At 8.55 am on the morning of September 11th 2001, I was in the kitchen at my partner’s midtown Manhattan apartment, making coffee, when she called from the bedroom. She was sitting on the end of the bed, staring at the TV set, when I went in, and without looking up she said, “something’s wrong at the World Trade Center”. On the screen were the tops of the famous Twin Towers, silver and grey against a clear blue sky. The colours were brilliantly sharp. The shot seemed to have been taken from some distance away and from roughly the same height as the Towers themselves. It looked more like a surveillance tape than a piece of TV news footage. A plume of black smoke rose at an angle from just below the top of the North Tower, drifting slowly into the sky like the smoke from a garden bonfire. For what seemed a long time we watched the totally silent image, which reminded me of Andy Warhol’s film of the Empire State Building in which nothing happens for hours, while the anchors in the TV newsroom chased the story. I was about to give up and go back to the kitchen when the top of the South Tower suddenly exploded in a red, orange and black fireball. In an instant, we went from watching an Andy Warhol art film from the 1960s to watching a Hollywood disaster movie from the 1980s. Still nobody knew what was happening. Then a sharp-eyed TV technician spoke up; some sharp-eyed viewers phoned in; the tape was rewound, replayed, blown-up, zoomed and the fast-moving speck tracking from right to left across the sky was identified as United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston- the second hijacked jet.

By the time 9/11 took place, I’d spent 40 years of my life closely involved with America or living there. I came to New York for the first time, in 1963, as an 18-year-old exchange student from a grammar school in the north of England on what was also my first trip abroad. During that first year in America, President Kennedy was assassinated and, along with everybody else, I sat in front of the television for three days watching the terrible events in Dallas, then the funeral in Washington with the little boy’s salute and the riderless horse. The Kennedy assassination is generally reckoned to be a landmark in US television history as well as in actual US history. It was American television’s coming of age, the first time that TV brought the nation together “live” during a crisis. Since then I’ve sat through other broadcast crises, both national ones, like the Watergate hearings and Nixon’s resignation, and local ones, like the Los Angeles riots. They’re curious events, like an electronic form of sitting shiva. For days at a stretch, nobody thinks or feels or breathes anything but the news coming through the television. At one and the same time, they’re compulsive, intense periods that give the illusion of participating directly in world-shaking dramas, and completely artificial, second-hand experiences, lacking the feeling and immediacy you only get by being there- as any journalist will tell you.  Over the intervening 40 years, it’s seemed to me this idea of once (or twice or three times)-removed, pre-packaged reality has spread from television through the whole of American public life. There was a  triumph of the “image” in every sense of the word. The attacks on the World Trade Center, and the reaction to them, proved to be a case in point.

At first, confusion reigned. In those early hours, a lot of things leaked out that were swept from the airwaves over the next few days as if they’d never happened. Things like the phone calls made by victims who were still sitting at their desks and calling their mothers, fathers, wives, mistresses, children, lovers, friends- calls made by those who were about to die and knew it. Some of the calls connected and no one ever heard those except the people they were meant for. Others were recorded on answering machines, computer voice mails or simply suspended somewhere in the ether, stored in telecomms purgatory, until they were retrieved and played over and over on the TV news shows, running non-stop on multiple channels so that you heard the same call ten or twenty times. All over the city that morning, phones rang in empty kitchens that still smelled of breakfast, where the wife and the kids had left on the school run; in downtown apartments where a girlfriend was in the shower or walking the dog; in offices whose occupants had stepped out for a smoking break or turned off their mobiles in a meeting; in suburbs where elderly, hard-of-hearing parents were drinking their coffee in the yard (such a beautiful morning) and never heard the last message from their only son or their favourite daughter. The vox pop of  last words was nothing like those compilations of Famous Last Words. In extremis, ordinary people steered clear of aphorisms or irony. Instead, they stuck to the emotional bottom line- the anti-rhetoric of the heart. “I’m trapped and I don’t think I’m going to make it out.” “Remember that I love you.” “Take care of the kids.” “Tell them about me sometimes. “Have a life.” It sounds banal but it was heartbreaking to listen to, the words given profundity by, of all things, a technological innovation, the mobile phone. A new symbiosis of cellular phones and various kinds of answering devices enabled the living dead to hold their own séance, to tell us what they wanted us to know. As with all serious truths, we already knew what they had to tell us. The things everyone claims are the only things that matter (but no one really believes it) turned out to be the only things that matter after all. Love one another. Try to be kind. Remember me.

