Beauty, Unfathomable Loss and the Beginning of the Forever War
I'm sitting here tonight thinking about the World Trade Center, the events of 9/11, what we lost then, and our continuing losses in the years since. The image is adapted from a now faded color photograph I took at twilight from the Staten Island Ferry in the Bicentennial summer of 1976. My color photo was pretty, but pretty is not what I think of today when I think of the World Trade Center. The twin towers haunt us now, and I was trying to evoke some of that, along with a sense of the way they both loomed and glowed in the night sky over Manhattan, two dark obelisks draped in pearls.
They were not much loved by New Yorkers when they first went up. When T and I lived there in the sixties, the towers were just a dream in the minds of David and Nelson Rockefeller -- and that's what New Yorkers mockingly called them at first. We were unhappy, too -- T had worked not far from there, and mourned the thriving neighborhood near her office that was demolished to build these monuments to Rockefeller pride. But by the time of our Bicentennial visit, the transformation was well under way, aided by the tightrope poetry of Philippe Petit and the embattled city's quest for civic pride in the "Ford to New York City: Drop Dead" years of financial crisis. I wrote about that last year in my blog Letter from Here, reflecting on Petit's walk as a symbol of both the New York spirit and all that we have lost since 9/11.
The World Trade Center was the last place in the city T and I and our daughter visited during another trip in 1980. We took those amazing elevators -- which it's impossible to recall now without thinking of what they became later -- to the rooftop observation deck, where we watched the sun set on on one of the world's great cities, lights twinkling in the lengthening shadows far below. We ate dinner at the other Windows on the World, the less expensive one in the basement, adjacent to the subway arcade, before driving out through the Holland Tunnel on the first leg of our drive back to Madison.
Six years ago, I was about to leave on a business trip to Milwaukee with several coworkers. I had heard something about a commuter plane crashing into one of the towers on the radio and called T to tell her to turn on the TV. She did, and at that moment the second plane hit. She saw the towers fall in real time, while I saw them in my mind's eye, driving through the Wisconsin countryside. I'll never forget how supernaturally beautiful it was that morning. We passed what I thought were several white swans drifting lazily in a farm pond, though perhaps they were only domestic geese -- and at that moment the woman on the radio who was providing a running narrative off the news wire started sobbing as she described the collapse of the first tower unfolding before her eyes on a studio monitor. She couldn't believe her eyes, and we couldn't believe our ears. It didn't seem possible. We arrived stunned at our meeting, and everyone sat and watched the towers collapsing, over and over.
Now, looking back, I don't know which I find the more unbelievable -- the events of 9/11, or the events since then. In the aftermath of the attack on the WTC, there was a vast, worldwide outpouring of goodwill toward America. "We are all Americans now," wrote Le Monde. We squandered that. We took our eye off the ball, let Osama Bin Laden escape and started a war in Iraq that looks as if it will go on forever, or close to it, despite last fall's election, in which the American people clearly said "Enough!" It's a hard act to follow. What do we do for an encore? Iran?