In the Diaspora: Five years later

By now, September 11 has been symbolized to the point of meaninglessness.

sept wtc 911 memorial 88 (photo credit: )
sept wtc 911 memorial 88
(photo credit: )
That familiar sensation of dread started to creep over me last Saturday night. I could feel the northwest wind pushing across Manhattan, bringing the cleansing Canadian air and the first hint of autumn. Until the late summer of 2001, I had always relished this first intimation of the turning of the seasons. So I knew from decades of experience what would follow on the brisk winds. The hazy sky would clear. The mornings would have a chilly snap. The afternoons would be dry and lustrous. Sure enough, September 11, 2006, unfolded in such a pleasant way. Which is to say that it evoked with painful accuracy the sort of day September 11 had been in 2001. After five years - one of them the leap year of 2004 - the weekly calendar, too, has come very near to the replication of that particular day. September 11 was a Tuesday then, the day of New York State's primary election; this year, the memorial fell on a Monday, the eve of yet another primary. FOR ALL the resonance of 2001, this September 11 was the occasion for marking the passage of time, the failure of memory. At 8:46 in the morning, the precise anniversary of the moment when the first plane struck the World Trade Center, I was just leaving the open house for parents at my daughter's middle school. At 9:03, the time the second aircraft hit, I was fidgeting in line at the bank, indignant there was only one teller on duty. In the afternoon, I took what has become my annual walk down Riverside Drive to the monument at 100th Street that commemorates firefighters who died in the line of duty. Over the past five years, I have seen the number of offerings at the site wane. That first September, the flowers and votive candles and yahrzeit candles and notes covered the entire perimeter of the place. Something felt holy. This time, there were two or three large, formal floral arrangements, one of them with white blossoms spelling out the number 343, for the Fire Department's death toll in 2001. Otherwise, I saw maybe a dozen modest bouquets, the sort bought at the corner bodega rather than the neighborhood florist, and a single, piercing note from the unnamed children of a fallen father. I went on from the monument on my daily run, passing the Hudson River pier where, back in 2001, there had been plywood billboards covered with the handmade posters of missing friends and relatives. Those tattered pages, like Tibetan prayer flags, had hung in pathetic, yearning hope for months. Now the pier is again hosting fashion shows. It is too much, of course, to expect time to stop and grief to remain frozen. I am disgusted by the magazine articles that take September 11 widows to task for daring to fall in love again, to remarry, as if their eternal chastity is supposed to serve as the proxy for the rest of our recurrent restlessness. If life stops, then those who took life have indeed defeated us. I think Bruce Springsteen understood that point very early on, which is why his album The Rising, released less than a year after the attacks, remains the one transcendent work of art about them. It gives voice in equal measure to mourning and to resilience. BUT HOW does one make art, or make sense, out of forgetfulness or ignorance, or simply the absence of experience? As a professor at Columbia University, I watch a new crop of students arrive each August, and by now the incoming freshmen were in ninth grade the year of our tragedy. They must see it all as the obsession of a different generation, the way I might have looked years ago at the barflies in an American Legion post, gassing about Pearl Harbor and D-Day. Then again, even in the September of 2001, there were facile simplicities to the response. If one version was the macho promise to lasso up Osama bin Laden like the villain in a Western, then the other was the wish merely to cry over the loss without looking clearly at what had caused it. By now, September 11 has been symbolized to the point of meaninglessness. It has been a symbol to the Right of the necessity of fighting perpetual war and eroding civil liberties. It has been a symbol to the Left of the comforts of victimization, the longing to win the sympathy of the world by suffering. Personally, I am sick of all the symbols. I crave the thing I also fear - the unsentimental, exacting memory of what happened. A recent poll in The New York Times showed that New Yorkers are far more likely than other Americans to believe that terrorists will attack again soon. I think of that anxiety as our hard-earned civic clarity, the vision of a fallen world as crystalline as the September sky. The writer, whose Post column regularly appears on alternate Wednesdays, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of six books.