On a bright, hot, summer day I finally go to see the 9/11 Memorial and head up the tower of One World Trade Center, to the beautifully named One World Observatory, to try to get a little perspective on things. It’s been 16 years now—a long enough time, theoretically, for us to have gained some insight on that tragic day, and the tragic days that followed—and my thought is that being way up in the sky might provide a similar sort of viewpoint, as if from such great heights, one might look down and see the world clearly.
I should admit that I was never really a fan of the architecture of the new tower—I found the big metal rings up by the lightning rod too industrial, the whole structure a little thick and graceless—but today my first sighting is a striking one. Emerging from the subway and into the light, I round a corner and there it is, rising up in the sun, perfectly reflecting the perfect day, so that on its surface and all around it are blue sky and little puffy white clouds. And then, at the entrance, in the cool shadow and wind of the western facade, I look straight up at one of the tower’s triangle flanks, and from this angle, it seems to go on forever—fading into an invisible point off in the infinite sky.
That’s the tagline of One World Observatory—See Forever—and when you get up there on a clear day, 1,250 feet into the heavens, it’s true. Looking east, you can see right to the clean, distant horizon, where afterwards it’s as if the world simply drops away, and the great sea pours off into nothingness. And there’s something in that phrase that seems to promise not just an ability to see forever in space, but also in time, as if from the observatory, one might reflect clearly on the past—and perhaps peer into the future, too. This notion is reinforced by the elevator ride, which takes you from the 450-million-year-old bedrock up to the 102nd floor, and along the way up shows you an animated time-lapse of 500 years of New York City.
But once I arrive at the top and look out at the view, I come to no fresh understanding about anything at all.
I don’t know what I thought coming here would do—that just by showing up, everything would somehow be made clear. But it’s not. Mostly, I just feel sad.
* * *
This is not a dishonest perspective. It is sad up here. Of course, it is beautiful, too—the toy boats and their curving white wakes in the harbor, the Lego set of buildings. I can see where I live with my wife and 2-year-old son from here, too, a small patchwork of trees and low structures over by the snaking Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. And there is indeed a sense in which, from that height, it does become One World—you can see people, tiny specks down there on the street—but you cannot tell if they are black or white, Republican or Democrat, pacifist or terrorist. I see three of them moving through the middle of a green park, tiny dark mites on a leaf.
For some strange reason, I find myself imagining a great flood, the harbors and rivers rising up and sweeping through the city streets and washing all those specks away. From up here, the event would seem almost trivial; millions of souls lost, and the view would pretty much look the same. Great distance can inspire this kind of nihilism. From up in the sky, it is all so insignificant. We are all so small. Nothing matters.
It is, perhaps, from such a lofty, impersonal perspective that bombs are dropped.
* * *
Another way to see things with objectivity, they say, is to examine the numbers. 16 years ago, on September 11, 2001, 2,997 people were killed in the terrorist attacks, a figure that includes the 19 hijackers. Since that day, we have lost more than 2,350 American servicemembers in Afghanistan, and 4,424 in Iraq. The number of our wounded in those wars is, officially, is over 52,000, though nearly a million veterans have filed disability claims with the US Department of Veteran Affairs.
We keep reasonably good track of our own dead and wounded, but when it comes to foreign casualties, the figures are much murkier. Iraq Body Count lists the number of documented Iraqi civilian deaths since 2003 as somewhere between 178,894 and 200,388. Including “combatants,” that number jumps to 268,000. In Afghanistan, the number of civilian casualties is well over 26,000, though again, no one knows for sure.
So many numbers all at once, and such staggering numbers at that, and it all starts to lose meaning. One way to think about it is simply this: as a direct result of the almost 3,000 souls lost 16 years ago, hundreds of thousands of more souls—many of them innocent women and children—have now been lost as well, and more are dying every day. (Yes, these specific figures may not be accurate right now, but even if they are, it is certain they will no longer be accurate next week.)
But the real problem with numbers, as scientific as they might be, is that they are just numbers—not human beings with names, and faces, and once beating hearts.
* * *
Back down on the ground, at the memorial, the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11 are honored by more than just an accurate number. In the empty footprints of the fallen towers are two beautiful cascading fountains, around which, in metal, are engraved the names of the lost. All those names. Signs encourage visitors to touch them, but that was what you were doing even before you saw the signs, running your fingers over the engravings and feeling the absence in each letter, the missing metal carved away: Domenick N. Mircovich . . . Michelle Scarpitta . . . Clive Ian Thompson . . .
Absences—this is what you are made aware of at the memorial—so that as much as there is something there, those two lovely, solemn fountains, you cannot help but to be conscious of what is not there, of what is now missing. In each fountain, the water cascades from the four edges down into the main pool with a great but peaceful hush, and then from there disappears into another absence, a smaller, central section you cannot see from the edge.
It is a fitting memorial, peaceful and reverent and sad, and it serves its purpose: to make us remember. We Will Never Forget, we say, and yes, of course, we never will, and never should, but there’s something in that phrase that always seemed a little off—as if it is not so much a promise to our lost as an oath to our enemies.
It is with such promises that wars go on forever. It’s been 16 years now, and we may have not forgotten, but we also have not moved on. We are more mired than ever in war—every day, on both sides of this sad, sick battle of ideologies, there occur terrible new incidents that will not be forgotten—that survivors swear they will never forget—and that thus will have repercussions, which will have repercussions, and on, and on, and on.
How can we expect to heal, when new wounds are opened every day? Yes, this war is not 16 years old—it is much, much older than that—and yet it is also much younger than that, too. This war is not even one day old, in the end, born again fresh every time another bomb goes off. And so if this war is ever to end, we have to somehow make sure that it does not begin again today.
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” I read, scrawled in purple chalk on the city pavement just a few days after the 9/11 attacks, and so it is. It is hard to see anything clearly when we are still in the middle of it. It is hard to see anything clearly when we are blind.
* * *
It was such a sad day, the 11th of September. And not only because of the unbearable tragedy of those innocent human beings lost but also because of what it said, and continues to say, about the state of the world: how all of us are lost.
How could it have come to this? And knowing how it feels to have had our friends and family and countrymen so senselessly torn away from us, how can we as a nation continue to participate in this madness?
From up in the tower, looking down at the fountains, you can see the central square into which all the water pours, the one you couldn’t see from down on the ground, and like the outer rim, the water there too is all a-sparkle with a thousand, thousand suns, as if that is what happened to all our lost, they became brilliant, beautiful light, not so much there to be remembered, as to remind us of something we seem to have forgotten.
From up there, too, looking down at the people far below, I was reminded of this little patch of flowers I spotted on the side of a trail while on a hike some years back—this tiny cluster of perfect, purple blossoms that altogether weren’t any bigger than my thumbnail, and that I almost didn’t notice. The shock of color caught my eye, though, and I crouched down there in the dust to look at them, and they were so lovely and so small, so terribly beautiful, and fragile, their existence so marvelous, and tenuous, that it almost broke my heart.
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