Every five years, I re-post what I wrote on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, which I witnessed first-hand in Lower Manhattan.
September 11, 2006
I still remember what I thought that moment, as I stood on the roofdeck, watching the towers crumble, wondering whether my wife was still alive:
The world will never be the same again.
Everyone around me was crying, as far as the eye could see. We had witnessed the explosions and flames as the planes plowed into the buildings. For an hour, we had heard the sirens screaming downtown to the scene. Then, suddenly, that terrible rumbling. A massive, sickening cloud of dust.
For a long time, before the billowing smoke cleared, we were sure the towers were still there, hidden from view. And then, nothingness. We thought all of those people, all the workers in the World Trade Center and all the emergency personnel who responded, tens of thousands of human beings, had died in the collapse.
Beyond the horror of the lives lost was the profound sense of shock. My office, on the top floor of the building, facing south from 15th Street, looked directly toward the towers. They were landmarks, as much a part of the landscape as the Statue of Liberty or the Hudson River. And then they were gone. For days afterward, I gazed out the window at a smoke cloud.
More than that. We had spent the preceding years celebrating the end of the Cold War and, in the heady optimism of the dotcom boom, the end of the business cycle. My generation of Americans, since reaching adulthood, had experienced only growth and optimism for the future. We had a sense of enormous confidence and possibility for the new millennium. Suddenly, it was all shattered. Shattered. Shattered.
In those first harrowing weeks, no one knew what to expect. Would there be another attack? On the subways, this time, perhaps? Then came the anthrax scare. It was hard to imagine true normalcy returning.
There were many reasons to be thankful, even in those dark days. My wife, whose office was less than a block from Ground Zero, made it out unharmed. So did, miraculously, our close friends who worked in the towers, not yet in their offices when the disaster struck. The estimated death toll, terrible as it was, kept falling, eventually dropping, astoundingly, below 3,000.
And, most hopeful of all, a visit to the doctor that week confirmed that my wife was pregnant with our first child. Hope. A new life. It all sounds so maudlin now. Back then, though, we grasped at any positives we could find. Everyone did.
So, where are we now?
We no longer live in the universe of September 10, 2001. The deeply optimistic world of the roaring 1990s is truly gone, even despite Google and the money rush of Web 2.0. We’re at war in Iraq. Air travel is a nightmarish experience. Al Qaeda and its allies continue to strike. NASDAQ 5000 is still a distant memory.
And yet, and yet. It all seems so normal today. So deeply, mundanely, normal. Remembering that terrible day five years ago still gives me chills, but if I try not to think about it, I can almost imagine it never happened. The world seems, tantalizingly, the same.
Perhaps there is a banality of good, to complement Arendt’s banality of evil. Life goes on, because, well, that’s what life does.
Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century philosopher, described a property of all living beings that he called the conatus. Conatus is a constant striving to continue to exist, and to flourish in the world. It is a part of who we are, simply by virtue of being something and not nothing. Perhaps that explains this strange, creeping normalcy I feel. Things have not necessarily changed for the better; they have simply continued to happen.
We all have the power to decide what sense we make of the infinite, inexplicable, unknowable universe — what Spinoza called deus sive natura (God or Nature). Memory, and history, are powerful things. They connect us to that which is beyond our own tiny, individual conatus.
Five years. An instant, and an eternity. Has it truly been so long? I remember. I remember.
No, the world will never be “the same.” But that just means the world we live in today is the only one we have.
Coda: Has it really been ten years?
September 11, 2011
The phones went dead on 9/11, but the Internet still worked. It was a lifeline to the world. I could email my family to let them know I was OK, could answer the waves of concerned messages that rolled in from friends around the world. In hindsight, it’s appropriate that New York’s TV broadcast antenna was at the top of the Twin Towers. 9/11 was when the old media died. Social media and Internet-based communications are still in the process of maturing as its successors, but a seed was planted on that day.
My son is nine now. Neither he nor his sister has any personal awareness of 9/11. Even my undergraduate students today know of it mostly from their parents. It was something that happened, but didn’t happen to them. I supposed that’s how some wounds heal: they don’t, really. Those who bear them die off, replaced by those at further remove. We can tell our children our stories, be thankful for our small miracles, and keep striving to take the right lessons from our experiences. So much has happened since. Anniversaries are arbitrary dates; the storylines of reality are never so neat.
I still wonder whether I was right. How much was the world permanently broken on that day? How much have we really returned to normal? Maybe that’s a question that can’t be answered. I just know that something changed for me.
Coda 2: Twenty years
September 11, 2021
It’s just an ordinary day. Ground Zero has been rebuilt. The NASDAQ is at 15,000. America’s longest war, launched in response to the terrorist attacks, has just ended. My post-9/11 children are nearly adults. It’s hard to convey how much has happened in the intervening decade since I last reflected: hope and despair; innovation and chaos; insurrection and plague.
And yet. It’s still an ordinary day. Ordinariness has not disappeared. And I still have my remembrance. The common slogan is, “never forget!”, but remembering is so much better. It’s active and constructive. We make new meanings and add new experiences to the past, because we can’t help it. We must always strive to be. Neither slings nor arrows nor airplanes can stop that unfolding. That is what I continue to hang on to.