After a brief period as every news producer’s most wanted, the calls were yanked off the air, returned to some technological virtual warehouse (where the phone company was reportedly assembling a master tape of every phone call made in the Trade Center area during the crucial time with access limited to carefully screened relatives and members of the intelligence services). Only the living were left on the line, friends and relatives repeatedly calling mobiles belonging to the “missing”, hoping their ringing tones would guide the rescue dogs to the crucial patch of rubble. But it was all futile. The ringing and the familiar voices begging you to leave a message were no more than ghosts in the circuits. The phones themselves no longer worked. Neither did their owners.

Lost and missed connections, signal bleeds, bandwidth overspill, clogged circuitry: it was as if  September 11th left an invisible imprint in the air, filling the void where the Twin Towers used to stand. Others of these electronic imprints never reached the public. The networks were known to have photographed frantic victims trapped on the upper floors of the South Tower of the Trade Center, above the fire lines, with no means of escape, who made the last choice available to them to make. Jumpers. People who decided to die on their own terms, to have their last breath be of fresh air instead of smoke and flames, to die in the sunshine rather than wait around for the inferno. 110 storeys straight down. From that height, it might even have felt like flying. The footage was censored, by all except one of the channels. It happened to be the one I was watching. The camera showed a line of figures in the jagged holes the 747s had ripped in the side of each Tower. They were tiny figures, but recognisably human. You could see them move, see the clothes they wore, the white blobs that were their faces as they stared up at the sky or straight out into space while they steadied themselves on pipe ends or the hafts of window frames or chunks of concrete. Trying to stay upright on the rubble. They looked as if they were forming an impromptu queue. They looked as if they were waiting for something, like a ship to come alongside and snatch them off the burning bridge, but there was nothing that could reach them at that height- no ship, no helicopter, no firemen’s ladder, no fictional boson’s chair slung between the tops of buildings as in the film “The Towering Inferno”.

Skyscrapers and commercial jets have a lot in common. Both come loaded with redundant, fail-safe systems. But if those systems fail, there’s no hope of safety. On 9/11, it was as if the two technologies cancelled each other out, colliding in an act of negative entropy that released the overengineered forces in both at the same time. Then it doused the lot in a bonfire of high-octane aviation fuel.

For about an hour, the Towers still stood, but there was fire below and above the puppet-figures. They must have talked to one another during that time. Some of them must gone through those awkward, fragmentary conversations every frequent flier keeps in the back of his mind, stashed for use in case of the stormy night, the freak turbulence, the stalled engines. “We haven’t met but my name is X and now we’re going to die together.” Watching at home, your mind rejected the evidence of your eyes. It didn’t seem possible that a group of people so obviously healthy and unharmed were, to all intents and purposes, already dead. (This cognitive dissonance accounts for the numerous survival legends that sprung up after 9/11. For example, the one about the man on a very top floor who, when his Tower collapsed, surfed down sitting on the rubble and walked away without a scratch). In ones and twos they jumped or fell, the telephoto lens fooling the eye to begin with, so they looked like pieces of debris that had broken off and dropped away. Then you realised no, these were human beings.

Some leapt. Some just let go or lost their grip. There was a man in shirtsleeves and business braces, his tie streaming over one shoulders, his legs scissoring as he plummeted headfirst who ended up (anonymously) with his picture on the front page of the “New York Times”. There was a couple or couples- it was never clear if they were the same couple or if there was more than one- who jumped holding hands (were they husband and wife? Were they workmates? Were they total strangers trying to comfort one another at the last?).

In 1911, a couple of miles uptown from the World Trade Center, there was a notorious fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a rattrap sweatshop stuffed with young seamstresses. Exit doors were locked. Escape routes were blocked. It was the usual story of profits over health and safety. A flock of seamstresses gathered at the windows on the factory’s upper floors, facing the same impossible choice as the WTC jumpers. Burn to death or jump to death. The factory was only 10 storeys high but, in those days, it might as well have been 90. A crowd gathered in the street below to watch. Eyewitnesses then reported the same sequence of disbelief-realisation-shock-horror I felt watching on 9/11. As they jumped, the girls’ skirts billowed out. Their petticoats showed. They came down in seeming slow motion. They floated down like parasols, a strange rain.

A century on and the potential eyewitnesses were the whole city. But the networks cut the feeds and blanked the monitors. No one talked about the jumpers afterwards. How many people jumped  and who were they? These were the sort of statistics no one wanted to collect, or even to discuss. A strategy was starting to form, which the jumpers didn’t fit., from which they were somehow excluded as losers who took an easy way out though the moral calculus required to reach any such conclusion seemed completely insane to me. Nor did the pre-mortem phone calls but it was too late to censor them. The phone calls and the jumpers were the human face of 9/11- what made it a tragedy in the first place- while their excision from the narrative of that day was a pre-rerquisite for re-imagining 9/11 as a tale of American heroism rather than tragic vulnerability and loss. Even among artists, a survey of artistic responses to 9/11 made five years after the day found that “all references to and depictions of falling people remain taboo.”[1] (It was not the last word. Sporadic attempts have been made to talk aboput the jumpers).

