I still remember the day, a flawless late summer day eighteen years ago. For some reason, I was too lazy to ride my bike to work that day, which was fortuitous, because I ended up driving a coworker home after they evacuated our office building in Tarrytown, about 25 miles north of lower Manhattan. When coworkers told me about the first plane hitting the towers, I chalked it up to an accident, similar to the 1945 B-25 crash into the Empire State Building. A second crash, and I knew that it was war...
At the time, I lived near the intersection of Yonkers Avenue and Central Park Avenue, which is also the service road to I-87, the major thruway into New York City. The view of the NYC skyline at the intersection is clear, and I stood for an hour watching the cloud of toxic smoke rise into the sky to the south, as emergency vehicles rushed down the closed-to-the-public thoroughfares. I was shocked, but I certainly wasn't in awe, which only made the branding of the initial attack on Baghdad more repulsive to me. I had friends who worked in the World Trade Center, some of whom never made it out, some of whom did. I am reminded of that day when I see the family of a friend who succumbed to the toxic cloud a few years later, when I see a friend (a tough, gruff guy from Queens with a heart of gold who got all of his office mates out, barging into the bathrooms and telling the occupants, "Don't even bother to wipe your ass, GET OUT!") who doesn't even go into Manhattan anymore. I was on the periphery of the hellscape, though it could be seen for days and smelled for weeks when the wind blew in from the South.
I remember standing in line for hours to donate blood the next day, blood for victims who never materialized in the hospitals. I remember going to memorial services. Most of all, I remember the unity that we all felt, that feeling that all of us in the New York metro area were going to get through this ordeal together. Two of my great friends and mentors, men who I have known for years, are Muslim men from Morocco. They knew a lot of the victims I knew, they grieved with the rest of us, and anyone who makes a blanket indictment against all Muslims can go jump in a lake.
I remember the creeping sense of surrealism as the narrative shifted from an attack by Saudi Sunni extremists to an Iraqi connection, as the drumbeat for war increased, a war against an innocent, though not sympathetic, nation. I also recall the rise of the security industrial complex, the appearance of heavily armed police and national guard in the subway system. I was appalled at an idiotic show of force which would hamper the evacuation of busy midtown subway stations while peripheral stations in the outer boroughs were unguarded (this from a guy who would enter the system at 238th St and Broadway with a huge gym bag every Saturday from October to March). I remember finally visiting the three story tall pile of rubble a few weeks after the collapse of the towers, the evil miasma which clung to midtown. I also remember that the majority of the victims were roughly my age, they were go-getters just starting families and seeing their careers take off. If you had been a slacker that day, playing hooky to enjoy one last gorgeous summer day, you would have survived.
It's kind of weird to see all of the memorials by people who never experienced the loss. While I laud the well-meaning people who wish to acknowledge the tragedy, there are too many people who seek to use the day's events as a cudgel. The theocrats started blaming New Yorkers for the attacks in the immediate aftermath, the liberals, lesbians, libertines, and lushes were somehow to blame for another group of theocrats attacking the city. These victim-blamers still prattle on about the attack, much to my disgust.
Thankfully, there doesn't seem to be an impulse to make the day a national holiday, I mean nobody needs a repeat of this nonsense. The best way to remember those who were killed that day is to emulate them, to go to work, to carry out your duties as they did. Sure, you probably won't have to run into a burning building or sift through toxic rubble looking for survivors, but there is value in doing what you have to do, to embrace that New York work ethic that the occupants of the towers embodied.