Immediately after 911 you got the sense that the one-year commemoratives were already being planned — once a country famously lacking a memory, America has become, like the old Soviet Union, one that dotes on anniversaries, statues and ribbon wearing. And as I discovered when visiting New York during its Mardi Gras of mourning, Manhattan was more than ready for showtime.
The Empire State Building went black, bagpipers converged from each of the city’s five boroughs to the crater that had been the World Trade Center, and all the city‘s church bells rang at 10:29 a.m., the moment the North Tower had collapsed. Although New Yorkers would mark the day in many ways, from candlelight vigils in parks to special concerts, the mega-requiems were at windblasted Ground Zero, where the names of all the WTC dead were read to somber musical accompaniment (one of the readers appended the word “American” after the names he read), and later, a presidential wreath-laying in Battery Park. Attended by the victims’ survivors, these tributes were closed to the public, a fitting metaphor for George W. Bush‘s privatization of government and public land, as well as his administration’s transformation of the entire country into a giant airport terminal where citizens are frisked on demand and dissenting comments and jokes are grounds for arrest.
There were, however, many protests against the looming turkey shoot with Iraq. The evening before, Washington Square Park — ironically, one of the city‘s most heavily video-surveilled areas — was filled with mostly young people both memorializing the WTC victims and protesting Bush’s invasion plans. And on the night of the 11th, a hot, sweaty crowd packed St. Mark‘s Church in the Bowery to hear performance-minister Reverend Billy conduct a rollicking, choir-fueled peace service. Guest speakers included Kurt Vonnegut and Malachy McCourt, who referred to the administration as the “axis of arseholes.”
On September 12, Bush drove to the United Nations, now ringed with dirt-filled dump trucks, to engage in the second favorite sport of American presidents — lecturing the rest of the world. And, to be honest, one feels that the rest of the world, recognizing itself as craven, venal and irresolute, truly wants to be lectured — if only it could make out what our court-appointed leader was saying. What, after all, did Bush mean the week before, when he said, “And the world must understand that its credibility is at stake”?
Well away from the General Assembly building, 200 demonstrators had gathered in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. I did not get a good vibe approaching them. Perhaps it was the welcoming committee of sullen protesters on Second Avenue chanting support for Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe. Or maybe it was the large cadre of Lyndon LaRouche zombies or even the distracting exercises of some Falun Gong adherents. Subtracting these groups, you were left with a core of little ladies from the teachers union, longhaired youths carrying camcorders and old graybeards holding “Let Iraq Live” signs — all straining to hear speakers over the worst PA system heard outside of a square dance. Still, a few volunteered to be arrested and were quickly obliged by an army of cops. One man, in a vaguely Slavic accent, took the mike and tried to interest us in this poetic chant: “Attacking the bourgeoisie is patriotic! Attacking the bourgeoisie is patriotic!”
When they brought out the folksinger, I knew it was time to go. Charitable people say that these minuscule protests against invasion of Iraq are just the beginning and that the left is roughly where it was in 1965, when the first small groups of turtlenecked students began picking up neatly lettered protest signs in the crisp autumn air of the Great Society. But this wasn’t 1965, and New York‘s globally warmed air did not feel crisp or new.
The momentum, instead, belongs to people like the WTC survivors — a litigious group that is an ambulance-chaser’s dream and which has the clout to banish into the political corn field any officials unable to accommodate their demands. These included the erection of a fiberglass monument similar to the Vietnam War memorial wall, inscribed with the names of all the people killed at the WTC under the words “The Heroes of September 11, 2001” — although no one has explained what was heroic about civilians who happened to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The best explanation of why New York has not lived up to its tough-guy image and moved on is that it is still shell-shocked — and secretly afraid that, contrary to what The New York Times has been saying for the last 375 days, the rest of the world has not been forever changed by the deaths of 2,800 New Yorkers.
Indeed, the anniversary‘s heightened-alert fever had less to do with the possibility of New York’s being attacked again and more with the fear that the rest of America thinks about 911 only when it has to remove its shoes at airport-security checkpoints. And, frankly, many New Yorkers I‘ve spoken to are fed up with the media’s endless stream of stories of memorial quilts, hero dogs or how 911 affected a small Midwestern town.
On the other hand, the 911 emotions found on the street are not some bogus reflex created by the press. A palpable sorrow darkens the sidewalk in front of St. Paul‘s Church, whose front wall is covered with letters, flowers, rosaries and baseball caps, as well as beside the memorial wall in Union Square and in Grand Central Station, or the statue of the kneeling fireman at Eighth Avenue and 45th Street. And there was nothing more heartfelt than the tears streaming down the faces of cast members and stagehands during the curtain for Hairspray after its September 11 matinee. New York is like the widow or widower who just cannot stop grieving and move on with their lives, but sooner than later the city will have to move on. Nothing less than its credibility is at stake.