Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Now-ghostly glimpses: My June 2001 pictures of the World Trade Center

Twice this morning, on my way to and from the newsstand, I walked past the spot on my street where you can see the forehead and white spires of the Sears Tower peeking between two buildings. Both times, at first I saw only clear blue sky, and panicked. Then I realized my angle was just a little off; a few steps further and the massive tower reappeared.

I've never looked at the Sears Tower the same way since September 11, and never will. My affection for it is deeper, as is my appreciation of its engineering genius, its architecturally parental role on the Chicago skyline, its ability to define city spirit for Chicagoans.

It's odd: the Sears, the Hancock Tower its sibling which looks down at our apartment from less than a mile away, and the World Trade Center twin towers were hoisted in an age, some thirty years ago, that valued distant gigantism--colossal structures that fixed the gaze but seemed cold and detached; they failed to inflame warmth and intimacy among those who walked by them and worked in them.

That's why it's so interesting to see how these buildings now evoke such passion in us; they strike in us thoughts not of cold engineering, but of people--people we lost or dread the thought of losing. The buildings built as cold banks now bring us to tears.

If anything is hard to put into words, one's emotions about September 11 are. Nancy Gibbs of Time magazine, as usual, is among the most poignant. She wrote last week about today:

TimeAn anniversary can be sweet or solemn, but either way, it is only the echo, not the cry. From this distance, we can hear whatever we are listening for. We can argue that Sept. 11 changed everything—or nothing. The country is more united, and less; more fearful and more secure, more serious and more devoted to American Idol. It is like looking at your child's baby pictures. You know exactly who it is: every feature is both different and the same, despite new expressions, and furrows and knowledge.

Holding two contradictory ideas in your head was supposed to be a sign of first-rate intelligence. Now it just feels like a vital sign. To say we have changed feels like rewarding the enemy, but to deny it risks losing the knowledge for which we paid a terrible price—knowledge about who we become under pressure, in public and private. People talked about living on a higher plane, with an intensity of fear and faith and gratitude, when it was easy to salute and hard to sleep and nothing was bland or phony or cheap. But we could not live there forever; it was like the day you graduate from high school or your first child is born or your father dies—days of power and insight that grab you for a moment and, when they let you go, leave marks on your skin.

Here's what I wrote in Chimes last September:

Put no faith in “national security.” Hope only for the coming restoration of shalom. Do not wonder if you will ever feel safe walking around in this world again. Rejoice that you will peacefully walk around in the next one forever. Do not regret the shattering of American confidence. Lament the devouring of human life. In times of earth-shattering destruction, we are urged not only to weep, but to consider our destiny as, in the words of our leaders, “a civilized people.” Directly or indirectly, we are led to reflect on the narrative of our nation, a people progressing towards prosperity and prestige. ... What is less bold and plain to us is that American destiny and Christian destiny often diverge. America’s strong, steady march towards its own perfection through technology, medicine, and wealth, its own triumph over the evil it defines (four months ago, the U.S. gave money to the Taliban), is a different path from the Christian duty to suffer, to stick out, and to hope solely for the New City.

Also, my impressions of being in Chicago after the attacks:

NY TimesMy Sept. 11 scrapbook and other links from Sept. 11, 2001 and aftermath:
• NY Times, Sept 11, 2001, Plane Crashes Collapse World Trade Center Towers
• NY Times dramatic narrative: Fighting for life 50 floors up
• Sept. 11 newspaper front pages from around the nation
• James Lileks: the week after:

I wrote earlier this week about the difference between media and reality. It's worth noting that the vast majority of Americans experienced the terrorist attacks through media. Many have never been to Lower Manhattan or Washington D.C., and hardly anyone has been to Sommerset, Pa. TV critic Aaron Barnhardt's diary of watching TV on Sept. 11, 2001, is thus well-worth revisiting:

Finally, I can't help visiting the cultural question about irony amid the reverence of today. I was watching Letterman last night, the show whose somber tone last September helped capture the national mood. Last night Letterman joked that the bad news is Iraq has a nuclear bomb, the good news is they have to drop it off a camel. Whether this strikes the proper balance between useful expression, through humor, of our fear and disdain of a distant enemy, without being trite about horrific weapons that could take American lives in the next decade, is unclear. Still, humor is an important tool to try to get a grip on reality. The Onion was one of the most useful forms of media last fall. Ron Rosenbaum writes today in Slate:

And this is a time, isn't it, when there's a kind of hyper-vigilance for all forms of irreverence, which is usually defined as whatever someone doesn't like. Remember "irony is dead"? Looking back on what I've written over the past year, one of things I'm most glad to have said very early on is that "Irony is what we're fighting for"; irony (properly defined as skepticism, not mere sarcasm) is what theocrats hate most.

Irony--when, as Rosenbaum says, it is functional and responsible skepticism--is how we humbly sense the nuances of reality, whether reality is the quiet goodness of a family evening or the fiery hell of buildings crashing into skyscrapers.

We are, after all, small beings, who make bold pronouncements about destiny at our peril. We live in God's good world which was invaded by evil, and visited by his grace. As I wrote above, when we find meaning in his narrative, and not our infinitesimal personhood, we can actually live at peace, post-September 11.

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