Anyone who lived or worked in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 has no need to see the new Oliver Stone movie, powerful as it’s said to be. An anniversary isn’t necessary to remember that day. It comes back easily, in infinite detail. We remember, moment by moment, where we were, where our friends were, what we saw and heard and said as we came to awareness about what was happening: That gaping reddish hole in the North Tower (“How do you fix that thing?” was a first question) and the glitter in the air (it was paper—all those file cabinets—people later figured out) around the tower and the plumes of smoke, blowing toward Brooklyn past the Woolworth Building. Live turtles, for sale in a box on Canal Street as the towers burned. A shirtless kid on a bicycle, yelling, “It’s anarchy.” Near the towers, the scene was infinitely darker. “Don’t look, Daddy, they’re jumping,” as one 9-year-old told his father near P.S. 234. The row upon row of ambulances, waiting. And the billowing dust everywhere. The hours afterward were surreal, as people negotiated their fears, or tried to continue their ordinary lives (the man taking his daily jog—a little smoky today). The city seemed completely reinvented; everywhere you looked was something new. The event’s vividness and epic scale gave it its power. It’s alive in the mind, engulfing in its imagery. People knew instantly it was going to be memorable; at Washington Square Park, just past nine, a vendor had brought out a tray of disposable cameras.
And then there were the dead, their faces on posters, when everyone knew they would never be found. How many were they? Six thousand, some were saying, although, officially, no one was saying anything. You couldn’t watch the towers fall without crying—all those families losing parents. If you walked by a firehouse the next morning, you saw burly, exhausted men weeping and hugging, their brothers dead. People felt they knew the dead, and mourned them as if they did, though, of course, mostly they didn’t. Downtown New York at that point was a utopia of grief (the frivolity and intense materialism of the late nineties suddenly banished) with novel and elaborate homegrown rituals of mourning: candlelit firehouses overflowing with flowers, makeshift shrines on chain fences.
In the city in the early weeks, a debate raged between those who resisted the emotional power of the event and those who gave in to it. People who’d seen World War II and Europeans, even rather hawkish and sympathetic ones, tended to wonder, after a while, whether it was time to get back to regular life again. One hated them at the time—their stiff upper lips were a luxury, and a vanity—but now, that argument is more interesting.
New Yorkers tended to want to keep 9/11 (“it happened to us”) for their own, but no one believed that could happen. The grief culture this country has lived in for the past five years began in those spontaneous shrines, but it didn’t end there. Before the week was out, many different interests had moved in to stake their claims on its meaning.
As an event, 9/11 was a perfect entry point into the softness and indulgence and inwardness that mass media are most comfortable exploiting. In this, it was clearly part of what came before, the high-rated bathos of the deaths of Princess Di and JFK Jr. (or more recently, for that matter, the cat stuck in the wall of a West Village bakery), the media’s hunger for strong emotion coupled with its ability to make huge numbers of people think the same thing at the same time. The journalistic necessity of putting faces on the story minted a huge new class of celebrities, dead and alive. Jokes, of course, could be told about Princess Di and JFK Jr. But the grief culture that had just been born imposed its own form of correctness. The circles of loss and victimhood created a new etiquette—who could speak first, what could be said.
The media’s appetite for stories of overnight transformation was glutted in the weeks after 9/11. The event gave birth to myriad complicated figures like Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, who had been the prototypical hard-driving, acquisitive, assholic businessman. Blasted by the loss of 658 employees and colleagues, including his brother Gary, Lutnick was changed instantly into a raging, crying man on a mission—and then, almost as suddenly, changed back into a businessman. George Bush was transformed into a war president. Rudy Giuliani, a fading mayor who’d just undergone an ugly divorce, was suddenly an American hero. Bernard Kerik, who went from mayoral crony and NYPD commissioner to Homeland Security nominee, has fallen furthest of all, having plead guilty to two misdemeanors, after which his name was taken off the jail downtown.
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.