The day of infamy was a perfect September day in New York. The city had been stifling under a mask of late summer humidity; the night before it had broken in a torrential thunderstorm; an inch of water had fallen in a quarter of an hour. But the next morning was bright, blue, at the edge of crisp.
As rumor, the dog of panic, made its way, the story pieced itself together. People stood on street corners that had views to the south, the direction of the financial district. Truckdrivers turned their radios up, dog walkers slowed to listen as they passed. From the World Trade Towers, distant and gleaming, stretched a thick windsock of smoke. A plane had crashed into it, said a looker-on. This had happened to the Empire State Building, decades ago, by accident. But then one who was more in the know said it had been two airplanes, one in each tower. This was the piece labeled intent. At a hospital, miles north of the scene, the squat EMS vans were already homing in like carrier pigeons. At my voting place (it was primary day), a poll worker, an old black woman, looked out the window and fretted with the soft pained sympathy of the last Christians on earth. As soon as one entered the realm of media, all became the usual fever of stimulation. Professionals trying to discover the truth said what they did not know. Leaders, joined for a brief moment with the led in bafflement, stiffly assumed the mask of command.
For in one hour so great riches is come to nought.
The World Trade Towers were slow to enter the affections of New Yorkers. The city’s previous tallest buildings — the Chrysler Building and the Empire State — will have the look of the future stamped on their aspiring lines as long as they stand. The World Trade Towers, tall though they were, seemed squat for being sawed off. The TV mast on Tower 2 only emphasized their apparent hunching. They didn’t even give the city the honor of having the tallest buildings in the world, as that distinction flitted to Chicago, then Kuala Lumpur.
Light helped them — dawn, dusk, moments of haze. So did their doubleness: It was very American, an amateur architecture critic pointed out to me, to design not one huge building, but two. Maybe the investors got a deal. The failed bombing attempt in 1993 sealed the buildings’ bargain with New Yorkers; evil foreigners had tried to do us wrong, but luck and pluck had seen the towers through.
If the United States had no residents of foreign birth or ethnicity, and if it had no foreign-policy dealings in any inflamed portion of the globe, it would still be the preeminent target of the postmodern age, for we, and especially New York, are the symbols of getting and spending, of capital and globalization. The fear of that power, as sin and symbol, is very great.
And the fruits that thy soul lusted after are departed from thee, and all things which were dainty and goodly are departed from thee, and thou shalt find them no more at all.
The merchants of these things, which were made rich by her, shall stand afar off for the fear of her torment, weeping and wailing, and saying, Alas, alas that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls!
This is not the scripture of the doers of the deed, but it is a universal sentiment. Babylon, Rome, London drew the envy and excited the resentment of rubes and poets everywhere. Of all the cities of the New World, Nieuw Amsterdam was most likely to take their place. Boston, Philadelphia were holy experiments. This city was always about trade, from beaver pelts to derivatives.
And much of that traffic, we know, was ill gotten. The city fathers outfitted pirates. Blackbirders slipped in ships full of slaves long after the slave trade was declared illegal. Wall Street sharpies cozened each other; entrepreneurs of distraction catered to Stanford White and Bowery wretches.
But, men being men, most of that traffic was daily and just, cleansed by their honest effort. Even Henry Adams, the most crabbed of our great historians, wrote that Americans, from inventors tinkering with steam engines to pioneers sweating in the trees, were not motivated primarily by greed, but by hope. The “contact of a moral atmosphere” made newcomers work and plan. In hovels and wilderness, they saw instead “a glowing continent.” St. John on Patmos had before his eyes a vision of the human heart in eternity; the workers of the world, once they came to New York and the United States, could have a vision of tomorrow, a little better than the day before.
At the anteroom of that continent, an hour after their rendezvous with hatred, the Towers went down in a cloud of grey snow. Suddenly the skyline went back to the War, to the Depression, to the 1939 World’s Fair. The figurehead on the prow of Manhattan had been sheared off, the masts and smokestacks of Midtown remained. In the grieving, and the wargaming, there will be more important things to consider, but let this point be on the agenda. The Towers will rise again, in all their slowly endearing ugliness. Or New York will design something new, on some other piece of real estate. Someone is already making the calls, figuring out the regs, working the aid packages. It may be built on Governor’s Island. Perhaps there will be something on the Brooklyn waterfront. Time now to look hard at those rail links. The world is full of devils, the hopped-up and the sickly-holy. But New York still has business to attend to.