Every year I set out to write something about my experience of watching the Twin Towers fall on 9.11.01, and every year I find that whatever I’ve written is inadequate. I have thought in years past that it was a matter of skill: were I a better writer, I’d come closer to the mark. I’ve come to understand, however, that the issue is not so much one of skill as it is a matter of memory. Each year it is harder to recall the immediate effect of hearing the planes’ impact explosions,1 the fact of confronting an unbelievable chain of events, the awful placidity of my office’s view uptown.
As it was for many of us who were in Lower Manhattan on that day, the experience was traumatic. I know 9/11 was traumatic for many people who were not here that day as well, but I find it difficult to disallow the distinction between those of us who watched it firsthand and those of us who watched the ghastly footage looped on television. We remain different, thousands and thousands of us, because we were there, an area which extends roughly 2.5 miles north to 14th Street and the width of Manhattan. The people I’ve spoken to who were at or near the Pentagon have reported a similar distinction.
I cannot address the victims of the attack or their surviving loved ones. I cannot imagine the isolation and violation they have felt, to say nothing of the shock and despair, the irretrievable loss.
The people I know or have met who escaped the Towers before they collapsed are, to a person, hounded by a sense of uniqueness, separated from the rest of us by the stairwells, fire exits, and street-level escape routes through which they singly yet en masse brought themselves safely into the 21st Century.
I can recall the absences of persons unknown to me except for our daily, simultaneous commute downtown from Queens. They were suddenly gone, and noticeably so because we were all getting on with our lives by accounting for everything and everyone that was suddenly missing. It was, and remains, an impossible calculation.
There is, as far as I can tell, no aspect of our culture that has been untouched by 9/11. I cannot help but think that the widespread, accelerated retreat into thoughtless comfort and convenience2 is a direct result of the attacks and, in the long run, perhaps more important than the immediate problems we have faced and will continue to face. Those of us who have suffered directly as a result of the attack will eventually all be gone and our suffering with us. The economic fallout, the wars, and the constant, nagging state of alert, on the other hand, will continue for years to come. It occurs to me on this anniversary that these latter phenomena, as opposed to simple assault, death and ruin, are what the attackers had in mind.