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.
Read: The 9/11 Era Is Over
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.