The image is a wire service photo taken in Pakistan, less than one month after the Twin Towers fell. As we remember our losses, let us remember our enemies as well, since they still intend to incinerate all of us.
Here is what I remember of the days following the attack:
I got to NYC as soon as the planes started flying again. Coming into the city, which seemed as still as a prop in a science fiction movie, we were stopped at a roadblock — everyone coming into the city was being stopped and ID'ed — and all our bags were hauled out of the van and searched. Our driver, who'd immigrated from some African hellhole and who was too familiar with roadblocks, was near panic. "This is not America," he kept saying. Finally, one of the exhausted NYPD cops, snapped back, "It is now."
When I lived in the city, I had a loft on 125 Cedar Street, directly across the street from the South Tower. When we'd rehabbed the old tax scofflaw building, all my friends and I used to joke that it was on the verge of falling down. The punch line is that on the day when everything else fell down, the old building stood.
My best friend still lived in the building, and on that day he became one of its heroes. His is one of the strangest stories of that day, but it's his story to tell, not mine. I have heard it all, and it is the stuff of nightmares.
He was being allowed to return to the building for the first time, he'd told me, and he hoped that I'd be willing to go with him. Of course, I said. We spent an hour or so getting through the police lines, then were issued a police escort and haz-mat masks because of the...high organic content...of the ash. The fires were still burning in the multistory wreckage of the towers; site workers were still collecting...pieces...of my fellow citizens in five gallon plastic buckets. The smell was...as I imagine the smell at the gates of Hell might be...overheated steel and ash, underlaid with the stench of...burned meat...that seared the back of the throat and that I smell to this day.
We waded through the ash into the building. Because it faced the South Tower, as the Tower collapsed onto itself, the huge rush of air and debris blew out the lower Tower windows, blasting our old loft building with ash, with office equipment, paper, computers...and people. The...remains...had been removed and quick widows thrown over the hollow places. Part of the famous World Trade Center facade was in my old kitchen, rammed into the cabinets that I'd hung myself.
Of course the apartments had been looted, jewelry, money, anything that could be easily carried out in the confusion. "Looted?" our police escort asked, and my friend nodded. "I'm sorry, man," the cop said. "We would have shot the sons of bitches, but there was so much else..." My friend said it didn't matter, again and again. "We would have shot 'em...," the police officer said, and then tears rolled down his face. "Goddamn it, we couldn't save anybody..." My friend held him and we stood in the ashes and cried.
Going out, we passed the engine company that had occupied the first floor; I remembered the guys laughing and playing cards at night when I'd been back in the city to visit my friends. They were among the first responders for the South Tower. The wreckage was pasted over with plywood, on which someone had spray-painted, "Thank you. We will never forget you."
We went to a lower east side bar, my friend and I, and we drank. The whole city smell like burned ash, and there was grit in the drinks.
Here is what I remember from the first night, when I stood in the rain ourside the police lines as the wreckage steamed and burned...I remember the signs, the "Have You Seen" hand-lettered posters that covered every available surface...brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, husbands wives, children, lovers...so many faces, their names fading and running in the cold rain...nobody talked...I was standing next to a Hasidic couple who'd brought their small child; behind me was a couple in formal wear, him a tux, her a black cocktail dress...we were all soaked, but nobody left. The bulldozers were working through the night, and sometimes flares of flame roared toward the sky.
"You can feel them, you know," my friend told me. "The lost; the dead. You can feel them."
And I could, an endless scream of terror and loss...and all we could do is stand in the rain.
So now we are five years into World War III, and where are we? I wish I was more optimistic than I really am. Every day I thank those shadow warriors who I believe have kept us from another day like the one five years ago. Read this article in the National Review. These men and women fight in the dark, die in the dark...and in the end, hold back the that dark from us. They are the best of us.
Then I suggest you read novelist Martin Amis' brilliant three-part essay on The Age of Horrorism. There are things in the essay that you might not agree with or that might make you uncomfortable, but it should be read by every American and taught in the schools. Here's just a tiny bit of it:
Suicide-mass murder is astonishingly alien, so alien, in fact, that Western opinion has been unable to formulate a rational response to it. A rational response would be something like an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust. But we haven't managed that. What we have managed, on the whole, is a murmur of dissonant evasion. Paul Berman's best chapter, in Terror and Liberalism, is mildly entitled 'Wishful Thinking' - and Berman is in general a mild-mannered man. But this is a very tough and persistent analysis of our extraordinary uncertainty. It is impossible to read it without cold fascination and a consciousness of disgrace. I felt disgrace, during its early pages, because I had done it too, and in print, early on. Contemplating intense violence, you very rationally ask yourself, what are the reasons for this? And compassionately frowning newscasters are still asking that same question. It is time to move on. We are not dealing in reasons because we are not dealing in reason.Not dealing in reason...perhaps the most worthless word in the English language is, "Why?" Paradoxically, it is a word we in America love over all others. That's because we believe in our hearts that if we can understand the "whys," we can find the path of first, acceptance, then change, because at their core, all people are indeed the same.
That is the tragic misconception upon which we base our future survival as a people and as a country.
Five years have passed. We cannot say enough times "thank you" to the firefighters, the police, the construction workers, the people of NYC and Washington D.C. Or to the passengers and crew of Flight 93, who showed us the way to grace. In truth, we will never forget you.