When the remarkable images of the event were combined with a sense of mourning and high-art ego and professionalism, the result was often grandiosity, as in the coffee-table book of photos Here Is New York, which came out in September of the following year. Downtowners had seen many of these pictures already, in magazines and in a gallery on Prince Street in the months after the event. In Here Is New York, the treatment is somber, the photos are moving, but entombed like this, there’s an unmistakable overripeness. And at this point, of course, the somewhat unseemly scramble over which superstar architect would be best to commemorate the event—and gild his reputation—with a gleaming series of towers was under way, ultimately to be won by motor-mouthed, elfin Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower, only to be followed by his prolonged deposing by more powerful corporate forces. The beams and dust of the towers (they were, after all, very big buildings) endowed random-seeming reliquaries from coast to coast. Giving on an unprecedented scale, as much as $10 billion earmarked for individuals and families, resulted in enormous payouts and a burgeoning bureaucracy wielding complex formulas—whose fairness immediately came under fierce attack. And then there was a series of questions that would have baffled Thomas Aquinas: Should every inch of ground zero become consecrated ground? Should the “bathtub” be preserved? And who got to decide, anyway? Even in New York, it became, after a couple of years, a bloated, preposterous funeral, requiring a headstone so grand that no one could possibly complete it.
September 11 has allowed American victim politics to be writ across the globe. The distorted sense of the country’s weakness is mirrored in the shame and woundedness that motivate our adversaries.
Bush and his administration quickly swooped down to scoop up the largest part of the 9/11 legacy. The justified fear and rage and woundedness and sense of victimhood infantilized our political culture. The daddy state was born, with attendant sky-high approval ratings. And for many, the scale of the provocation seemed to demand similarly spectacular responses—a specious tactical argument, based as it was on the emotional power of 9/11, rather than any rearrangement of strategic realities.
Of course, the marriage of the ultimate baby-down-a-well media spectacle with good old American foreign-policy adventurism was brokered by Karl Rove, who decreed that George Bush would become a war president, indefinitely.
The final military takeover of Manhattan was the Republican convention in August of 2004, with nary an unscripted moment. In the convention’s terms, New York was less a place than a stage set for a sort of 9/11 puppet show.
The memory of 9/11 continues to stoke a weepy sense of American victimhood, and victimhood, as used by both left and right, is a powerful political force. As the dog whisperer can tell you, strength and woundedness together are a dangerous combination. Now, 9/11 has allowed American victim politics to be writ larger than ever, across the globe. When someone from Tulsa, for example, says, “It’s important to remember 9/11 every day,” what he means is, “We were attacked, we are the aggrieved victims, we are justified.” But if we were victims then, we are less so now. This distorted sense of American weakness is weirdly mirrored in the woundedness and shame that motivate our adversaries. In our current tragicomedy of Daddy-knows-best, it’s a national neurosis, a perpetual childhood. (With its 9/11 truth-conspiracy theories, the far left has its own infantile daddy complex, except in that version, the daddies are the source of all evil.) No doubt, there are real enemies, Islamist and otherwise, more than ever (although the cure—the Iraq war—has inarguably made the disease worse). But the spectacular scope of 9/11, its psychic power, continues to distort America’s relationships. It will take years for the country to again understand its place in the world.
Like the trajectory of Howard Lutnick, all of this feels depressingly circular (and now with the plot in Britain, it feels as if it’s coming around again). Closure (that ridiculous term) has been elusive. For New Yorkers, it’s a bond, a secret society, a thought world entered if not exactly happily, then without fear. But 9/11 hardly belongs to us now. The country, perhaps inevitably, has made a mess of our grieving, and the grief culture is still with us. And, no matter how much one has opposed the president in much of what he’s done, it’s difficult not to feel complicit, having lived through the event (even more so if one is in the media), in what’s happened since. At the time, it was shared; now and forever, it will be fought over. Which is why, at ground zero five years later, tourists gawk at a construction sight. Its emptiness still holds us. 9/11 is embalmed, not here and not gone either.