In 2001, I was still living in Paris. Some time in the mid-afternoon I happened to glance at a news site and read that two aircraft had struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been hit by what was thought to be a rocket. M., a native New Yorker, happened to be staying with me at the time. I called her and told her:
"This looks very serious. You should call your friends and family."
In December 2001, I flew to New York and then took a flight to Arizona. What struck me then was the difference between the way the event was perceived in New York and elsewhere. New Yorkers I met were ready to put the event behind them.
"It happened, we're moving on," seemed to be the attitude of everyone I met, even those who had been directly involved or affected. The whole subject came up less than you'd expect. The further we got from New York, however, the more it loomed large in people's imaginations. By the time we reached Arizona, it seemed almost the only topic of conversation. People living in tiny towns that Al-Qaeda couldn't find on a road map appeared sure that it was only a matter of time before angry Muslims struck at them personally.
Politicians and the media constantly remind us that September 11th brought out the best in Americans. What they don't say is that it also brought out the worst in them: xenophobia, paranoia, jingoism, and the surrender of reason and conscience that allowed the US to rush into two wars without thought for the consequences.
It also brought out a deep streak of cynicism. New Yorkers, of course, had their cynicism ready to hand: then, as now, it expressed itself in the form of gallows humor and open contempt for the media circus surrounding the event. Other groups recognized the 9/11 attacks as an answer to their own particular needs. Conspiracy theorists quickly projected their fantasies of government skullduggery onto the event. The media seized on it as a gift that kept on giving, wallowing in coverage that became progressively less informative and more mawkish and exploitative with each turn of the news cycle. Politicians of every stripe used it as a blank check.
I spent most of this weekend trying to ignore media coverage of the 10th anniversary commemorations. It didn't seem as if there was anything there that I needed to know. I was more curious, however, to know about the mood of the people who gather at the scene itself each year.
Walking around downtown at night, it seemed that not that much had changed in ten years. On Church Street, under the looming cranes, a small knot of people were still debating conspiracy theories.
"The planes came from Europe. Their fuel tanks were almost empty." asserted one man (incorrectly).
"How dare you dishonor the memory of the victims!" countered a pretty redhead. A policewoman smiled and shook her head disbelievingly. If ignorance were an arrestable offense, she'd never get out from under the paperwork. I was impressed, all the same, that while there were raised voices, there were no raised fists. It seemed that everyone was at least willing to give everyone else a hearing.
Elsewhere, people in the crowd seemed curiously at a loss as to how to behave. It was as if they had come looking for DisneyWorld and then remembered that they were supposed to be solemn and reverent. A woman from Nevada posed next to a flag covered with scrawled messages, holding up a copy of a book that she had just bought. Children posed in firefighter's hats. A few queued to buy ice cream from a truck that had set up on the corner of Church and Vesey. Others drifted from place to place, pausing to take pictures or stare at fragments of 9/11 memorabilia: a firehouse wall decorated with bouquets, a flag fastened on a fence, the unfinished 1WTC building lit up in red, white and blue. Their pilgrimage to Ground Zero had left them bewildered with its absence of recognizable Stations of the Cross to guide their steps. To me, they looked lost. 9/11, so generous to the politicians and the media, hadn't brought them any presents after all.
Above them, the beams of the Tribute in Light towered up against the darkness. The intense light, reflecting off a low, turbulent sky, lent the whole scene an apocalyptic quality.
Among the tourists were small groups of firefighters or police, holding themselves a little apart. They seemed to be the only people present who really knew why they were there. They were sombre and reserved, and there were fewer of them than the year before.