Everything Is Different Now

The Capitol and the Twin Towers memorial in a diptych
Erich Hartmann / Magnum; Gary Hershorn / Getty

I flew past the buildings two days before the planes hit them.

In those days planes bound for LaGuardia often lapped Lower Manhattan before making the final turn, steering remarkably close to the skyscrapers massed just below. They did not seem at all vulnerable but rather impregnable and permanent, fixed points for pilots who had lost their way. As gigantic as they were, as out of human scale, they still managed to whisper to travelers that they had come home. It was September 9, 2001, about 6 p.m., with the sun sinking in the sky. When I looked out the airplane window and saw the Twin Towers, they struck me with the force of revelation. It wasn’t simply that they stood so improbably close that they seemed touchable; it was that they were ablaze. They were bathed in light, their steel ribs shellacked with the incandescence of the evening, and so they shimmered to the left of the plane, a validation barely out of reach.

But what kind of validation? The buildings were not beloved then. They were not yet a wounding and unfathomable absence in the Manhattan skyline. If they were considered temples of any kind, they were temples simply to capitalism, if not to Moloch, monolithic to their spindly bones. And yet that’s not how I saw them in the light of that prelapsarian day, and I took out a notebook and began madly scribbling to account for how I did see them—for what they revealed to me.

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The revelation was that they were alive, not just with light and not just with money, but with an idea that was inseparable from the unease they caused—the idea of upward thrust. Out of American society’s schism and fracture had somehow come this, a pair of buildings rising nearly to flight, the way mountains rise out of the collision of tectonic plates. They were enduring artifacts of America’s ability to reinvent itself. And because they were animated by an idea, they would be there forever.

Two days later, I watched them turn to sand, to ash, twin columns of smoke rising in unholy memorial to the thousands of lives extinguished inside. I was shocked, of course, because to my mind the attack came out of nowhere, materializing from the sky as instantaneously as the Twin Towers then disappeared from it. The same kind of plane that steered around the buildings while I was on board had been turned into a spear that had found the exposed spot in America’s side, and from this politically inclined murder there could be no resurrection. The World Trade Center had died. So had many of the people inside, and so had the idea, fleetingly glimpsed, that had connected them.

I had not thought that was possible. I had not thought it was possible for ideas to die when their physical embodiments did. But that’s what it felt like, on September 12, especially after I found out that the men who’d turned the wonder of flight into a weapon of mass murder had lived for a year in Florida before they seized the four cockpits. I hadn’t realized how much I believed in the American dream until I watched its effigy fall in downtown Manhattan. I hadn’t realized how naive and heedless my faith had been until I heard myself uselessly repeating its precepts to the Mohamed Atta in my mind: But you lived here! You tasted the American way of life! You were free—and this is what you did?

But Mohamed Atta had seen the same towers that I did, bathed in the same glorious light, and always and forever saw only the opportunity to fly planes full of people into them. For the first time in my life I felt that the American idea was as perishable as the buildings meant to fortify it. I did not feel that way again until January 6, 2021.

The attack on the U.S. Capitol was not a shock, because the people who perpetrated it did not come from out of the sky. They had been talking about their plans for weeks, and in broader terms for years; he, the most audible man in the world, had been talking about it, tweeting about it, ever since he lost the election—indeed, even before. A reckoning is coming, he said; the day is coming. He didn’t have to say that his people were coming, because he had made the pact between them explicit enough for their plans to be implicit. They all knew January 6 was going to be “wild,” as he put it, and that was the key word, the tip-off that the bacchanal of his rallies, indeed the liberation of his rallies, would now be visited upon the city where the buildings were—along with the American idea.

I had even taken to warning friends and family members about the looming day, to the point of sounding like a crank. “We’ll be okay if we can make it through January 6,” I kept saying, not knowing quite what I meant, not able to imagine what was on the other side of that day if we didn’t make it through. But then, the night before, I’d witnessed a revelation akin to the one that pressed itself upon me on September 9—the revelation of the upward thrust that ensues from schism and fracture. There had been a runoff election in the state I call my home, and though it had been dubbed a battle for the control of the Senate, control was the last thing we had won. A Black preacher and a Jewish journalist had been elected to represent me, to represent us, and once again the prospect of American possibility, even of American inevitability,  announced itself—an idea as fixed as a mountain. I breathed for the first time in months, until a different kind of inevitability showed its face.

I was sitting on the couch with my wife, listening to a 74-year-old man in front of the White House wind up a speech that had gone on too long. He was announcing his agenda for his second term in an office he had already lost, and he sounded … unwell, like a dry drunk who overstays his welcome. A few people even began to move to the exits, and their disinterest seemed like a comeuppance of sorts, until I saw that some of them were leaving in what appeared to be formation, and they were wearing black-and-yellow regalia. “Uh-oh,” I said, but even ambiguous dread could not dim the celebration of an idea realized against all odds. Some of the networks cut away from the man in front of the White House to show another man, his white-haired subordinate, standing behind a desk inside the Capitol. He was speaking to a group of elected men and women who had gathered for the purpose of ending his power—a purpose to which he was acceding. American democracy, the one truly exceptional American idea, was going to be preserved, and I allowed myself the luxury of procedural boredom.