The jumpers and the phone calls were like intravenous lines, hooked up via the media, to drip-feed pity and grief into viewer’s brains. Neither emotion is any use to the state. Under their influence, people might want to understand what had happened and why; and although to understand all doesn’t mean to forgive all, it certainly runs that risk. By early on the first afternoon, 9/11 was already being re-staged outside of New York, on the national, political level, re-told as a threat to the existence of America and a geopolitical crisis. Whereas the Triangle fire had led to an introspective mood and a grassroots clamour for social reform in New York, 9/11 was too big to be left to the uncertainties of popular response. The word came down from the very top. Bush himself declared the attacks “an act of war” before vanishing, kidnapped by his own Secret Service to a bunker in Nebraska. As stage-managers of the unfolding drama, the TV channels created catchy titles for their segments that told the official story (America Under Attack. A Nation Threatened. America Fights Back. etc.). They assembled montages of heroic cops and firefighters overlaid with the Stars and Stripes and with backing tracks of patriotic anthems (while the flag factories that make Old Glory increased production, adding extra shifts).

Suddenly, everyone was a terrorism expert or a security consultant- or both. Scores of these instant experts appeared as if from nowhere to talk to Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, the Big Three TV anchormen already locked in a bizarre competition to see who could broadcast longest without food or sleep. Retired air force generals sitting in their private nuclear bunkers buried under golf courses in Arizona were patched in to give their views on the security situation (“This has been a terrible failure of security, Dan”).  The terrorism consultants replaced the New Economy experts and dot. com stock analysts who had been in vogue the year before. Their advice was about as reliable as the advice of their predecessors. Instead of hyping stocks, they hyped biochemical warfare and Mad Mullahs. To a foreigner like myself, America’s soundtrack is always turned up several notches too loud for comfort, a cacophony of snake-oil, bombast and boilerplate,  of J. Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie, Barnum and Bailey and the Rev. Billy Graham- endless voices cajoling, pleading, wheedling, selling, sermonising, motivating. At some point, around the mid-1980s, the sermons and the sales talk- the basic American spiels- joined up with the political pundit’s rap, the talk show ideologue’s filibuster and the spin doctor’s fatal fluency to produce a single torrent of ranting chat  that pours across the ether day and night. Writing about his move to Paris, the ‘New Yorker’s’ Adam Gropnick said the one thing didn’t miss was, “New York..talk radio or talk television or the constant appalling flow of opinion that spills out like dirty bathwater.”


De Tocqueville would have understood the problem. On July 4th 1831, having watched the Independence Day parade in Albany, New York, De Tocqueville wrote in his diary, “nothing is more annoying to the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country but he would like to be allowed to criticise something ands that is absolutely refused.” In another entry he noted that Americans have “an immensely high opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the rest of the human race.”

 Add the volatile mood swings inherent in mass democracy (as opposed to the more mediated European variety), the God-bothering religiosity and the frequent moral panics that sweep 250 million people spread across a vast continent (everything from Red scares to Satanic ritual abuse) and you have a fair summary of the worst of America. If it’s fair to say a lot of the worst was on display after September 11th, it’s also fair to remember that few countries, and few individuals, are at their best when they’ve been grievously wounded. It’s too much to expect, as Susan Sontag found out when she attacked the “unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days.” Sontag was promptly howled down, with one critic suggesting she should be dragged across broken glass to kiss the feet of the victims.

            The New York version of Sontag’s “reality-concealing rhetoric” was all to do with strength. New Yorkers, including temporary ones like myself, were told over and over again that we were “strong”, we would “survive”, we were showing our strength by surviving etc. etc.  Since nobody really doubted any of this- don’t people generally rally round in a crisis?- much of the constant repetition came under the heading of De Tocqueville’s “irritable patriotism”. The rest came from Mayor Rudy Giuliani doing his Churchill impression (all American politicians worship Churchill and are knowledgeable about minor details of Churchill’s political career. They never understand why Churchill’s reputation is more equivocal in his own country). Overcoming his natural handicaps- a frozen stare instead of Churchill’s pugnacious jaw; peevishness rather than snorting rage- Giuliani turned in a fair facsimile of the Bulldog, helped by the similarities in their situations. 9/11 wasn’t the Battle of Britain but it could be made to look that way, especially given the continuing, perfect Battle of Britain weather and the habit everyone in New York had developed of glancing up at the sky every time we went out, just in case.

