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A Building in New York PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Tuesday, 18 September 2001 18:00
There will be many thoughtful columns, articles, and books written about the events of September 11, 2001, so the following won’t count for much. If you’d prefer to skip it altogether, that’s understandable. As I write, it’s been less than 24 hours since the first reports. Already we are overloaded and need a break, however short.

The following isn’t journalism, anyway; it’s a personal story written by someone still in shock, who woke up thinking yesterday might have been some kind of nightmare, a dream that would evaporate with the sunrise. But there were the morning papers, and I see that what happened is still there, and won’t go away.

We lived in New York City for nearly 12 years, Laurie and I, which is a big chunk of anyone’s life. We were married there in a civil ceremony on July 30, 1982, roughly six blocks from the area everyone in America saw destroyed on TV yesterday. Last night we watched the various camera angles on lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center used to be and isn’t now. In one shot, we could see what looked like a mountain across the harbor. We knew that was Staten Island, where two of our children were born.

The towers of the World Trade Center were a familiar sight to us, and the complex was a familiar place. We made phone calls there, we caught trains there, we took visitors to the observation deck for their first real-life look at the Statue of Liberty.

We commuted to Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry, and we measured the trip home as the twin towers receded across the water.

For us, the most romantic spot in New York was called Windows on the World. We couldn’t go often; it was too expensive a place for young people on a budget. But we celebrated a few occasions there, making ambitious plans for the future, eating something called coconut shrimp, generally being in love. Yesterday we saw an airplane hit that building right about the same floor.

I know I’m still in shock as I write this. Or maybe all those Armageddon movies with their fantasies of famous landmarks being destroyed have confused me. But I still can’t quite understand what I saw on TV yesterday, can’t make it real. I wish I were in New York right now to deal with it all in person; I’m glad I’m not in New York right now because I don’t think I could deal with it at all.

I can’t even contemplate the 50,000 human beings who worked at the World Trade Center, or the people at the Pentagon, or those on the hijacked planes. Or their families.

I did call one friend who lives in lower Manhattan, and I was relieved to hear his wife’s voice – and then I was horrified to hear that everything had transpired right outside their window. Later, I found out our own next-door neighbor had been in New York on business; he was on his way to the World Trade Center at the time of the first explosion. Then I remembered that Laurie had been in New York just last week. Then last night we were both watching TV as the building right next to one she used to work in collapsed.

By some unsettling coincidence, I was up late Monday night, just hours before the phone started ringing on Tuesday. I was finishing a piece about my post-World War II generation, and I actually listened to FDR’s speech from December 8, 1941. Imagine that. The comparisons are obvious, of course, but the typical American of 60 years ago couldn’t locate Hawaii, or the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The attackers were visible, already making war throughout the Pacific.

But on September 11, 2001, things were reversed. The targets were America’s icons, as recognizable and symbolic as anything in the world. The victims were mostly civilians. The assailants were – obscenely – invisible.

The one common thread, besides surprise, is that both generations were left asking: What could we possibly have done to bring on such hatred?

Laurie and I thought the world was ending on Tuesday morning. Today I think that all of us who survived were given a second opportunity to chart the future, for ourselves and for our children. What FDR said bears repeating: The thing to fear is fear itself. What we need now is courage; we will find it because there is no alternative.
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