Five Years Later


An anniversary post is, under the circumstances, unavoidable. But what to say? Maybe something on a personal note. From the time when I was about five years old onwards, my family lived on 12th Street with south-facing windows. Our apartment was really quite a bit north of the World Trade Center, but due to the lack of intervening tall buildings we had a very clear view of the Towers and they would totally dominate the view. Dominate it, that is, on clear days. Like distant mountains, our view of them was pretty highly sensitive to the weather. Haziness or fog would obscure them somewhat. On the heavier days, they would entirely fade out of view and the sky would look strangely blank.

By the time the towers fell, I was in college and wasn't living full-time in that apartment anymore. As a result, I've never quite gotten used to the new view. What's more, there isn't much of anything that was tall enough or close enough to be revealed by the towers' absence. It's just a blank sky. To me, it looks as if the city's descended into a perpetual fog.

The Towers were one of those New York landmarks that I barely ever actually visited in practice. I went there once, I think, in high school when I had a French exchange student living with me. And I was in the vicinity a couple of times to go to Century 21. But I think I've been to the Ground Zero site more times than I was ever inside the building whose absence it marks. Giant skyscrapers simply have a way of dominating the experience of people who live in vaguely in the vicinity even if you never really go there. Which, I suppose, is the point. And that's really the extent of my practical connection to the events of 9/11. Nobody I really knew died there, though of course like all New Yorkers I had various connections of some kind of another to some of the victims. Still, in an odd way I took those murders personally and when I think back to it I still do.

There's a cold, analytic point-of-view that one really ought to try and take up when thinking about policy. Realistically, though, back in those early post-attack months, I was just angry, I suppose most people were. I can't really get in touch with that authentic anger anymore -- too much time has passed, too much has happened in the world, and too much had changed in my life -- but I still remember it. For all that anger, though, I recall that I also took it for granted that "we" -- the country, the government, the military, the CIA -- at a minimum were going to manage to get the bastards who did that. It hasn't, of course, worked out like that. We got some folks, but the ringleaders got away. We toppled the Taliban, but didn't really finish them off. And I remember self-righteously assuring the far-left types on campus who opposed the Afghan War that of course the USA would be fully committed to reconstructing Afghanistan -- it was a case where our moral obligations aligned almost perfectly with our narrowest interests in safety.

It seems like these anniversaries should be apolitical. Like there ought to be some neutral zone from which to critique the administration's crass politicization of American pain and American memory. But it's not, I think, realistic. National myths, national anniversaries, national memory of big events is always political. It only starts to look apolitical if one side or another decisively wins the battle for interpretation.