Remembering 9.11

Age of Fear

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, my government invited me to a think session in New York City. There were delegations from every state. At the end of day two, I felt I had to witness the site then called Ground Zero. It was December 11, 2001, precisely three months after the event. I called my friend, a downtown New York City photographer. We took the subway to Fulton Street at almost midnight. They were still cleaning out the subway and fortifying its walls. It was dusty in the subway corridors and overhead I could discern the reinforcements in the ceiling and on the walls.

We walked up out onto Fulton Street and a short distance to the site. Past midnight now, there were still people lingering in the area. On the site itself, we could see the iron workers finishing up their welding for the night, but the lumbering trucks did not cease moving the mountain of debris that remained of the World Trade Center.

From a distance, I could see the crude natural memorial: the piece left of the above-ground skeleton of the towers that I had heard New Yorkers call “the potato chip.” Perhaps it was a way of domesticating or taming the tragedy somewhat, but it didn’t look anything like a potato chip to me; it was two hundred feet tall and it looked like the ruin of a holy place, stately and dignified, ruined and demeaned, both.

It reached out of the ruins and up towards the sky like a sign of both destruction and the aftermath of inspiration and courage. It embodied both ruin and reach.

I was drawn to get a clearer look at this beautiful-terrible remnant. We walked 360 degrees around the site, and on the west side, facing New Jersey, we stopped in front of one of the spontaneous shrines that appeared all around what once was the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Hundreds of such shrines had sprung up spontaneously, decorating the temporary walls that had been built all around the site.

An old man kneeled in front of a particular shrine where we stopped, reading the notes and pictures and stories that made up an altar on a wooden fence. We stood there next to him, all of us reading the stories given in pictures and words, prayers from children to their parents, letters from parents to their children, lovers to lovers, friend to friend, each story an entire world.

It was then, that moment, in front of one of many such altars, that the tragedy of the World Trade Center ceased to be theoretical for me. I felt the weight of three thousand broken worlds times the number of intimates who do not forget, a sad set of multiple thousands sitting in a circle around God.

All of a sudden, next to the altar where we stood, opened a section of the wooden fence, and out rolled one of the trucks laden with debris from the site. The gates remained open and we were granted one of the few clear visions available then into the Ground Zero site. We all stood silent, looking past the altar, the stories, the pictures, the prayers, into the site of the ruins of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, watching the dump trucks rolling out loaded with debris. We sat in silence watching for ten minutes, then the old man now standing next to me said, “so began the age of fear.”

My friend and I continued to circle the site, walking around it, from every angle entranced by the monument both terrible and wonderful that loomed over us reflecting the stadium lights that shined after dark, the truest symbol I had seen of the now altered sense of the world, the Age of Fear, a remnant in metal of disaster.

There were still people walking with us. No one was sightseeing. I felt like we were all on a holy pilgrimage, praying with our feet, circling the ruin that rose in the distance, the last remnant of the skeleton, a totem in the massive graveyard that the World Trade Center had become. It stuck in the site like a tombstone, this potato chip, this cathedral of ruins.

It was close to three AM by the time we headed back to the subway. We had spent three hours in walking meditation, the smell that everyone talked about in the air then; what is that smell? Is it acrid, is it sweet, is it something burning, but burning sweetly, a mix of Levitical incense? Is it the kabbalah of ruin and redemption — is that the feeling, descent and ascent, the grotesque and the beautiful bound up, interpenetrated, the unholy and the holy — symbolized by the broken cathedral that had risen out of the ruins where there once was a building? That’s what it looked like: a broken cathedral.

These uncommon feelings, a mix of holy and unholy, pity and fear, awe, I recognized them: a form of mourning, a quality of brokenness, when what is released from the ruins of the heart is something quiet and beautiful, strong and sure, the sense of both impermanence and permanence, to be drawn to the core and know that something good there endures.

jsg, usa