Just as the 2nd World War rescued Churchill from oblivion and his own bungling, so 9/11 rescued Giuliani from end-of-term redundancy and public ridicule, the latter involving his prostrate cancer and revelations that he had a mistress who was fighting with his wife for residence rights at the Mayoral mansion. This Shakespearean comic set-up suggested the punch line, “there’s no fool like an old fool.” It was not what Iron Rudy, ex-prosecutorial scourge of the Mafia and Wall Street insider traders and a moralist so stern he would probably have preferred his police force to arrest the entire population, thus making the streets safe once and for all, wanted as his political epitaph. But like Churchill, Giuliani was rescued by a Blitz. Against the backdrop of hijacked 747s and collapsing Towers, Giuliani’s egomania once more seemed like leadership and his bad temper came across as calm authority. Nothing he could do about the triangular face and hunched shoulders that make him look like an inflatable Rockwell alien doll, though.

            Tirelessly criss-crossing the city and presiding over daily- or in the first week almost hourly- press conferences and briefings, Giuliani was impressive all right. The press conferences mostly briefed trivia like the numbers of overtime hours logged by the NYPD or (later) how many tons of rubble had been trucked out of Ground Zero. The statistics were as dense as the Talmud, hieroglyphs that seemed to point to the significance of 9/11 but in the end obscured more than they revealed. They were information overload for journalists, foreclosing any deeper questions about how or why?- questions it was already forbidden to ask since they were held to be a form of “blaming the victim”. The most over-reported event in the world rapidly became the most incomprehensible with armies of reporters chasing, reporting and recounting stories that were retracted and denied (or most often simply forgotten) an hour or two later. As it had done to everything else in New York, 9/11 threw the media into turmoil, turning them inside out, changing the fact factories into rumour mills running faster and faster on empty.

            The factoids, the gossip and the urban myths served an additional purpose. For the first week after 9/11, everything was about the rescue effort- but where were the rescued? The appalling truth, too appalling for people to take in, was that there weren’t any. The makeshift trauma centers stayed empty. The volunteer brain surgeons sat on crates in the sunshine slurping soda or kept themselves busy irrigating the smoke out of rescue workers’ eyes. The flurry of false stories enabled people to avoid realising that 9/11 was a disaster that had no (or almost no) survivors, no casualties who were not buried in the giant grave pit of ash and twisted metals.

Everyone was dead. Or were they?  Day by day, as the emergency workers scrambled over a pile of debris 20 storeys high, like ants over Everest, they scaled down their effort. At first, they were trying to find casualties. Then they were bringing out the bodies. But that only replaced one mystery with another. Where were the bodies? A couple of hundred corpses plus  thousands of “body parts” didn’t add up to the numbers of people who were listed as missing. First, “missing” became a euphemism for “dead”. Then “dead” in turn became a euphemism for “missing”, for vanished without trace. The force of the collapsing Towers had liquefied the bodies, rendered flesh and bone until there was literally nothing left. Nothing that anyone could bury anyway. In a couple of hours, several thousand people mass- combusted. But how many thousand? This most urgent of statistics was the most difficult to pin down. It took months and then, somehow unbelievably for such a public event in plain sight, years to fix the numbers, which reduced in stages from 10,000 closer to 3,000 on a graph whose axis of publicity shrank as its axis of accuracy rose. [2]

            There was a gentlemen’s agreement among the authorities not to tell the whole truth. Instead they left it to sink in gradually that this was a disaster not only without survivors but also without victims. The missing qua dead now existed only in old family photographs, like the snapshots that were touted around town by relatives unable to admit their loved ones weren’t still alive somewhere- anywhere. Maybe they were lying in the back ward of some New Jersey hospital. Maybe they were stumbling around Queens or the Bronx suffering from Post-Traumatic amnesia. Their relatives and friends toured Manhattan like wandering mendicants, begging information instead of money, holding out their 8X10 glossies to the passing news cameras and stapling their Xeroxed fliers to trees and telephone poles. You couldn’t walk a block without passing a dozen or more of these pathetic posters, often highly professional in their layout, with colour photos as well as black and white, and the names of African-Americans, Asians, Polish, Jewish, Italian, Russian, Muslim, Hindu, Hispanic. They turned the whole city into a kind of outdoor classified advertisement for people who were never going to reply. Other New Yorkers were busy transforming every pocket park, corner spot and vacant space into a spontaneous memorial, draped with bunches of flowers, candles, ribbons, crayon drawings, American flags, banners quoting John Lennon lyrics, and handwritten poems and essays taped to the railings. This was the best of America, open and honest, with its accessibility of the heart. It was also quintessentially New York, turning vacant lots into cathedrals (and vice versa). At night the candles wavered in their rows of red frosted shot glasses or were stuck by their stumps to the bare concrete. Like Christmas. Like makeshift mangers. There were candles everywhere you looked.


