And for what?
A love letter from New York, in ruins
September 12, 2001
He says to me from the roof on this sunny crisp day, "there's been
a bomb or something at the World Trade Center," and I rush up and we
are standing under a glorious crisp morning sky watching the billowing smoke
rising from the upper half of the northernmost World Trade Center building
and then, there is a plane, looking brown or black under the sun, flying
so low, looking big, and it lists to its side and its belly brushes against
the southernmost building's center and then there is a fireball and the
delayed sound of two booms and then there is a second pillar of smoke and
a mushroom cloud and the parallel billowing smoke drifts in the wind. We
run up and down the steep stairs between the roof and the apartment, alternating
between the reality of the destruction we can see with our own eyes and
the virtual reality that plays on TV.
That is what is so surreal, this alternation between the reality of destruction
we have just witnessed, the sense of disorientation and the rush of news
that comes over the airwaves. This news comes in bit by bit: we hear that
eight -- and then ten -- planes have been hijacked (only 4 had been), that
the Pentagon is also been hit in a kamikaze attack, that there is a fire
on the Washington Mall, that there have been explosions at the State Department
and at the Capitol Hill (there hadn't), that Sears Tower in Chicago was
hit (it wasn't).
Was it bombs or gas leaks that caused the final implosions that pulled
down the World Trade Center towers floor by floor from above, surrounded
by pale gray dust and smoke? No one knows. We see fighter jets taking off,
flying overhead, circling the city, their roar trailing behind them, and
we hear that the borders, the airports, the bridges, the tunnels are closed.
All this before 11 a.m.
The surreality continues. At the diner down the street, everyone acts
like nothing has happened. And all the while bulldozers and debris-removal
trucks and fuel tanks and ambulances are driving towards Manhattan. We didn't
believe it all, we sit there in the morning and watch the World Trade Center
buildings fall one by one: we had looked at them only two days ago, Jason
and Geoff and I, under a glorious sunny Sunday sky, gleaming shimmering
iridescent under the hot sun, at the far end of our viewpoint and I had
thought, incidentally, that those two buildings of mirror and steel had
been so representative of all that is glorious and arrogant about the US,
all that is beautiful and vast and horrifying, that there at the end of
Manhattan, they have stood, the most recognizable silhouettes in the city
-- and when they fell, we couldn't believe that looking across at Manhattan
they won't stand there anymore menacing and beautiful, and that when walking
south on 6th avenue, we won't see them looming there at twilight, and we
won't be able to orient ourselves when climbing out of the subway anymore
by looking for the twin towers. At night, tonight, the city still shimmers
and there, instead of that rising pyramid of light that used to be downtown,
there is a black hole spewing billowing white smoke against a dark sky whose
stars can actually be viewed.
We call anyone we know that can be working on Wall Street and we call
our parents and lovers and friends. "Circuit busy" messages repeat
over and over. The lines are not responding. The tall telecommunication
tower on top of the World Trace Center is lying in ruins somewhere among
the white dust that covers everything in a ghostly post-apocalyptic dressing.
We don't know about the dead. We hear that people had been jumping out
of the buildings. We hear that the top floors of the buildings -- those
above where the planes plowed through in firey lines of death and destruction
were not evacuated. There are images of burnt cars and buses on the television,
and we have no way of knowing if they were empty or not. The gratuitous
television reports are all about body parts floating in the air, along with
fluttering pictures of laughing children swept away from desktops in the
Without any irony, without any sense of any historical connection, the
reporters compare downtown New York, under piles of fine dust and ash, burnt,
twisted metal, smoke, glass and all, to Beirut. We watch the streams of
people on the bridges, we hear the sirens wailing all over, streets are
rearranged, driving patterns are redrawn to allow rescue vehicles, fire
engines, ambulances, police cars through, the air force jets circle (and
each roar in that otherwise quiet sky scares us: another hijacked plane?).
And then there is the scare-mongering on the local CBS news station (which
reports only sparingly about what may be going on in Washington, and repeats,
over and over and over again interviews with stranded travelers, with eyewitnesses,
with city officials) -- there are the Israeli "experts," the settlers
calling in from the West Bank to give their "considered opinions,"
the old White men calling for attacks and punishment, for fists and for
retaliation -- but on whom? And where? And what about all the meaningless
rhetoric about attacks on freedom and democracy? These are not attacks on
freedom and democracy. This is an attack against US complacency in its power,
of its sense of safety in its cocoon of military allies and military arms,
thinking itself safe in its policies, in its sunny optimism... but the thing
is that the people who were killed in those buildings were ordinary people,
they were fathers and sons and children, and how can this savagery, this
shredding of bodies and buildings help anything and anyone? And who has
And I fear things I never had felt: I fear internment, and harassment
at the airports, I fear the looks on the streets, and I feel grim and I
feel dirty, and I feel guilty. Guilty! For what? For a bunch of zealots
doing what I cannot contemplate, in revenge for some horribly inhuman treatment
that is also beyond human comprehension? How do we ever rescue our dignity,
fight for a cause, when so much devastation and havoc is wreaked by other
people with whom you seemingly share this belief in the cause? And what
to do for this wounded injured bloodied humanity that has lain to ruin in
so many places in so many ways, by so many hands... And for what? And there
is the grotesque celebrations in the West Bank. How can a suffering people
feel no empathy?
But hours later, after I have slept -- solely to shut out the news --
I can't bear it anymore: I want to escape from the "experts,"
from the only remnant of everyday quotidian news still coming through: the
financial news out of Tokyo! I go off walking in the deserted streets of
Brooklyn, the billowing dust above the fallen buildings of Manhattan hanging
over us like clouds, having turned a peachy color, and the scent of smoke
engulfs me whenever an eastern wind blows, and in that quiet of a beautiful
afternoon twilight, I hear the ordinary people having ordinary conversations.
These conversations are not entirely restorative -- nothing can be after
such carnage, but there is a sense of reality -- a quiet urgency which has
nothing to do with Israeli experts and bombing attacks against other countries:
it's about white ash on the bridges, about having walked for miles from
Manhattan to Brooklyn, and about what has happened all day, all the deaths,
all the destruction.
And what it does, my lover, is it makes me want to come home to you,
to be with you, to feel safe in your arms, to feel respite, to escape this
devastation and defeat, to leave this behind. This city, with its skin and
flesh gouged out is not my haven anymore. It is my old beloved lover, my
wounded sickly old home. My haven is now you -- because in these devastating
moments, the only thing I could imagine, the only thing I could think of,
the only thing that could enwrap me, soothe my fears, my apprehension, my
disgust with humanity, hold me close and safe, is you. You and you alone.
And I realized that for loving you, I want to be alive, and I want to live
a long life and I want to live it with you. And I am afraid of this uncertainty
that is so much like the uncertainty of war-torn Iran when I lived there
during the war with Iraq. And to counter this uncertainty, I need the certainty
of your hands upon my skin.
I love you.