September 11 has become a tragedy and tragedy is an experience, not an explanation. It is a bonding experience that gives way to catharsis. The dead are mourned, the grief is expelled and the horror of it takes on the faint silvery tinge of memory. It is no longer what is, but what was. It is not how we live now, but how we lived then. There is no longer a need for answers and that for many is also a relief.
“It is ridiculous to set a detective story in New York City. New York City is itself a detective story,” Agatha Christie said. That detective story is one that most people who live here have given up on solving. It is a trademark of the weathered New Yorker to meet the odd and inexplicable with a shrug of the shoulders. Everything is strange but the strangeness is the point. We are all living in a postmodern detective story with no solutions and no need for them. Not only are there no answers, but even asking the question is an invitation to ridicule. There are no truths here, only shadows.
In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot arrives at the solution by realizing that only in America could such an unlikely collection of characters have met. By America, he means New York, and the city is still the ideal place to find unlikely characters.
There is still a murder to be solved here and the suspects come and go in the streets below. The crime did not end with the murder of 3,000 people and the destruction of two towers and several lesser buildings around them. New schemes of mass murder are hatched every day across one river or the other. Maps are studied, charts are drawn up and the tools of the trade are gathered up by the latest man who would be Bin Laden.
New York cannot move on, neither can the country, because the murderers are still on the loose and what happened on September 11 was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of attacks taking place in a clash of civilizations. New York, the crossroads of civilizations, is a natural target for the attacks. New York is to the world what Mecca was to Arabia and the new Mohammeds are eager to do to it what Mohammed did to Mecca.
The crowds will cheer the hundredth time they are told that Bin Laden is dead, but the man in the turban was irrelevant long before he was killed in his hideout, and the Muslim Oilsphere is full of wealthy sons looking to lead a war against the West. Bin Laden is dead, but his backers are very much alive, and the drone attacks that kill Al Qaeda leaders don’t touch their money men in the Oilsphere. The clerics who teach young Muslim men about the glories of martyrdom have little to worry about from drone strikes, unless they help them plan those attacks a few times too many.
This is a conflict of ideologies, a collision of cultures and a war that for the enemy encompasses the religious and the racial, that is nothing less than a primal battle against the Other. And where better to wage that war than in the places where others meet others every day? What better target than a World Trade Center for a violent ideology built on merchants turned robbers and robbers turned merchants?
In a city where everyone is different, it can be difficult to understand that the attackers were motivated by those differences. Their war against us, at a primal level beneath ideology and faith, is an attack on people who are fundamentally and incomprehensibly different than they are. Islam is xenophobia written into scripture, a long chain of conquest, subjugation and cultural destruction by desert nomads who know how to drive a sharp bargain, but have never been anything more than the jackals sniffing around the ruins of greater civilizations. It is as natural for them to attack us as it is for us to wonder why we were attacked.
Americans hold the peculiar belief that life need not be a zero sum game. That we can learn from other people without turning them into our subjects. That we can make more of something instead of stealing from a finite amount that someone else has. That is the great creative power of American exceptionalism. It is a transcendent force that turned a land full of refugees into a world power brimming with technological wonders.