            The World Trade Center was always less than met the eye. Described in the aftermath of 9/11 as the symbolic headquarters of world capitalism, the Twin Towers were actually a couple of ugly outsize filing cabinets, like a Claus Oldenburg sculpture without the wit. When it was built back in the late1960s, the Center’s developers planned to create the financial quarter’s best address, a grand entrance for Wall Street a few streets away. Instead, they built Wall Street’s back door. The big-name, prestige financial firms either shunned it entirely or rented space there to use for their routine, back-office operations. Many of the tenants were small or one-man businesses, for whom the World Trade Center performed the same function as those accommodation  addresses you can rent in Mayfair or Knightsbridge in London. It made them instant players in the game, for everyone who wasn’t in the know. For those who knew better, the only thing the Twin Towers ever had going for them was their height.

            It was that height the terrorists attacked and- as we now know, to their own surprise brought low. Concrete and steel ignited, turning the tops of the towers into giant Roman candles, spouting pulverized drywall and confetti-sized glass before they imploded. A double-act of architectural striptease, 110 storeys unravelling twice over, proved the critics right: there was nothing there but blue sky. The Towers themselves didn’t even leave an after-image. Only a before-image which was so much tourist dreck, the picture on a million postcards and posters  pulled from Manhattan’s souvenir shops the very same afternoon, surplus stock hurriedly reinventoried as collectors’ items. Everything about 9/11 happened too fast for the mind to process, and it felt as if it happened in reverse. Buildings blew down instead of blowing up. Planes became bombs instead of dropping them. The whole disaster unfolded like déjà vu, like something we’d all seen before, when it was foreshadowed and pre-staged by Hollywood as a cross between “Towering Inferno” and “Titanic”. The most frequent comment made by eyewitnesses by far was, “I thought I was watching a movie”.

            Other elements of the tragedy were more like high art. The grey-white dust, an evil-smelling granulated ash, which covered people and cars in downtown made them look like a George Segal sculpture. And the street of shoes- a street full of shoes their owners had  run right out of when racing to escape the collapse-surely some artist must have thought of that? It was if, at an undisclosed time in the previous 40 years, the culture had overtaken the zeitgeist which was now trying to catch up with it in a single dreadful day.

            No wonder everyone’s reactions were so confused- scrambled even. My partner and her friends stayed on the phone to each other for hours, sharing their fears of another attack, “the other shoe about to drop”, though it was obvious to me there wasn’t going to be one. In Washington, President Bush was behaving like a puppet whose strings had been cut, groping for the right tone or political response. By contrast, on the Christian Right, the Revs. Falwell and Robertson knew exactly what to think. Blessed with certainty, they reacted to 9/11 by blaming their usual suspects- homosexuality, abortion, rampant sex. In their view, the Twin Towers were America’s pillars of salt, just punishments for a country fallen from grace.

            For once, the Revs. overreached themselves, misread the public mood and lost their audience. They’d become so used to opposition, they forgot the theocrats were now in power. In the Bush administration, biblical interpretation was the business of the Federal Government. There was no room for freelancers, not when men like Attorney General Ashcroft held daily breakfast prayer meetings for their staff. It was Ashcroft’s office that revealed the contents of the chief hijacker’s last testament, a loony mix of Koranic exegesis, suicide note and shopping list with instructions to sharpen knives and strike down enemies alongside laundry tips and a celibate’s revulsion towards women. Making Mohammad Atta, under different circumstances, the sort of person Falwell, Robertson and Ashcroft might have admired.

Meanwhile the rhetoric was reaching drumbeat level. As the urgency of the attacks receded, the stridency of the speeches increased. The less there was to report, it seemed, the more there was to say-and say- and say:

 Our darkest day will be our finest hour in the history of the greatest nation on earth whose fate will never bow to the forces of terror. The dream is over for so many before it began and for those left behind the nightmare that has been brought upon us can only be purged by the determination and courage of the free peoples of the civilized world come together in their hurting to heal (alt: healing to hurt) and raise high the flag of democracy and freedom with staunch resolve and the readiness to sacrifice against those who sought to destroy us but have united us in our righteous wrath as never before.

