In the first few years it seemed as if they were still there, stark lines rising into the sky, tall shadows falling on the streets, a missing space that your eyes filled in without even thinking. You walked past, and your eyes said, “Of course they’re there. They’re always there” and for a moment you saw them as they were, grey ghosts of steel rising above the rubble. You saw the city as it was and then you remembered that city is gone.
Manhattan, that far down, is a lonely place. It is not a human place, but a huddle of buildings where men and women commute to and from, its stores are there for office workers to shop at, its sidewalks go dark when the trains head out to New Jersey again turning it dangerously low rent. That is what made the pretense of a Ground Zero Mosque, in a neighborhood where you can hardly find enough Muslim residents to start a game of Buzkashi, so nakedly dishonest.
But the site has always attracted its share of exploiters. On a good day you can see South American and African vendors peddling commemorative patriotic knickknacks and on a bad day the Truthers show up howling their contempt for the site. Tourists stop by and pose for snapshots with their families. Office workers walk by without thinking. The site, like the towers, is just something that’s there. And lately even the vendors and Truthers hardly bother showing up anymore. Like so many others, they have already moved on to exploiting the next tragedy and the next outpouring of grief.
The neighborhood had grown less grim over time. The 99-cent stores and shops selling used clothing have given way to cafes and chain stores. The months during which the entire area was closed down, in part or in whole, took its toll on local businesses, but over time they bounced back. And so has the city.
Tonight and the night before as the towers of light cast blue beams across the sky, we remember but memory is a destructive medium. Each year the memories grow fainter. At lunch counters people ask each other where they were that day and exchange stories. But the stories grow fainter each year and the memories of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge or stumbling through the ash or handing out sandwiches to rescue workers have grown dimmer too.
This was the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. How many people are still moved by that date, how many less so than were in 1822 or 1862? The anniversaries that we hold on to are the ones that mean something to us. And what does September 11 mean to us? What did it mean to us eleven years ago and what does it mean to us now?
The fundamental narrative of war is, “We were attacked and we fought back.” It’s the same story for everyone regardless of how true it may be. But it is mostly true in this case. We were attacked and we tried to fight back. But we weren’t attacked on September 11. We were attacked long before then. That was just the date when one of the attacks got out undivided attention and the enemy elevated itself above a petty nuisance.
To walk through the darkness toward the towers of light is to pass through a city of shadows. In a stray glimmer of light reflecting from a storefront or a puddle you can still see the old MISSING posters and see khaki trucks tearing apart the street asphalt. You can still see glimpses of a city that was still reeling from the incomprehensibility of what had happened to it. It isn’t reeling anymore, instead the incomprehensibility has become routine.
New York City is used to tragedy. Terrible things happen here all the time. The oldest photos of the city show the same stunned faces, the legs lying in a puddle of blood, the gawking children and the police frowning at something we cannot see. And relentlessly the blood is washed away, the tears are dried and the city moves on. September 11 left behind more blood, more broken legs and more frowning police than ever before… but the ashes have still been dumped in a landfill, the tears dried and the city moved on.