It is my hope that in the months and years ahead life will return almost to normal.
~ George W. Bush (September 20, 2001)
I don’t remember exactly which bar we were all gathered in when everybody started to sing. I don’t recall who started it. I just remember suddenly bursting into song along with everyone else — from the barkeep to the bartender to every other patron without exception. If only I were born a gay man — it would’ve been like dying and going to heaven.
Then again maybe not, as we were in an Irish bar along Second Avenue, I think somewhere in the 20s maybe, but I know the sun was still shining and that it was the American national anthem we were all singing. It was not too long after 9-11 had taken down the Towers, and since that day which now, to the New Yorker, separates Before and After, drinking when the sun was still shining was par for the course among my Smart Set.
We were all drinkers and smokers to begin with, but after the attack our lives took on a bit of the crazed. Just a short walk south from us thousands of people were still entombed under a mountain of rubble; the attack’s death toll was large enough so that everybody knew someone. To us, the death toll was no abstract number; all the victims were friends, co-workers, and family.
Everybody had a story to tell about that day, and everybody told it, repeatedly. We gathered daily and told them to one another, then gathered elsewhere and told them again. It was an orgy of neediness, every bar doubling as a psychiatrist couch and mating ground.
I had just cleaned out my office. Our building was directly across the street from the South Tower, which lay in a heap with its Twin right under our windows. The damage we sustained was bad enough to abandon ship. We arrived to the task after sundown, and walked though destruction like we’d only seen in history books.
Our path there was a street bulldozed clear of the endless debris, crushed cars and fire trucks. The fire department alone lost 343 men that day. Nobody talked.
A bit later, I looked down from my office window as the 24-7 cleanup crew went at it with a fervor pitch — they stopped working only in the rare moments when something resembling human was come across in the ocean of rubble. While I watched, they never stopped working. The sound of the excavators and jackhammers from below were clearly heard through the blown out window a few offices down, countless sparking acetylene torches accentuated the gloom.
Always a fan of military history, I’ve seen pictures of bombed out cities taken from the air and as I looked down my mind kept repeating, "Yes, that’s what it looks like." And the whole bar was singing our national anthem.
I was singing the national anthem along with them, as were everyone in my circle, everyone in my line of sight, everyone wearing their hearts on their sleeve and signing loud and unashamed. It was the most patriotic I ever felt in my life, it was uncut, completely pure emotion.
One last quick shot then off we went, first stopping outside for a smoke. It was still early fall, when New York weather will behave and allow you to be comfortable for a change. My wife and I held hands.
In between drags everybody’s eyes, without any comment, furtively glanced south at the empty skyline where the Towers ought to be. The sight was still new enough to be irresistible.
As we walked to the subway I lagged behind and looked up to a sight I never thought I’d in my life experience. Above the city was a sky clear blue and devoid of any jet plane, helicopter, or blimp, utterly empty. It had a sense of the Twilight Zone about it. I kept looking up, searching, and about halfway to the subway entrance I spotted them. A pair of fighter jets circled high overhead, ready to block a blow already struck.
That moment in that bar marked the high tide of my patriotism.
Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.
~ George W. Bush (September 20, 2001)
This was before the Patriot Act, a War on Terror, spying on Americans, torture, TSA clerks randomly picking out the To Be Strip Searched, unprovoked war, and (particularly revolting to a New Yorker) the political deification of 9-11 slowly sapped me of belief then enthusiasm.
And once a year I watch how our day has become a political commodity, pushed by every huckster with a microphone. The memory of that day, of the victims, became mass produced and cheapened.
Non-stop mentions of 9-11 quickly became a required sound bite in every political speech. Now reluctant to watch any televised political campaign, if I risked it anyway I’d sit artificially fortified, ready to wince, waiting for the pre-requisite "9-11" to come chanting off their lips. And most embarrassing to a New Yorker, it was one of our guys, Rudy Giuliani, who was hands down the worst offender.
It was so bad he became a parody, the "9-11 Guy," Joe Biden’s quip that "there’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9-11" was dead on. Yet, I will give Rudy Giuliani complete hosannas for his public leadership in the weeks after 9-11 — we couldn’t have asked for more.
When someone needed to step up and be The Man, he represented us well. When the New York Mets played the first ball game in our city after the Towers came down Rudy (a noted, brazen Yankees fan) was in attendance. Instead of his customary boos and curses when introduced, the usually hostile Mets crowd gave him a standing ovation. I was giving him a standing ovation. He deserved it.
But outside of his admittedly brilliant public persona during the weeks after the attack, he had always been a bumbling, self-righteous mediocrity. And now he was like the fat kid who inexplicably wins the 100-yard dash then won’t shut up about it: his presidential campaign’s theme song should have been Springsteen’s Glory Days.
It’s been an odd thing to watch this and the other changes that began after the attack. Having read Orwell’s 1984, it was disconcerting and insulting how the TV shows and advertising ads went to such lengths to remove any visual reminder of the Towers, because apparently seeing the Towers post-9-11 would reduce a New Yorker to tears. Even the Law and Order series, the quintessential New York program, hastily deleted the Towers from the opening credits and threw them down the memory hole.
9-11 did change everything; I see it in the small daily humiliations that a security state constantly uses to monitor compliance. I’m old enough to notice a difference in my city and, eight years of constant warfare later, it’s not for the better.
I now live in a New York that, among other things, sees you walk disarmed by a small knot of machine gun toting police, all standing at the subway entrance. You hope that they won’t pick you for a random search because you don’t want to miss the train, but knowing that if picked you’ll submit has its doleful effect — even if you hurry past them unhorsed, now humiliated, you’ve lost.
When my ancestors first came here from across the ocean, they would have shot a man, uniformed or not, who tried such a thing as rooting through their person and things on a whim. Later, having been disarmed by the Sullivan Act, my grandfather would still have punched him across the face. My father would have engaged him in a rigorous, ineffective debate, while I just turn, walk out, and use another subway entrance.
It’s been a long, slow rot, and most New Yorkers submit eagerly to the searches, and all of us born after 9-11 will know of no other world, my son will know of no other world. They won’t feel any anger, shame, or humiliation, won’t feel any strangeness about it at all as they stand politely still while armed strangers go through their persons and property, on a whim.
And they’ll think it normal and necessary that uniformed strangers may, as is their pleasure, go through their bank records, listen in on their phone calls, declare them an "enemy combatant," strip search them at will, or demand to see their papers. That’s the new America; this is the world of almost to normal.
So now each anniversary of 9-11, I honor the dead without flags, faith, or fury; I’m done with all that. Instead, I quietly pray that our memories of the lost don’t turn from heartbroken wishes that they were still here with us into bittersweet thanks that they were spared the sadness of seeing just how things were going to turn out.
C.J. Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. He is currently writing a book on Arthurdale, West Virginia during the New Deal. He blogs for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website. He will be speaking at Columbia University on October 10th for the New York/Ivy League Alliance Conference, details here.