            Damn, I don’t know where that comes from. There’s no attribution in my notes which contain reams of this sort of stuff. I’ve got a horrible feeling I may have made it up. We will turn tragedy into defiance. Fear or freedom: that is the war. I’m pretty sure that’s authentic but what about- This mighty nation, the beacon of freedom and justice for the world, will arise from the ashes of…?  American conservatives are experts at this sort of boilerplate. They had thirty years to practise when nobody was listening to them. By the time 9/11 happened, the speeches virtually wrote themselves, the phrases- “land of liberty that we love”, “greatest on the face of the planet”, “shining bastion of hope and justice”- as re-shuffleable as a William Burroughs cut-up. Bush’s only real political skill was being able to deliver them with a straight face and a folksy affability. In extreme right-wing terms, he was the Truman to Reagan’s FDR. A cocky bantamweight with a cowboy’s rolling gait and suits that seem a size too large, Bush was the front man for a Right that looked all too familiar to Europeans. It was the old, reactionary European Right of the 1920s and before, with a few minor adjustments to American conditions: anti-Arab instead of anti-Semite; pro-business Oligarchy and Christian Evangelical rather than pro-Monarchy and Catholic Church. Whether or not I agreed with him, I had to respect the views of a man like Giuliani who was clearly having his finest hour, as opposed to Bush who has no views, only a scattering of commonplace prejudices. Even when Bush made his major speech to Congress and the nation- an eerily Roman event, the audience salted with visiting barbarian chieftains (Tony Blair) and selected “noblest Romans” (the wife of a dead hostage)- it was a speech of staggering banality though the ‘New York Times’ acclaimed it (presumably on the grounds they had expected worse).



Bush was just recycling, spinning in the wind, the flywheel whose job was to keep the body politic in motion while more sinister forces strategized- Cheyney and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft with their secret policemen’s faces, and Condoleezza Rice, their Mata Hari. In New York the atmosphere was very different. To everyone’s surprise, in the weeks following 9/11 New York became a pleasanter, more amenable place to live. New Yorkers lowered their voices. They grew polite. Socially, Manhattan shrugged off its Nineties image as capitalism’s ultimate theme park and reverted to its older, original role as a city where ordinary people meet and fall in love, bring up families and build their lives. What Adam Gropnick calls New York’s “sweet soulfulness” showed through its carapace of wealth and power, cracked by the attacks.

            Physically, too, New York seemed to have travelled back in time. The traffic in midtown dropped by half along with the noise level as drivers quit that most infuriating of local habits- blowing their horns for no reason. After they were shut down for a few days by executive order,  the airlines resumed flying, but there were fewer flights than before and the rolling thunder which has become the background to big city life all over the world was much reduced. New York as a whole slowed down and opened up, returning to the way it had been when I first lived there in the early 1960s. One even came across examples of a long-extinct entity- a free parking spot in midtown on a weekday.

            The other major source of ambient noise in New York, city politics, was also in abeyance, under the spell of Giuliani’s stream of consciousness (the Mayor no longer made speeches. He just started talking when he got up in the morning and kept talking all day in meetings, press conferences, photo opps. etc. while cameras crews working shifts followed him around between engagements, so no word he uttered would be lost). Politics in New York are racial or, to be politically correct, ethnic, or, to be European, about class. Rich New Yorkers are white and poor New Yorkers are black and brown. Money being the great unmentionable of US politics- either the vast sums business provides for political campaigns; or, at the other end, the need for government spending and income redistribution- politics tends to concentrate on symbolic issues, such as the issues around the police and crime. Criminal justice comes to stand in for economic justice. That kind of issue politics favours demagogues, of whom New York has always had its share, but in the wake of 9/11 they were silenced as were the tensions between the communities in general.

            In this loudest of cities, the sudden quiet of all kinds- rhetorical, political, physical, automotive- was deafening. People were out of doors again, going to work, shopping, roller-blading, visiting the doctor while the “real world” burbled in the corner of their darkened apartments, waiting to greet them when they came home with documentaries about Osama bin Laden and discussions of biological and chemical terror- leading scared New Yorkers to empty pharmacies of Cipro, a drug reputed to be an antidote to anthrax. Then the scare came true, first in Florida, followed by New York and Washington. The same transmission route as 9/11. It was as if the media obsession with bio-terror turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy, producing the very terror it envisaged (some of us thought it did exactly that). The poison letters laced with anthrax went to politicians and media figures like Tom Brokaw, but the victims were blue-collar postal workers handling the stuff. Though even the FBI now believe the anthrax terrorist was home-grown, at the time everyone thought he or she or they were a part of 9/11. To a greater extent than Europeans understood, it was the anthrax attacks, starting only a couple of weeks after 9/11 and dragging on for weeks thereafter, that convinced many ordinary Americans they were facing a vast and well-organized terrorist conspiracy. 

