(A re-post of an essay I wrote last year on the anniversary of 9/11).
Where was I on 9/11?
At the time I worked not far from the World Trade Center – at 11 Broadway, across from the famous Wall Street Bull that’s not really on Wall Street. At 9:02 AM I left for work from my apartment on the Upper West Side, one minute before the South Tower was hit and two minutes before my answering machine started filling up with warnings not to go to work – messages I wouldn’t hear for a week. Getting onto the subway at 103rd St., I saw that the station booth had a handwritten cardboard sign in the window announcing delays due to the fact that an airplane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time this was nothing more to me than a novel reason for a delay, one that would just make me even later to work than I already was. I imagined that a student in a Cessna had put a dent in something essentially indestructible.
The train ran slowly and collected too many people. Halfway down the island there was an announcement that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. The possibility of terrorism now occurred to me and I’m sure to everyone else on the train, although I think there was more curiosity than alarm. I thought something to the effect that one plane hitting was a misfortune, two just looked like carelessness. I imagined foolish terrorists in Cessnas putting multiple dents in something essentially indestructible. I thought about getting off at the World Trade Center – one stop before mine – to see what was going on, and then walking to work from there. Then they announced that we’d be diverted from our usual route under the towers to the Wall Street station south of them. So I decided I’d just go to work and then gather some people to go see what we could see.
When the train finally reached the 2-3 Wall Street station, I was anxious to escape the throng of people that had developed with the delays, and relieved to see a hint of sky as I made my way up the last few steps of the entrance stairwell. Just then there was a blast that sent me running and then falling back down the steps. Now grasping the seriousness of what was going on, I thought perhaps a bomb had gone off just outside the station, or even that a plane might have hit the street. Whatever had made the ground shake and produce such an incredible noise, it sent me scrambling backwards in a panic, along with a hoard of people from the street that the station seemed instantly to inhale. By the time I was back on my feet the small platform was again completely packed. The people who’d been out on the street were agitated in a way I’d never seen so many people agitated – weeping, screaming, collapsing to the ground. I asked a woman what had happened, and she told me through tears that “the top fell off the world trade center.” It wasn’t clear to me how the top had fallen all the way over here, and I imagined that perhaps the whole building had tumbled over and that the wreckage lay directly outside of the station.
Then I saw what I thought was smoke rolling down the stairwell with a kind of lethal indifference that made me feel sick to my stomach. I imagined burning wreckage blocking the exit as it filled the station with unbreathable smoke. I berated myself for spending an hour persisting – despite the delays, the throngs, and the announcements – to the epicenter of a disaster. I didn’t have any idea that the tower could simply have turned into a cloud of dust that was now spreading across lower Manhattan, or that – difficult as it was – we could breathe it. Neither did my fellow travelers, and a new round of panic began. Then a few people yelled at everyone to calm down and evacuate in an orderly way, and that’s what we did.
We filed out into complete darkness. I fumbled forward into the street a little, but I couldn’t see well enough to walk anywhere. So I just stood there. As my eyes adjusted and air became thinner, the sun gradually emerged looking more like the moon, and clumps of white dust fell like snow and joined the thick layer already covering the ground. Around twenty people had waited there like me, and now we crossed the street together toward the clean air that we could see through the glass doors of a bank. We didn’t know if what we were breathing was slowly suffocating us. The bank employees came to the locked doors and told us they wouldn’t let us in – they were afraid of looting. A man became enraged and began breaking in the glass door with an ashtray stand, and so they quickly relented. Inside the man continued in his rage, overturning desks and accusing them of trying to kill us.
After a little while the police came and directed us to the Brooklyn Bridge, where we joined the mass of evacuees walking across. I found myself next to a man who had been inside the World Trade Center, and who was already talking about revenge and not fucking with America. As I walked I tried unsuccessfully to call my sisters Jenn and Suzanne, who worked just as close to the towers as me; and my brother Stephen, who as far as I knew was still working in a café inside the World Trade Center itself. The phone lines were jammed. As I neared the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, the North Tower collapsed and turn into a wave of dust too quick to be outrun.
The Brooklyn side was mayhem – crammed full of people, ambulances, fire trucks, and reporters. People were distributing water bottles and wiping off the dust. I saw a woman being put into an ambulance on a stretcher. I wandered around listening to reporters and interviewees. I learned that they would soon be closing off access to Manhattan, and decided to get back in before that happened. I went up to the Manhattan bridge and walked back over, through Chinatown and then to my sister’s apartment in the Village. I think I arrived around 4pm – I’m not sure why it took so long or how much time I spent in Brooklyn. It was the first time I’d been in touch with anyone all day, and I learned thankfully that all my siblings were OK (and that my brother had quit his café job some time before). So I sat down in front of the TV and finally saw what it was that had happened. For a week I didn’t leave the apartment, or put my shoes back on, or wipe the dust from them.
