The Fallen Towers Revisited
Most of us recession-battered, politically splintered, increasingly angry Americans took at least a few moments today to remember the terrors of a bright September morning exactly ten years ago. The stirring commemoration ceremony at Ground Zero may have soothed our savage partisan breasts for a few moments. Or maybe not. I couldn’t think of anything suitable to add to the occasion here at The New Moderate, and I had my seven-year-old son to entertain.
Then I remembered that I had written a piece about the Twin Towers shortly after 9/11, during my previous incarnation as webmaster and resident essayist at The Cynic’s Sanctuary. I was curious to see how my younger self interpreted the events of that surreal day. So I looked it up, and I have to tell you I was stunned.
As a relative innocent back in 2001 (in a way, all of us were relative innocents back in 2001), I had no inkling of the wars, domestic discord and other disasters that lay ahead. Granted, there were no deadly follow-up terrorist attacks, as so many of us had feared, but my predictions about America’s resilience, character and ultimate triumph proved to be almost fatuously optimistic (especially for a professional cynic).
But I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. I’ve unearthed the ten-year-old time capsule for you, complete with the inaccurate death toll and the sunny prophecies, which I hope won’t prove to be entirely delusional.
Notes on the Fallen Towers
I used to commute into New York every weekday when the World Trade Center was new. Those upstart twin towers dominated the skyline like a double exclamation point in boldface type, and I resented them for surpassing the legendary Empire State Building as the world’s tallest. They didn’t strike me as worthy successors to the Babe Ruth of the skyline: two long boxes, massive and featureless, planted side by side. No personality, no wit, no soul, no crowning spire to lure the next incarnation of King Kong. I hated the way they dwarfed the classic Jazz Age skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. Those vintage towers had grace and finesse, with their artful setbacks, slender soaring shafts and jubilant crowns. They were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and George Gershwin transformed into masonry, perfectly clustered with careless panache. Now they had been shoved off center stage, made to look skimpy and irrelevant by a pair of hulking automatons. Imagine the architectural equivalent of twin Arnold Schwarzeneggers, and you’ve imagined the impact of the World Trade Center on the New York skyline of the early seventies.
We gradually accept what won’t go away. I came to appreciate the twin towers as I passed them every day on the bus into Manhattan. I’d spy them from across the Hudson, glimmering silver-blue in the morning light, casting angled shadows on each other’s facades, the two profiles merging neatly into a single silhouette as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel. I began to notice a few touches of refinement: the beveled corners, the subtle horizontal bands, the delicate vertical tracery of the windows that became visible at close range. On a sparkling day, viewed from the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, they added something to the skyline approaching dignity and even beauty. You could see the twin towers looming above the tricky streets of Greenwich Village or SoHo, and you immediately knew which way was south. And so the hulking towers became trusted sentinels, solid and reassuring. When we saw the World Trade Center in the distance, we knew where we were.
Now we can’t be so sure. Who would have believed that these twin pillars of American capitalism could crumble in the manner of an imploded housing project? To watch them burn like a pair of colossal torches, then to watch them fall with such sad dignity — slowly and somberly, with the weighty vertical descent of a man executed by firing squad — filled me with wonder and sympathy and mad rush of adrenaline. We were witnessing one of the most horrific catastrophes in American history, with a human toll comparable to at least three Titanics. Who would have dreamed that the monumentally bland World Trade Center would become a haunted place, comparable to the fields of Antietam or Shiloh?
I remember my first visit to the site of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, where 146 workers died in a conflagration not far from New York’s Washington Square. I went in the evening and stood there alone, wondering at the huge loss of life, imagining the screams and the flames and the plummeting bodies seventy years before. That was the kind of disaster an American could grasp: the loss of 146 souls seemed more than catastrophic enough to our sheltered minds. The place was amply haunted.
Now and in the future, any one of us who visits the deserted streets of lower Manhattan in the evening, over on the West side where the World Trade Center used to stand, will be communing with the ghosts of five thousand, our own contemporaries — people who watched “Friends” and drank Diet Pepsi and logged onto America Online for a lighthearted chat. We don’t associate modern buildings with ghosts, and we don’t associate people who watched “Friends” with death. People like that — people like us — shouldn’t be dead yet, and it infuriates us that they should have been ejected from our midst at the whims of a few sullen fanatics engaged in a chronic vendetta against America. We’ve had no experience with holocausts on the order of Dresden or Hiroshima, or the Nazi death camps, or the lesser-known Soviet and Communist Chinese horrors, or the near-annihilation of the Armenians during World War I. We hope we never come to know death as a fact of everyday life.
