For a while, the eyes still seemed to see them there, perfect straight lines rising into the sky, an empty space on the horizon that your mind filled in without even thinking. You walked past, and thought, “Of course they’re there. They’re always there” and 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.
New York, the old grimy bustling city, has made way for two cities. The Bloombergian city of the yuppie toting a bag of organic groceries to her Citibike and the miniature Detroits of housing projects and endless grievances.
The old imaginary city still exists in the countless movies being filmed on every block where space aliens, monsters and superheroes regularly rampage past stereotypical cabbies with Brooklyn accents, but that city is fading away.
The tourists flock to see the shadow of that city which lingers on like the shadow of the towers.
On September 11, Ground Zero was New York. Today you can see Mexican and African vendors peddling commemorative patriotic knickknacks made in China 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.
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. People ask each other where they were that day but the stories grow fainter each year and the memories of walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, stumbling through the ash or handing out sandwiches to rescue workers have dimmed.
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 covering every face and dark trucks filled with grim men tearing apart the street asphalt. You can catch glimpses of a city reeling from the incomprehensible.
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, legs lying in a puddle of blood, gawking children and stern cops 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 legs and more frowning police… but the ashes have still been dumped in a landfill, the tears dried and the city moved on.
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 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.
Most people who live here have given up on solving the city’s detective stories. The weathered New Yorker is expected to meet the inexplicable with a shrug of the shoulders. Everything is strange, but the strangeness is the point. Everyone is living in a postmodern detective story with no solutions and no need for them.
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 collisions of characters.
There is still a murder to be solved 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. 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 men who during the day sell papers or drive food trucks.
The murderers are still on the loose and what happened that terrible day 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.
Bin Laden is dead, but the Muslim Oilsphere is full of other wealthy sons warring against the West. His backers are 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 can rest easy. They can even open up a mosque at Ground Zero.
This conflict of ideologies and collision of cultures is nothing less than the perpetuation of the great Islamic crusade 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 for some to understand that the attackers were motivated by those differences. Their war against us is an attack on people who are fundamentally and incomprehensibly different than they are.
Islam is xenophobia written into unholy writ, a long chain of conquest, subjugation and cultural destruction by desert nomads who know how to drive a sharp bargain, but despite their claims of golden ages and scientific discoveries, 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 and then destroying them so that they can never get it back.
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.
New York, that strange part-Dutch, part-English, part-Everything-else city, runs on the creativity of the impossible. Starving artists, aspiring actors, failed musicians, flailing poets, real estate mavens without a dime and brokers trading thin air gamble on the impossible. New York always seems on the verge of total anarchy and destruction and yet keeps going on in that strange half-mad creativity.
For Islam, the game is zero sum. If American civilization thrives, then their civilization is shadowed. If people are happy here, then they cannot be happy. If there are two towers in New York, that detracts from the glory of Islamic civilization. Islam is the bitter beggar forever looking to steal what it cannot have, worrying over the imaginary history of its own greatness and cursing the upstarts in the streets of a foreign city for taking the glory was rightfully theirs.
The American who shares his good fortune with the rest of the world cannot understand that there are some people who would rather steal than accept a gift, who would rather destroy than build and who would rather drown the world in darkness than accept someone else’s light.
With some difficulty he might accept the existence of a small number of people who think this way, but an entire civilization built in this mold is too obscene an idea.
As with so many other strange things that wash up in the concrete streets of a strange city, it is easier to leave the mystery unsolved, to let the blanket fall back over the clash of civilizations and go on forward. It is the way that things have always been done in the city and as twin rays of light bisect the sky, they remind New Yorkers of their own fortitude, and not of the enemy waiting outside the light.
Outside a shadow war is waged with drones and hackers, spies and journalists, men in mosques speak quietly of terror and other men listen over the phone. There is little truth in this shadow war, but in some moments the light pierces the darkness and those who have forgotten why we are doing this, remember. And then they remember to forget.