My son is pointing out the construction in downtown New York on a warm summer week-end evening.
I look and something magical happens.
I look and, for the first time in over a decade, I see the downtown area not as the scene of disaster and misery I had witnessed on that day. I see a new proud addition to our city’s skyline, a building that is beautiful in its simplicity and delicate balance, a building dedicated to moving forward, a building dedicated to the future, to generations of kids, like my 7-year-old son, who were born after the towers fell. To him, there’s only been one world trade center tower. For him, the idea of airplanes visiting death and destruction over that area is something that will be taught in history class.
In September 2001, we paid tribute to the victims and mentioned we would never forget. And for my generation, a generation that grew up through the explosion of the Challenger shuttle and settle down through the destruction of two square towers in downtown Manhattan, times are changing. A generation that came of age during a popular war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein and started entering middle age during an unpopular war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein.
A new tower is rising in downtown Manhattan; A tower to be proud of; A tower that dominates the downtown skyline without overwhelming it; A tower that shows that the forces of good always win out over the forces of evil; A tower that was born out of compromise and cooperation between some of the best minds around the globe; A tower that seemed to take too long to be built but now appears to be growing so quickly it bewilders the mind; A tower that embodies all the complexities of the American spirit.
And just as a Shuttle made its way to New York this year and NASA showed us it could still amaze by letting a robot follow a set of pre-programmed instructions go and land on a remote planet, the new tower downtown reminds us of everything that is great about New York and about the USA. And why, when others are saying that our best days are behind us, I still believe in the future and its potential.
There’s a new energy in New York and you can feel it rising through the air. The tech scene has re-emerged, stronger than ever and a new generation of entrepreneurs joins more seasoned (and weather-beaten) ones like myself in our continuous effort to build on the past and create the future. The sense of optimism is palpable in most of the city. In downtown Manhattan, the financial industry is still reeling from its self-inflicted wounds but now somewhat more cowed, it seems to have become more accepting of the newcomers. Midtown, the advertising and media businesses are starting to understand that roads are not being built by first creating walls but by tearing them down.
The transition for existing industries to new models in the new economy seem to mirror what has happened at ground zero: There was widespread destruction, which led to anger and resistance. But then, slowly, over a decade, taking one step after another (and occasionally taking the wrong step), a sense of direction was found through inclusion of new ideas and new concepts to create something entirely different than what was there before. Today’s media companies and advertising agencies scarcely look like the ones from a decade ago: whole industries transformed just as a our downtown skyline has been transformed.
This 11th year brings the 3rd US presidential election since the towers fell. But it also brings something new: a sense of closure on those events. Neither presidential convention mentioned much about that day. While it was fashionable for politicians to wrap oneself in an American flag in front of New York city, 9/11 has finally put in the category of historical events. President Obama caught Osama, the person most identified as public enemy #1, and has had the decency to not overwhelm us with that fact.
I still get a cold chill running down my back when I hear people chanting “USA” at the mention of killing Osama Bin Laden. There’s something very inhuman to me to cheer at the death of an individual, something that brings to mind the two minutes hate in Orwell’s 1984. I remember being disturbed by it when people went to ground zero to “celebrate” that death and I felt it when the Democratic convention cheered with that chant at the mention of Bin Laden’s death.
And then, I realized what had happened when Obama made a crack at his opposition saying “they’re…. new.” The people who cheer at the death of Osama are “new” to 9/11. I doubt many who lived through that day at ground zero felt a need for celebration when our enemy died. A sense of closure, yes. But revenge, even served cold, is a dish that leaves a harsh taste in one’s mouth.
I am glad that 9/11 is no longer a political football, too removed into the past to continue being something one uses to advance one’s agenda.
What happened on 9/11 was horrible: everyone agrees with that. But how we interpret 9/11 as it recedes into history is substantially more complex. In a way, 9/11 is a mirror, a sort of historical Rorschach test, where what we interpret it as is as much a reflection of our own mindset as it is of reality.
I hear that the giant pools that were places as a memorial to the fallen are overwhelming. I must be honest and say I haven’t been yet (up until recently, the memories of that day made it difficult for me to get near ground zero, a fact that became very clear when I went to visit the Occupy Wall Street encampment last year, which sat just on the edge of ground zero: I still, then, felt a certain unease about being close to where the towers fell) but I now understand the design choice much better.
It’s all about the simplicity of water as a reflective element. When one looks at dark pools of water, what one sees is nothing more than the reflection of what haunts them. You can look at see holes, loss, horror; you can look and see design, genius, creativity; you can look and see nature, connection, rebirth; you can look and see anything you choose to see because at the end of the day, the pools are a mirror, one that reflects your own internal views.
Ground zero has gone through all the primordial elements that make the world what it is today.
On the day of the disaster, we saw nothing but fire and dust, a world of confusion and destruction. On the days beyond it, we worried about the air, as the noxious fires from the pile kept on burning, and water, as worries about the protective walls around ground zero arose.
Fire. Dust. Air. Water.
Life and death.
Past, present, and future.
The core of our world, in an area smaller than a football stadium.
The struggles of humanity, all within a single glance.
The core of our history, in one location.
A marker that, once a year, gives us a time to reflect, look back and think about the future.
I look at the new tower and, for the first, I see it through the eyes of a 7 year old child: I see something beautiful, a marvel of engineering that warms my heart and makes me proud to be a New Yorker.
Carlos Dominguez, Mark Ellis, Melissa Vincent, Michael DiPasquale, Cynthia Giugliano, Jeremy Glick, David Halderman, Steve Weinberg, Gerard Jean Baptiste, Tom McCann, David Vera.
This post is part of a continuing series in which I remember those I knew who were lost on that day. Here are the previous years: 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002. For context, you might want to read The day after, which is about as raw as one can get about that day as I wrote that piece less than 36 hours after the first plane hit. This is the longest series I’ve ever written and I expect to continue yearly until I can no longer write.