.

Three thousand worlds came to an end that day. We who inhabit those that remain have some decisions to make about what shapes they will take. We must be wary of the impulse to wrap the memory in a comforting cocoon of concepts, the temptation to insulate ourselves against the brutal force of that collision with raw, unconflicted hatred. Patient and implacable, the will that guided the hands of the 19 was not consumed in the flames that they wrought. It waits and tests and gathers its malice against the day when we next divert our gaze and relent in our efforts to subdue it.

I, for one, do not relish the thought of yet another rude awakening.