Coming to grips with the new realities

I went to sleep on the night of September 10 at about 3 a.m. My friend Will and I had been solving the world’s problems in a Los Angeles hotel room overlooking the runways of LAX. Neither of us had any clue that those problems were about to get a whole lot worse in two or three hours. Even as we said our good nights, hijackers were boarding connecting flights from Maine to Boston, praying to Allah, and moving into position. We were about to witness the bitter fruits of religious hatred fueled by decades of Islamic rhetoric whipped to a fever pitch.

There are many good reasons and politico-economic justifications for the hatred of America. America has often not acted either honorably or consistently toward the third world. Anyone who’s taken poli-sci classes knows how the U.S. is viewed by others, and the many reasons why:

  • past support of colonialism
  • lopsided unquestioned support of Israel
  • apathy in the face of third world civil wars and genocide
  • long religious cold war against “godless communism” which caught third world nations in the crossfire
  • past support of right-wing dictators in spite of human rights violations
  • exploitation of workers and resources by American multinationals
  • Bretton-Woods agreement, IMF and World Bank interference in internal affairs of nations

All those are reason enough for oppressed people to hate us. Were we forced to live (and die) on the other end of our own policies in the third world, we would hate us too. But Americans have learned quickly how the depth of that hatred could be exploited by zealots to mount a horrible and very real threat to our existence.

The morning was overwhelming: Shock, horror, emotional paralysis. But then the creeping realization set in in the days immediately following that we are living in a changed world. That a threshhold has been crossed. This is a slow devastation as the American psyche has had to let go of its treasured security and support systems. Where will the terrorists strike next? Now, for the first time, we share the world’s pain and uncertainty. For the first time, our lives are on the line.

When I clicked on the TV, at about 7:45 a.m. (10:45 Eastern time), I saw the New York skyline covered with smoke. Something was very wrong with that picture. I blurted out to Will, “They’re fucking GONE!!!” I had no prior idea about the attack, except for a frantic phone message from Will’s wife, and it didn’t take me 5 seconds to realize what I was seeing. While I’d been in the shower and brushing my teeth, almost 7,000 people had been smashed, burned, impaled, and crushed to death. In the ten seconds it took me to dry myself with a towel, a million tons of steel and concrete pancaked into a flaming, twisted mass of nothingness.

Will and I sat stunned. LAX was silent, runways empty. Our cell phones began to ring as family and friends around the country checked in. A friend of mine was just blocks from WTC when the first plane hit. He had made a frantic call, but hadn’t been heard from since tower 2 was hit. (Read his eyewitness account.) Many I spoke to were in tears. The brother of a television producer I work with was on the 30th floor of tower 1 and hadn’t been heard from. Chaos and fear ran rampant. Road closures near the airport forced me to stay put. So we continued watching, waiting for the same answers the whole world wanted but wouldn’t get for some time to come.

Like the shuttle and space station, those buildings symbolized my faith in the future, of infinite possibilities. When I visited New York in 1979 and 1982, I was so awed that my psyche internalized those structures as the ultimate of the works of man. Once, they were the tallest buildings in the world. Only to be surpassed by the Sears tower, then the Petrona towers in Kuala Lumpur. But to me, the WTC towers were always the ultimate. My favorite structures in the world. Roark’s dream realized. In fact I never knew how important they were to me until they were gone. It feels like someone reached inside me and tore out part of my lungs and I am now gasping for the air that I can no longer properly assimilate.

Since I didn’t know the people who were killed, I don’t relate personally as much to those figures. How can a human being relate to 7,000 deaths? We have a finite capacity for empathy. Each of those people had a precious life story, most of which we will never know. Each had family and loved ones who will never be the same. And another 6,000 are injured, some maimed. Much as I struggle to contain this human dimension, I feel it is ultimately beyond our full comprehension. We can mourn, we can donate, but we can never contain the depth of suffering felt by the victims and those close to them. So I continue to focus on the buildings, which would have outlived us all. The 99 year lease just signed showed how our world thinks, ultimately planning for succession and events well beyond the scope of our lives. We must keep that optimism, that allows us to ultimately count on a stable world and civilization 99 and 999 years hence.

But optimism was dealt a severe blow September 11. Like most people, I’ve had difficulty concentrating, sleeping. And keep obsessively checking the TV and web for news. Even the inevitable retaliation won’t help me. I want to push rewind. I have recurring dreams where I reach up with giant hands to swat those murderous planes. Then I grab them carefully and pull them out of the sky, realizing that they too contain innocents. I board those planes and knock out the terrorists. I wield giant fire hoses to quench the flames. I fly a helicopter to rescue those standing in the windows. I prop up the towers until they can be repaired. I catch those who jumped to their deaths. Please, let me wake from this nightmare. But when awake, and powerless, I feel small.

We can’t bring back those people, and even $40 billion probably can’t bring back the buildings. They were a relic of another era–of excess and bravado. Tolerated because they were there, endeared to New Yorkers by the unsuccessful attempt to destroy them in 1993. But largely reviled by architects and terrorists alike, for very different reasons. So now we face a future of new fears, bleakness, war, and the probability of New York eventually rebuilt with squat, generic office towers. The skyline, like the rest of our nation, will be hunkered down. Without 7,000 souls whose lives cannot now enrich the world. And I’ll never be able to share the feeling with my sons that I had as a boy, rinding the ferry to Liberty Island, contemplating the 110-story twin pillars of our civilization. We are all forced to look back wistfully on the 20th century as the century when anything was possible: When planes weren’t also bombs, and we could build towers as high as we wanted. The twin towers were like a familiar constellation, even the pole star, ripped from the night sky by a cruel hand. Americans are awakened, sobered, and angry. Both our splendor and good-natured naivete have been relegated to our collective memory and dreams.

Comments (One comment)

Doris Tracey / April 5th, 2007, 6:47 am / #1


I am so happy you did not close this post for comment; it was like reading a thriller story and I was there with every person and experience that happened that day. I was at work that morning when I saw the planes hit the Towers and I immediately said, “They are Kamikazes” It was a very sad moment in time for this country, but America is always strengthened by adversity, we have and will prevail, as we walk through the valley of the shadow.

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