By the Dawn's Early Light: A Retrospective on 9/11 and the Day After
We are living in the morning after. In the global collective conscience nothing has been the same since the fall of the twin towers. The aftermath has been a hell of a hangover. War, recession, refugees, ISIS, and fallen regimes. In the midst of all of this tumult, I am reminded of the prologue to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and ask myself has this all been a bad dream?The images are now branded into our memory: smoking rubble, bloodied survivors, shocked bystanders, etc. But in the wake of such awe-inducing tragedy the word hero was redefined. For many it was their finest hour.
Five years ago on 9/11 I was bartending in Tribeca. If one stepped out of the restaurant and onto the patio one could see the Tribute of Light beaming into space only four blocks away. The night was warm and charged, as if before an electric storm. It was late and there was an older couple nicely dressed at the end of the bar eating and drinking quietly. As they finished I handed them the bill, politely letting them know we would be closing soon. I noticed the woman was crying and she excused herself to the bathroom. Also, sadness had etched itself onto the face of the husband. “Is everything alright?” I asked as the wife came back, wiping her eyes with a tissue.
“Our son was a first responder,” the mother said. They began to tell me about his bravery on that day and only the coldest person would not have been moved to tears. I was told how he soon became sick from the chemicals of Ground Zero and how he finally succumbed. I could only think of one word: sacrifice. To put it mildly, I was humbled and grateful for their testimony.
Later that night, I walked down to Ground Zero. Flowers and pictures lined the fences. People from all nations stood shoulder to shoulder. A new building, taller than any other in our nation, towered over the city. A stunning, reverent memorial and museum was unveiled that weekend so the world would always remember. But that night, something was gnawing at me. I was haunted by an emptiness or a longing for something which was gone and would never come back.
Today, exactly fifteen years later, events and entertainments are taking place in New York City to commemorate the anniversary. My wife works across the street, so I routinely stroll the grounds of the memorial for a respite from the mad rush of Lower Manhattan. It is a sanctuary of simplicity. Also, around the corner is a lavish new shopping center. Eataly is on the top floor. A new H&M is opening. The whole area is in a state of revival. With commerce, the show must always go on. It is a testament to a resiliency only capitalism can capitalize on. This is the paradox of capitalism. In the relentless pursuit of progress, the past is brushed away, built over. Over the bones and dust of the fallen, a new Westfield shopping center rises from the ashes. It cannot be overstated how much of a marvel this building is. This is how we move on.
Forever in our minds there will always be a hole in the skyline of New York City. We will always see them collapsing and hear the panic of the bystanders as the rush of dust explodes down the corridors of our streets. Though these icons are forever immortalized in our imaginations and our records they stand no more, yet they now symbolize something much more grand. In their place we built a shimmering new tower that seems to loom larger the further away from it we recede while our following generations will seem to always and forever exist in the morning after of that fateful day. Yet there is still hope on this weekend where rivals can set aside their petty differences for the sake of a commonality which we all share: that of a people, no matter creed or skin color, who mourn the loss of their dead and celebrate the triumphs of the living.
Today, I look at my daughter napping and see the peaceful streets of Bath avenue in Brooklyn. It is a lazy Sunday afternoon and the summer (though still stiflingly hot) is winding down. American football has returned and we will forget the violence of the sport and celebrate the unique Americanisms of the game. These are the privileges we have: we can rest, recharge, and the fears of the world are oceans away. Of course this is all illusion. For one day 15 years ago war was brought to our side of the street. The strife of a complex world boiled over and we were burned. Now our peace of mind has been compromised. Every time I am on the subway or take the Staten Island Ferry, a shooting or a bombing is not outside the realm of possibility. Before 9/11 the possibility was still there, but today it seems more real. Then I remember the soot covered boy from Aleppo and once again I close my eyes and imagine if that were my daughter. We are still living in a war-torn world. Refugees are streaming into our country. In our country new culture clashes are opening up old wounds. Cities have been burned down. We have a mess of a presidential race. But I, the eternal optimist, have hope. If we can live in peace one day, we can live in peace for another. Of course that won’t change the greed and thirst for power of the elite but we must start somewhere. So as we mourn those we lost in the tragedy of 9/11, I feel it appropriate to mourn those we have lost since in this eternal morning after. For we couldn’t have one without the other, just as if there is an 11 the 12 will soon follow.