I saw it, saw them, as if from the corner of my eye. It was just a discordant note at first, as if a fly had settled upon the white hair of the man speaking inside the Capitol. And yet I didn’t see, because my hunger for normalcy overcame my tolerance for discord. But then, in the little inset screen on the right, I saw men on the steps of the Capitol and felt the first real shock of the day. The men on the steps were beseeching others to join them, as if, for the first time in their lives, they had the opportunity to seize their main chance. They were outside the Capitol and then, in an instant, they were inside the Capitol and aswarm, as if set to devour their supine host of a building and all the ideas it had ever stood for.

Buildings break your heart, especially when you invest them with your ideas and your identity—especially when you make them symbols not just of who you are but of who you are supposed to be. They break your heart because they are themselves destined to be broken. The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem and the Romans the Second, both as the necessary precondition for casting the people who’d built them to the winds. I imagine that the Jews who witnessed those sieges and assaults thousands of years ago felt the way I felt on January 6, when I watched the Capitol come under invasion and, for a few preposterous moments, entertained the touching possibility that the idea the building symbolizes might repel the invaders from the building itself.

Instead, the Capitol yielded easily to a horde of Americans—our brothers and sisters—in red hats and horned helmets and shirts proclaiming the persuasive triumph of the 17th letter of the alphabet. They were vandals in the halls where American Ciceros were supposed to have spoken, and yet now the halls were abandoned and, but for a brave few, bereft even of the dignity of resistance, while the vandals had the time of their lives. How could the idea that the Capitol is supposed to embody be perishable this way? My stomach turned and my hands trembled in fear and disgust, as I realized my prophecy for the day had been fulfilled not by the imposition of martial law but by the possibility of a stranger in a Camp Auschwitz shirt taking a shit in my house.

It is indecent to love our buildings too much, and when disaster strikes we are often advised to remember that bricks and mortar are not nearly as important as the lives that they are intended to shelter and protect. Certainly, all who witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, wondered how many living souls had been pulverized. We would do well to remember that at least five people lost their lives in the attack on January 6, 2021. But we would also do well to remember what is so easy to forget, which is that 4,000 Americans are now dying each day in the pandemic, the death toll of 9/11 eerily replicated over and over and again and again. And we would do well to remember that the same man who sicced the swarm on the People’s House is the same man who has never seen fit to grieve with or even speak honestly to the nation whose total loss is now not the isolated loss of terror but rather the sustained loss of war.

Five days later, the Capitol still stands—proof enough that the insurrectionists who besieged it had more respect for the building than they did for either the people they terrorized or the idea they claimed to revere. Americans cannot but be heartened that at least this physical aspect of American democracy survived, and was strong enough for Congress to pick a new and, with any luck, more American president. But we did not make it past the day I worried about. We did not make it past January 6, 2021, and now we have a better idea of what the days beyond that failure look like, because they are our days. The unsayable thing—the taboo thing—to say about 9/11 is that, while it might have provided an occasion for Americans to rediscover their patriotism, it was in the moment exactly what it felt like: a defeat. It is the same with January 6, 2021. This was the defeat of a police force, the defeat of a presumption, the defeat of naive faith in the native goodness of our fellow Americans—a defeat made all the more bitter for being an inside job.

The American idea turned out to be vulnerable to profanation at the hands of mere opportunists, pillagers who breached the temple and whose leering faces must have resembled those of the Romans who made it to the heart of the Second Temple only to find that Yahweh wasn’t there. But vulnerability to profanation isn’t the same as perishability, and after all Yahweh wasn’t in the temple because he was in the scrolls that generation upon generation of Jewish scholars had protected in fact and in memory. I still have faith that Senator Jon Ossoff will remember the words of the American scrolls and call upon Americans to live up to them. I still believe with all the innocence left to me that Senator Raphael Warnock will protect the precepts of the American scrolls because, by God, he has lived them. I still believe that out of schism and fracture will emerge the unstoppably upward thrust, carrying us along until one day we are as good as the words on our founding documents. We must wait and see; we have no choice but to wait and see, because the idea ensconced within the walls of the Capitol might not have died, but the presumption that those walls were sufficient to preserve it certainly did. No, those walls did not fall. But they were ruthlessly defaced by those who seemed unconvinced that they meant anything. Which is why it is not enough to remember the first Wednesday of this new year as January 6, 2021.

It is 1/6. May it turn out, once and for all, to be the day that changed everything.