The pundits are proclaiming September 11, 2001, as the day that changed America forever. “Forever” is a pretty powerful word, and I’m sure its widespread use is premature. But I’d guess that the recent Age of Irony has been dealt a shock from which it will be difficult to recover. It was a merry time to be alive if you were a bourgeois Baby Boomer at large in our republic. It was an age marked by a kind of boutique sophistication that really didn’t spring from authentic American roots. We fussed over restaurant meals that featured balsamic vinegar and capers and all manner of herbed meats. (We called it “New American Cuisine” but it really seemed more like a variant of Northern Italian.) We adopted drop-dead postmodern attitudes that trickled down to us from the French. We practiced detachment and moral relativism. We began to drink espresso and latte; we were distancing ourselves from the bowling alleys and split levels of postwar American culture, the way newly minted sophisticates distance themselves from their hopelessly square parents with the Buick in the driveway. We’d make an occasional allowance for a great “retro” diner or a Rat Pack retrospective, but it was all done with finger-quotes slicing the air — a sense of irony that marked us as superior to our surroundings, at least in the presence of kindred spirits. We Boomers had abandoned the America of Lincoln and Will Rogers and World War II for a pseudo-European ambience that attracted us but never really suited us.
Recently, just before the attack on America, it seemed we were starting to respond to the old verities again. The flourishing “Greatest Generation” industry pandered to our nostalgia for a time when you always knew who the good guys and bad guys were. Articulate traditionalists like Jedediah Purdy were gaining an audience. Now, in the wake of the attack, you can expect the movement to grow wings and soar proudly.
Ever since the disaster of September 11, we’ve been reading and hearing hand-wringing reports on “America’s loss of innocence.” Nonsense. We had lost our innocence way back in the sixties, when the sun-dappled serenity of Beaver Cleaver’s world suddenly gave way to the unholy squawks of rock stars and radicals, assassins and Antichrists. Anyone remember Charles Manson? Anyone care to review the vocabulary used in American films of the past thirty-odd years?
No, the terrorist attack hasn’t put an end to American innocence; I submit that it has actually shocked us back to innocence. We’ve suddenly awakened out of our Seinfeldian detachment and ennui (so hip, so smirky, so fin-de-siecle); in its place, we’ve unleashed a revival of red-white-and-blue fervor unseen in this country since General Eisenhower returned triumphant from his crusade in Europe. Flags wave proudly from our front porches; we talk about justice, evil, self-sacrifice and other archaic concepts that would have seemed alien to most of us just a week before the disaster. And it’s high time. I’d hate to see the proverbial pendulum swing toward cheap jingoism, but we were a society in need of awakening, and the terrorist attack seems to have galvanized our collective energies. I wouldn’t mind seeing a return to the fundamental selflessness, courage, simplicity and neighborliness that characterized the old America at its best. It will be a hard time for cynics, but then such a society would probably give us less to be cynical about. I know I wouldn’t mind sacrificing some of my cynical edge to live in a society that truly earned our respect and affection.
A final word about the fear that seems to have entered our minds like a burglar sneaking into our house by night. To see the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse before our eyes was fearsome enough. And no doubt most of us feel apprehensive about the attacks that are almost certain to come. Will the terrorists strike the U.S. Capitol next, or Independence Hall, or the Statue of Liberty? Will they target the Empire State Building, once again the monarch of the New York skyline? Will they take aim at Old Ironsides or Mt. Rushmore or even Disney World? Will they try to spread plagues more virulent than their own fanaticism?
Let them try to destroy this country. Tragedy has firmed our resolve and helped us recapture some of the essential qualities that made us Americans in the first place. Fast-track pre-schools and fruited meat entrees seem strangely irrelevant now. More than ever, our minds and souls are safe from attack. Terrorists can tumble the buildings around us, but they’re powerless to destroy what’s inside us. Our souls are stronger than steel and concrete. As long as we’ve built them on solid foundations, they’ll survive any assault the terrorists can devise.
* * * * * * *
I wonder today about the strength of our souls and their foundations. And I wonder, too, whether our own home-grown political extremists are continuing the terrorists’ work for them. We’re still in the midst of a long and dispiriting 9/11 hangover. Is it the beginning of the end for the United States as we knew it, or will our national pride and resourcefulness prevail as it had in the past?
Come back in ten years and see what you think.