It was a week anyway before we were allowed back into the area where I worked – through the National Guard checkpoints, past the electricity generator trucks, and to my office, which had been inundated with the dust. I saw that my co-workers were all wearing masks, and I turned around and went home. I told them I’d be working at home for a few days. But with my office as close to ground zero as it was, there would be no escaping for many months the dust or its unforgettable smell. And it was a reminder of a loss that felt to me – as it did to most Americans – intensely personal, and it seemed remarkable that so many human beings could breathe that same air.
I rarely paid attention to the towers while in Manhattan, and the closer I got to them the less attention I paid. Their tallness made them ubiquitous, visible as they were from so many parts of the island as a backdrop to everything else, effectively invisible. They loomed. And at close range there was little to see unless you looked up, which – being in a hurry trying to get from one place to another – I rarely did. The towers could be taken for granted.
From a distance it was a different story: every time I arrived to the city by car or bus, the sight of the towers on the skyline always filled me with awe, and had me thinking of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and hearing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Every time.
September 10th had been another sort of exception: my friend Lebec was in town for a visit, and on his way out drove me to work via the West Side Highway. On that drive you’re facing the towers all the way down, and they’re impossible to ignore. So we talked them up: how amazing they were, how many people must be in them at any given time, the fact that there was swath of cloud cutting through some upper floors (at about the height where the planes would hit the next day). If I were a different type of person, I would have made something of these coincidences, or of the fact that the same evening I read the last of a series of articles in the New York Times on the efforts of terrorists to obtain nuclear material and thought, “I’ve got to get out of New York before it’s too late.”
Instead of getting out of New York, the next morning I headed straight to the heart of Manhattan and to the center of a disaster. And after that disaster, I made the exception that we all make in such circumstances, and mourned the loss of strangers. I mourned them because they had been killed deliberately and en masse, and in such a public way. I mourned not just the fact of human inhumanity, which is consistently heartbreaking, but because many fellow Americans had been killed on American soil by people who were not fellow Americans.
This is to say I especially mourned the injury to national pride. Even those of us who might cringe at rah-rah patriotism are far from immune to the fantasy of invincibility that comes with living in the most powerful country in the world. We cannot escape that aspect of our national identity, one in which (to quote a philosopher) “political superiority … resolves itself into psychological superiority.” The seductiveness of power is not just that it is a means to physical safety or pleasure, but that it feels like the natural reward for and evidence of … being “good” or “great.” “Greatness” is a word – so often used by American politicians, as in "the greatest country in the world" – that perfectly conflates these concepts of moral worth and worldly power. The relevant sense of safety here is not physical but psychical, and it is less a means to pleasure or the absence of anxiety than to joy – a sense of overflowing with far more than one needs, of having left the world of need altogether, with no prospect of ever having to return. The political sentiment resolves itself into an otherworldly one.
And the towers were icons to that sentiment. The awe I felt every time I returned to Manhattan included feelings of pride and hope: pride in human power and ingenuity, and hope produced by the implication that anything is possible. Nothing that goes so high – towers or airplanes – can be divorced by our familiarity with science and technology from the primitive sense that they are feats of magic, symbols not merely of our ability to control nature but of the possibility of transcending it. Technological prowess resolves itself into spiritual prowess.
And so as Americans take note of 9/11’s 10th anniversary, I’m afraid that an essential thing will go unacknowledged: we mourn victims, but not the greatness to which the towers were massive testaments. And in clinging to this delusion of greatness, the United States has reacted to terrorism not in proportion to its actual ongoing physical threat – which is minor and could never be great enough to justify America’s decade of self-destruction. The relevant threat is the one to the national fantasy of omnipotence, one that is absolute and existential and must be warded off even if it requires risking self-destruction. Consequently, what passes as mourning on these occasions is typically its opposite: a manic re-affirmation of “American exceptionalism.”
Where was I on 9/11?
Riding the same relentless train car as everyone else, propelled by the same grandiose fantasy. Unaware that the towers could be significantly damaged even by airplanes, much less destroyed. And only vaguely familiar with the fact that the finest specimens of human technical and spiritual prowess can be hurtled against each other and made to cancel each other out.
- Wes Alwan