September 11, 2007
Six Years LaterBy J.R. Dunn
In September, 2001, I was working for a company two blocks off Wall Street, just a five-minute walk from the World Trade Center.
It was a good job. A business database company, very much of the dotcom era, easygoing, loose, and lucrative. I worked about half the week at home and half at the office. Living in Jersey at the time, I commuted by way of the PATH train - the single New York area subway in which there is no crime, no graffiti, and no problems. The terminal was at the WTC, deep in the basement of the Twin Towers, accessed by the longest escalators I have ever seen. I must have gone through that station a thousand times over the previous few years. I doubt there was a single occasion when I didn't look around me and think, "They're coming back - one of these days, this may no longer be here."
All the same, I was as shocked as anyone when it happened. I awoke that Tuesday to find the city already under attack. One tower was ablaze, and even as I watched the other was hit. They're going to go, I thought. Nothing built by man can take that kind of abuse and remain standing. So I watched and I waited, occasionally glancing out the back window at the smoke on the northeast horizon.
Only a week before I had gone on a weekend trip to Manhattan with my girlfriend. We took the Hoboken ferry across the Hudson. A nice little trip, even though the approaches to the ferry itself might have been designed, constructed, and decorated by the dumber members of the Soprano mob.
It was an almost perfect day, much the same as September 11. We made the crossing in near-silence, content to the take in the view of the city, the glint of the sun on the river and the harbor beyond. The ferry docked at the World Trade Center itself. We got off and walked hand in hand past the Financial Center buildings and on through the plaza and into the city.
Now I watched it fall. Mass murder carried out on the precincts of my own life. Blood and bone scattered across the very stones I had walked just hours before.
My company didn't lose anyone. One woman with whom I worked left the PATH station just as the first 767 hit, looking up at the sound of screams just as it plunged into the building. She thought at first it was an accident. The staff at my office watched the activity from the third floor windows. They were appalled and terrified by the hurricanes of debris that followed the collapse of the towers. They evacuated in early afternoon, walking up the East River parks to 14th Street.
Apart from that, I don't know. I have made no effort to examine the photos of the victims. I'm not certain if anyone I knew personally was killed. But I know that people I spoke to, people I rode to work with, people I knew were caught in that apocalypse, and that will suffice.
I bought a shirt on the concourse about two weeks previously, and I sometimes wonder what happened to the pretty girl who helped me. I'm sure she got out safely. The concourse, after all, was underground, just above the stations. But terrible possibilities exist - the debris from the original crashes, the elevators that plunged a hundred stories or more to the lobby. So sometimes I still wonder.
Word of the Pentagon strike came through. I tracked the news carefully, afraid that the next moment would bring word of another attack. Another city struck, another massacre carried out. Shortly after noon I heard the rumble of jets, and aware that no aircraft were supposed to be flying, I raced down the stairs and outside. Something about the tone and depth of the sound told me what I would see - two F-15s, at full military power, leaving the ground rumbling behind them as they headed toward that pall on the northern horizon. I turned to go back inside, thankful that no other cities would be targeted that day.
I spent most of the rest of the day calming near-hysterical friends and acquaintances in the New York area, all of them prepared to flee from terrors generated by rumor: that the airliners had been loaded with plague germs, that someone was spraying nerve gas in the streets. Many were extremely ill-informed, with no idea of what an F-15 was, and utterly terrorized at the sound of the fighters crossing the skies overhead. It took time and effort to get them calmed down. Today, many of them will assure you that the attack was carried out by Halliburton, or the CIA, or the Israelis.
Two days later I got into Manhattan. I had to take a roundabout route - the train to Midtown, a subway to 14th Street, then on foot to the Financial District. That pillar of smoke remained ahead of me as I walked south. I passed impromptu memorials at fire stations, homemade signs asking if anyone had seen a missing daughter or husband. While crossing Livingston Street I was confronted by two cops who ordered me to walk a block over to continue downtown. They were protecting number 110, the Department of Education. There were over a hundred cops surrounding that building (considerably more than at City Hall), along with concrete barricades and dozens of police cars. With the city on its knees and manpower and equipment needed elsewhere, the educrats, not conceivably in anyone's line of fire, demanded and got the highest level of protection. A little piece of 9/11 lore that should not be lost to history.
An alien landscape awaited me downtown. A fog of stinking smoke covered the area, shards of metal and concrete thrusting up through it. There was an awful stench, a combination of burning organics and plastics and other elements. Hundreds of figures were working amid the ruins. Hundreds of others milled about on the surrounding streets. The North Tower had completely vanished. The South Tower was a blackened stump oozing smoke. (I always thought that an appropriate memorial would simply have been the keep the stump of the South Tower as it was, but I was never asked.)
I talked to a cop about volunteering. They had plenty of hands, he said. They were looking for pros now - construction or demolition, people with experience. I went on. They didn't need me for that.
Ahead of me was a stand of buildings I knew well. They'd played a big role in events. Rudy Guiliani's headquarters had been on the ground floor, in the Brooks Brothers storefront. Now they stood unbelievably battered, nearly unrecognizable. As I passed them I became slightly disoriented. I couldn't quite grasp what I was looking at amid all that chaos. A flat space enclosed by a curb, an isolated city block, lay about fifty yards ahead of me. I stood eyeing it, wondering what it could be. I thought I knew where I was, but that blank space had no place in my mind's topography. A move of a few more feet, another glance, and at last I knew. A small park had stood just across Broadway from the WTC entrance. One of those islands of civility that exist all across Manhattan. A place packed with small trees, and benches, and concrete chess boards. I had walked through it every time I left the WTC.
