[This article first appeared in Current Intelligence Magazine on September 9, 2010, and is republished here courtesy of its editors.]
Every cloud-piercing building in Manhattan is a holy church of one sort or another. Regardless of its function or of the liturgy presented within, each structure has always stood as an advertisement for pluralism, America's One True Religion. This is New York City, won by Dutch explorers from its natives not in battle but in a transaction, while in Europe, caissons and kingly heads still rolled in brutal wars of empire, succession, and faith. This is a city acquired by the English, converted into "American," and then settled by speakers of every tongue on Earth. In such close contact, the émigrés compete, and there are occasional struggles, riots, street crimes. But the competition is just that: a game, rather than a war. A great faith was built upon such games.
Since 1971, one church with its twin spires stood at the center of this faith. From one of its columns—the Top of the World, the observation deck on Floor 107 of the World Trade Center's South Tower—one could view the One True Religion's other great temples: Ellis Island, where some of my ancestors, the Donigers and the Weinsteins, cemented their conversion; Manhattan's Lower East Side, where they lived among the other immigrant poor; the Statue of Liberty, that most supreme of pilgrim shrines.
On September 11th, 2001, I had planned a Manhattan pilgrimage of my own. It was Tuesday of the second week in my senior year at Columbia, and I'd intended to wake at a dark hour and ride the No. 1 train down to the first stop in Brooklyn. Once there, repeating a path I'd trod in earlier years, I'd walk the Brooklyn Bridge, pausing in the middle of its boardwalk to face south and take in the sunrise over New York Harbor: to the left, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and the Atlantic beyond its span; to the right, Lady Liberty. If I'd timed the trip right, they'd be connected—asphalt, ocean, and bronze, an American trinity—by a ribbon of sunshine. It would breach the horizon, then climb 'til its light and its heat reached the spot on the bridge where I was standing. Satisfied that east was still east, and the sun was where it should be—over this place—I'd descend into Manhattan, to the World Trade Center, down to the massive bookstore in its sub-level shopping promenade, there to continue my real education.
Things didn't turn out the way I'd planned on that day. I awoke late and alone in a dorm room, the sun already flashing through the window. Stepping into the hall, I noticed a crowd gathering at the hall's far end, leaning out of its south-facing window. I approached, and I saw the smoke.
It was the beginning of a very long day. Against my parents' advice—it had taken an hour to get through on a cell phone—I took a cab to Union Square. From there, I walked to an elderly friend's office to check on her. I wanted to give blood on the way, but there was already a line of NYU students and professors snaking four blocks around Beth Israel Medical Center. Upon finding my friend and sharing a good cry, we made our way on foot up Park Avenue to Grand Central Station. Rumor had it trains were still running out of the city from there. Everyone walked. Public transport had come to a standstill, and taxis were price gouging. Yet business owners, doormen, and church elders lined the sidewalk, offering the trekkers free food, drink, and a place to rest. It was the greatest act of collective sincerity and kindness I have ever witnessed.
The people today who are likeliest to employ the phrase "hallowed ground" are also the least likely to appreciate the American faith that the towers and their city embodied.
IT IS FASHIONABLE to call what happened that day an "attack on America." That's what it was, strictly speaking. As I stood near Broadway and 18th Street that afternoon, watching the towers' ash clouds rise on the harbor wind and blow out to Brooklyn, Chic Burlingame, a retired Navy officer and fighter pilot, passed the final moments of his life herded to the rear of a hijacked American Airlines jet that would strike the outer ring of the Pentagon. He had been the captain of that American Airlines flight. The Pentagon, in a sadly ironic twist, had been Chic's last duty station before his retirement from the Naval Reserve. He was also a friend; he had recruited me into the Navy, and mentored me during my brief military career. Chic, his passengers, and the Trade Center victims were joined in death by the occupants of a United Airlines flight that, a short while later, smashed into the ground outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In cities all across the nation, families and friends experienced very real losses—and in the sudden, bold violence of the act, they wondered what or who else could be lost.
It was an "attack on America." And the site where the Twin Towers stood is "hallowed ground." And yet. The people today who are likeliest to employ those phrases are also the least likely to appreciate the American faith that the towers and their city embodied. On the lower end of the intellectual spectrum, these critics are the insular drones of militant Americanism, people who think New York's melting-pot mentality is an enabler of evil, rather than a desirable social end. They fail (or refuse) to recognize that Lower Manhattan was hallowed long before 9/11, by the African slaves (at least some of them Muslim) buried in its earth; by the New York Dolls strip club on West Broadway, and the flophouse motels and Buffalo-wing saloons that flank it; by the homeless huddling in the Park Place and WTC subway stations; by the sheer diversity of humanity that had long lived, worked, and died in this place.
But those drones have their priests at the high end of the spectrum, neoconservative intellectuals and political tastemakers engaged in their own cynical games of conquest. When the towers fell, those priests and their ministry emerged as if from nowhere. In that moment when our great temple was lost and so many parishioners were interred in its rubble, when we needed our faith the most, it was shaken. We needed to know the significance of it all, the reason for it. We needed to know it would be all right, that justice would be done.
In that moment, we could have redoubled our faith in the America that is New York. We could have affirmed the sentiment offered us by 60,000 solemn Iranians (Iranians!) observing a minute of silence in Tehran's largest soccer stadium—a sentiment epitomized in Le Monde's September 12 front-page headline: "Nous sommes tous Américains." We could have ushered in a new era of cosmopolitanism, not only abroad, but on United States territory, from Guam to the newly-christened Ground Zero.
We could have. But we didn't. We needed war—for, as journalist Chris Hedges wrote, war is a force that gives us meaning. And it continues to, not just abroad, but at Ground Zero.
OF COURSE, some war seemed reasonable in 2001. I rejoined the military hoping to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom, the campaign to defeat the Salafist Islamic militants of Al Qaeda and their Afghan state sponsors, the Taliban. I left the service shortly after, the hunt for Al Qaeda bogged down in open-ended occupation and its architects, rather than pressing for a comprehensive Afghan victory, shifted their focus to Iraq. This reflected the neoconservative pathos among the George W. Bush administration and its supporters, something contrary to the cosmopolitan, pluralist faith seen in New York. Intellectuals, civil servants, and journalists—names like Kristol, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Krauthammer, Gerecht—led the way. Theirs was an interventionist, exceptionalist US foreign policy that stood in contrast to neoliberalism; simpler, less pluralist, more muscular. In this worldview, "America" was a singular beacon of right, and all who resisted it in any way were monolithically wrong. As a mythos for explaining the American people and their tribulations, it was attractive all the more for its inelegance. As a foreign policy, it was a disaster.