No wonder everyone was walking around with frozen faces as if they were going through a bad divorce. Like the others, I flinched at loud noises in the street and looked up more often than usual at the blue-rinsed skies. The message from City Hall was “return to normal” with Giuliani setting the tone of stoic calm and reasonableness, but the message from Washington was mobilisation and war and the incessant hyping of new terrorist threats by the Justice Department and Attorney General Ashcroft, a man his own staff regarded as a moron. Part of this was bureaucracy covering its ass. Part was about diverting attention from the fact that The Investigation (as they called it) into 9/11 had petered out after the first few leads to Florida flight schools and New Jersey immigrant ghettoes (there was no one left to investigate. They were all dead). 9/11 had played into the hands of the Republican Right, given them what they’d always wanted- carte blanche to wage a war without end abroad while clamping down at home. The newly named War on Terror was shaping up to be everything the Cold War promised but never quite delivered. A permanent war economy in a permanently buttoned-down nation under (or so they hoped) one-party rule. All they had to do was to tweak the fear level, pump up the threat from time to time and they had a shot at creating that perfect military-intelligence hybrid- the National Insecurity State.

            From the moment the killer planes came over, silent, sleek, flying their pirate’s false flags of American and United, sliding sideways across the sky like fish through water, Americans had been in a state of massive psychological shock. The second most popular comment on 9/11 after “I thought I was watching a movie” was “this doesn’t happen here”. After all, 9/11 was the first major breach in mainland America’s security since the British sailed up the Delaware in the War of 1812 and burned Washington to the ground. Now that Americans’ sense of invulnerability had been broken, people seemed ready to believe in anything A friend described the country as gripped by a mood of “isolated victimhood” in which only America had ever suffered from terrorism, and only America’s suffering was real. I watched as Osama bin Laden and his followers assumed the demonic dimensions in American eyes that dusky troublemakers always assume in the eyes of great Western powers. Bin Laden was rapidly turning into a latter-day Fu Manchu, an evil genius whose tentacles spread everywhere and nowhere, commanding his secret army of fanatical thugs and dacoits.

            In New York itself, the general paranoid mood was more muted but it was also more visceral. You couldn’t walk around midtown without turning your head to stare south down the cavernous avenues in the direction of Ground Zero. When it stood, the World Trade Center dominated Manhattan’s skyline. Now the Towers had fallen, they created a sort of black hole that drew the eye and the city’s energy towards itself. There was no escaping its psycho- gravitational pull even though you knew Ground Zero was six or seven miles away, far out of sight of midtown  It took the smoke and the beggars, the latter driven out of the financial district by the cops and the army, a week after 9/11 to reach us. One day the number of homeless around the entrance to the 57th Street subway and on Ninth Avenue between 55th and 57th doubled.. On the next night, the smoke arrived. The media had tracked its progress mile by mile up the island like a home-grown hurricane. It came after dark and filled the corridors of our apartment building, so that when you stepped out of your door to dump the garbage you smelled it, and for a moment, until the penny dropped, wondered what that smell was. It didn’t smell like the smoke from an ordinary fire. Someone said it smelled like a burning computer, but it was worse than that. A combination of burning computer and burning tyres, perhaps. An indescribably awful smell. Downtown, it presented in the form of a choking cloud but up where we were, it was invisible. There was nothing to see- no particles, no gas, just this acrid stench that hung around all night and part of the following day until, as mysteriously as it had come, it went away again.



For three weeks after 9/11, I couldn’t bring myself to go downtown. I didn’t have any real need to visit Ground Zero, and curiosity didn’t seem like a good enough reason. A lot of people felt the same way in the early days, until New York’s propensity to turn everything into a test of social status reasserted itself and the site became first a celebrity VIP event, then a general tourist destination. But during those first few weeks, Giuliani and his people warned everybody off visiting the disaster area. Ground Zero was a sacred place, they said, a cross between a mass grave and a major crime scene. Above all, it was a place reserved for the American can-do ethic in its uniformed version, which is the version that has taken over from all the others. The mentality of the Wright Bros. and the backyard inventors, the old “Popular Mechanics” syndrome which made every Midwestern farm boy into an amateur engineer has been recruited  into an ever-expanding pack of police agencies, fire units, medical squads, rescue groups, SWAT  teams, disaster response crews, security forces and covert action posses with their acronyms, their shoulder flashes and their radio squawk talk about code reds and code blues. Quasi-military formations whose codes of honour were developed in the gym and the maximum security jail. In Europe, public service means an underpaid clerk in a shabby office. In America, it means a big blonde guy in mirror shades with a buzz cut carrying a pump-action shotgun. Leave it to the professionals, Giuliani was saying. Let the rescuers do their job and let the dead rest in peace. I didn’t buy everything he said, especially the crime scene part. It was clear to me the CSIs and the rest of them were wasting their time. No one in Washington was interested in evidence or in arresting and trying those responsible according to the law. That wasn’t what Bush and co. meant by justice.