That's what I was looking at. That's what that empty space was. Smashed flat and scraped clean as if it had never been anything else. There was no sign of what had done the damage. The raw force of the collapse? A wave of debris sweeping everything before it then smashing into the buildings beyond?
A small chunk of concrete lay at my feet. I bent to pick it up. It crumbled slightly in my hand, having suffered God alone knows what kind of stresses and pressures. I walked on through the near-silent crowd, two thoughts prominent in my mind.
Looking at the other buildings that surrounded the site, that extended uptown nearly as far as the island itself: They thought they could destroy this.
And looking over at the ruins across the street: No one will ever be able to degrade that.
There have been other cruel Septembers in New York.
W.H. Auden wrote those words over sixty years before, mourning the lost opportunities of the 30s, regretting the role he himself had played. A few days before, Ribbentrop and Molotov had signed the "Nonaggression Pact" in Moscow, establishing permanent friendship between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and though a series of secret ancillary clauses, clearing the way for Hitler's conquest of the "lost German territories" to the east. Only that morning Hitler's Panzers had crossed the frontier into Poland. Within two weeks they would be joined by Red Army troops. World War II had begun in earnest.
The situation presented a clear choice to leftists like Auden. They could close their eyes, ignore what could not be ignored, and continue their support of the system that had betrayed them. Or they could acknowledge their errors, abandon the party -- the cult, really -- that so many had dedicated their lives to, and search for a new basis of action and belief to confront one of the most dangerous eras of modern history.
Thousands did exactly that. They made the correct choice. The communists achieved their apex of power in the Western world in the 1930s. During that decade they utilized their control of the Popular Front, their opposition to fascism, and the fears generated by the Depression to gain greater influence than at any time before or since. And it was all thrown away, in that summer of 1939, with a single flick of a pen. Overcome with the same sense of disgust and self-loathing as Auden, they fled the party and its associated organizations in droves. Because in the end, and despite any accusations of ignorance, and foolishness, and self-delusion, they recognized evil when they saw it.
September 1939 was one of those rare occasions when the movements of history coincide with those of daily life to present us with a clear choice between what is acceptable, and what is not. So was September 2001. Yet if you look for the thousands who followed the path of Auden and the others, who went through a change of heart at that moment, who clearly heard the hiss of the serpent and turned away, you will look in vain.
I was half wrong, on that September afternoon six years ago. The Jihadis couldn't take down the West that they hated. They had no Plan B, no capability of carrying out the fantasies they harbored. One shot and that was it - they haven't laid a glove on us since. They have been on the run across the globe, in Somalia, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, and at last in Iraq. Only in isolated pea-patches such as Waziristan have they been able to construct any semblance of their demented little caliphate, and time will see to that.
But I was wrong in believing that no one could degrade the tragedy of 9/11. I underestimated the power of human perversity, as we all sometimes do (we might well go mad if we didn't). It has been degraded, endlessly and absolutely, and from all angles and by all possible methods. It has been degraded to boost political careers. It has been degraded in films. It has been degraded in the columns of well-known newspapers and magazines. It has been degraded in the classroom. It has been degraded as a smart career move. It has been degraded for laughs. It has been degraded for money. It has been degraded to weave grotesque conspiracy theories. It has been degraded in Congress. It has been degraded in the courts. And it will be degraded once again tomorrow as it was today.
There's a difference between the rebels of Auden's day and ours. The radicals of that epoch were, despite everything, still part of the community, still members of the society they wanted to change. The rebels of our day are no such thing. They have cut themselves off completely, isolated themselves from the culture that nurtured them.
Joseph Brodsky, yet another poet -- the first American poet laureate, in fact -- had a word for these types. He called them, simply enough, the Enemy. The people who will not go by the rules, the ones who are part of nothing, the ones who live for themselves alone. We all know them. We deal with them every day. We have evolved strategies for how to handle them. We keep them at arm's length, we speak to them only when necessary and otherwise keep our distance. But we often forget the effect they have on everything, on every level from the day to day to the world historical.
We have grown tolerant of them since Auden's time. A little too accepting, a little too quick to let them get away with things. Today they own entire sectors of society - the academy, the media, the entertainment world, most of politics. The price for that is very high. And the price is always paid by someone else.
That chunk of concrete long ago crumbled to dust. I keep in a small jar, and pick it up and look at it whenever the doubts grow too large, which is not that often. Because I learned something in that first week of September. Something not easily put into words. Something about community, and what we owe each other, and how the heart connects with the things of the great world. All those thousands who coughed in the smoke of ruin and smelled the ghastly stench of atrocity also learned it, and took it away with them when they left.
But I know that there are people who learned nothing. And that I will not accept.
We will take down the Jihadis in due time. A war of the type we're engaged in has its ebbs and flows, its bad days and good ones, but I have no doubt of how it will end. But there's another war too, one that went on in secret long before the towers fell, and that will still be going on long after the last Jihadi is executed. A society cannot survive divided as ours exists now, with vast sectors under the control of those who loathe their own. We will have to come to terms with them eventually, while this war goes on or afterward. We will not be a civilized society until we do. Long after Iraq is quiet, and Jihadism has found its nameless grave, our struggle may well just be beginning.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.