NOTE: This article appeared in the issue of NR immediately
following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on America. Brookhiser writes
from lower Manhattan.
there appeared a great wonder in Heaven.
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.
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.
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.
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.