            Still, I agreed with enough to stay away until there was no longer any point in doing so. By the time TV soap stars were being given private guided tours of the wreckage, the taboo was well and truly broken. I decided to take the bus to 14th Street, to Union Square, and walk the rest of the way downtown from there. I wanted to see the peace camp that had sprung up in the Square after 9/11 with several hundred new generation hippies gathering nightly in the Square to drum and dance, sing and no doubt smoke dope for peace, while assembling a Princess Diana-scale memorial. It was a heartening sign of Sixties dissent in a country consumed by an anti-Sixties of flags, “superpatriotism” and support for war. But I was too late. The peace camp was long gone. The municipal authorities bulldozed it. All that remained were a few forlorn posters asking “why did the Parks Department take down our peaceful memorial?” and a circle of half a dozen people singing “Give Peace A Chance” to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar.

            No chance- not this time around. The war on terror wasn’t going to be another Vietnam, at least not in that sense. All the way down through Greenwich Village, the East Village and Soho, places where, if there is going to be dissent anywhere in America, it will be there (or in Berkeley) I saw nothing but the Stars and Stripes in every store window and the ubiquitous 9/11 slogans- “United We Stand” “These Colors Don’t Run’, ‘God Bless America’, ‘We Shall Overcome’.

At Canal Street, the cops had blocked off the road, diverting traffic. From that point on, the wide avenues were empty, reserved for pedestrians only. There were lots of us. A steady stream marching in both directions. Many were tourists, flown in from the heartlands- from what the Bush people like to call the “real” America- in their neatly pressed ‘United We Stand’ T-shirts and their khaki shorts and brand-name sneakers, camcorders on their shoulders, toting the souvenir flags they’d bought from the Ground Zero hawkers. Farther downtown, as I approached via Maiden Lane, the crowd thickened, squeezed by metal crush barriers on which National Guard troops lounged, looked bored behind their sunglasses and chewing gum. The foul, smouldering computer smell was strong here. The crush was worst at the intersections where people stopped and tried to see down the side streets to Ground Zero itself, several blocks away behind a cordon. At first, I couldn’t tell what they were staring at. Then I realised the copper-coloured office building with the ‘Borders’ bookstore sign on the ground floor was actually a burned-out shell.

            For the most part, the crowd was well-behaved and, for Americans, strangely silent. I passed a couple of groups standing in circles with their arms around each other’s shoulders, praying out loud. Impromptu stalls peddled flags ($3-4), pins ($2), old Trade Center postcards ($2). Along with the souvenir-sellers, religious nuts worked the sight-seers- Scientology ministers; gaunt bible-thumpers; young men in tall hats and ringlets, brandishing what seemed to be tree branches, who sidled up to you and asked, sotto voce, “are you Jewish?”. Some of the cars in the side streets had obviously been there since 9/11. They were covered in dust and had graffiti scrawled by hand on their windscreens: “America No. 1”; “Rise Again”; or the ever-popular “God Bless America”.

            I kept circling the site, getting as close as I could. The streets were wet. Crews were still hosing them down and great lengths of hosepipe lay around.  From time to time, and from different angles, I got glimpses of Ground Zero itself. The smoking rubble was a hive of activity. Yellow and red mechanical diggers picked over the pile, their robot arms rising and falling. The diggers looked like they too were searching for their missing relatives amid the tangled wire and steel. All around the devastated core stood office towers that had survived the attacks. Grey ghost buildings, their faces covered in ash, they had one or two or more broken windows high up, as if a boy with a slingshot had shattered them with some impossible throw.

            At Liberty Street, I watched soldiers escort three people in uniforms carrying bunches of flowers through the barrier. The uniforms were airline uniforms- two pilots and a stewardess on their way to mourn their colleagues. I turned off Broadway into the twisting, narrow lanes of the financial district. It was mid-afternoon. At the bottom of Rector, which was the closest the pubic was allowed to Ground Zero, only a couple of short blocks to the north at that point, the police kept everybody moving, calling out “Keep Moving. No Photographs.” As I joined the file to cross the street, I glanced to the right and saw the famous piece of debris- the one the rescuers didn’t remove, the one that got in all the photographs. It’s made up of two latticework fragments of facia, wedged upright and leaning against each other, resembling a piece of church architecture. Framed by other buildings, and bathed in the golden autumn sunshine, it looked like it came from one of those bombed-out cathedrals strewn across Europe after the Second World War. Half of Europe looked that way in 1945. In America in 2011, in Washington, in the rest of New York and across the country, the talk was of war and the buzz all about preparing for war. Only here at Ground Zero did it look as if a war  had come and gone and was already over.

[1] ‘Actions and Reaction’ by Graham Bowley in FT Magazine Sept 9/10, 2006.


[2] The final figures 10 years on were 2977 plus 19 hijackers (according to an editorial in The Guardian).

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