There was one positive side-effect of 9/11/01, and it was that people in New York actually talked to one another, and not just about pain and suffering. Those were sharp, but the whole grief machine has been grossly overplayed. This last anniversary of 9/11 there were almost no New Yorkers at the ritual sob-fest at Ground Zero beyond families and friends of the dead, security forces and conspiracy peddlers, conspicuous in black T-shirts emblazoned, "Investigate 911". There were some curiosity seekers, like me, and a lot of tourists consulting their maps of Manhattan. Otherwise the day’s commemoration was a sideshow for New York, demanding little or no comment.
After that first September 11, though, New Yorkers did talk, and they talked about US foreign policy, and the place of America in the world across the past 50 years, and Israel-Palestine, and why the hell people "hate us" so much. These were raucous conversations — in Union Square, in Washington Square, in local bars and coffee shops. I got into more passionate discussions, and edgy discussions, amid the stink and the smoke than I ever have in this city and than I fear I ever will.
Five years on, what was the rump of discussion? Not US foreign policy, not America’s role in the world, not capitalism, not even oil, which always was too easy, and surely not Palestine. It was NORAD and Building 7 and "scrambling" and demolition charges. The only oppositional presence at Ground Zero were the people in the black T-shirts. And you have to hand it to them; they did organize. But their presence in the absence of anything else spelled just how far we’ve fallen. The peace movement, nowhere. The justice movement, nowhere. Any tendency toward a humanistic, liberated future, nowhere. There was one frowning woman carrying a rainbow flag with the tedious slogan, cobbled up by UFPJ for the 2004 Republican Convention — along the lines of "We say no to the Bush agenda" — and a monk or two. Meanwhile, the people in black T- shirts were busy handing out fliers, handing out DVDs, urging people to go to their computers, to "Do the research yourselves…"
Here was the ultimate failure of politics, translated, Go to your room, alone, immerse yourself in ephemera, alone, meet others just like yourselves so you can talk endlessly about this or that loose end lately discovered in your hours of isolation in front of the screen.
Scratch some of these people and out pours the kind of conversation that was possible in 2001, but it’s quickly subsumed because this is "the most important thing": that Bush et al. organized 9/11, are the very embodiment of evil, have lied about what happened that day, which is the most important lie on the most important day in American history. As Alexander Cockburn has pointed out, they have absolute faith in the military capability of the United States, despite the evidence of Iraq. They have absolute confidence in the machinery of state to do WHAT IT MUST DO to protect "us". I haven’t heard such paeans to the power of NORAD since I talked to military flaks for Space Command while researching the technological absurdity that is missile defense.
The people in black T-shirts have a TV-watcher’s misapprehension of time. Again and again they would say, with touching conviction, that the military-government machinery had as much as thirty minutes to an hour and fifty minutes — between 8:14 am, when Flight 11’s transponder was switched off, and 8:46 when the South Tower was hit, 9:03 when the North Tower was hit, 9:37 when the Pentagon was hit and 10:03 when Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania — to get other commercial planes out of the air, give the Air Force the order, find the errant planes, shoot them down and save the day, or at least some of it. I mentioned to one young kid that it sounded as if he’d watched too many episodes of "24", to which he responded tetchily that he’d never heard of "24" — one of the most popular shows on television the last four years — and didn’t own a TV.
Maybe so, but then "24" is in the air conditioning system of the culture, and this kid and the others have breathed deep because their imagining of what it takes to actually move something in a bureaucracy is totally shaped by it. Each episode Jack Bauer has exactly an hour (counting commercials) to extract some information, follow a hazy lead, handle some personal business and either save the day or at least kill or torture someone which will make saving the day that much easier in next week’s show. And he does it alone, with his girlfriend on the end of a cell phone and another woman friend with a laptop and sometimes the help of a SWAT team. It’s very exciting TV and absolutely remote from reality. But the people in the black T- shirts all spoke about how much time the bureaucrats had to act, "and they didn’t!! Why?"
Because government is slow, because the military is slow, because shit doesn’t work? They just laughed at me, shook their head at such naivete: "Just promise me this, do the research…"
Some of the black T-shirts told me they believed that if only Americans did the research there would be a mass uprising in this country and all the other things I was talking about would suddenly be on the table. But about a third of Americans already believes 9/11 was an inside job. I asked if they really thought "Do the Research" was a galvanizing slogan, to which I was corrected that the more popular slogan was "Ask Questions, Demand Answers". To which the neophyte might ask, What questions? And then be answered with a barrage of details about NORAD and the burning point of steel and what Larry Silverstein said about Building 7 and what a firefighter said he’d heard at what hour and how there’d been "repairmen" working on a World Trade Center elevator in the weeks or days before the attack. At this point the neophyte walks off, with literature and a DVD, never to be heard from again. One of the people in the black T-shirts agreed that it was a complex message to lay on people, but the fault lay, naturally, with the people. "It’s not a sound bite, and people have been conditioned to hear only sound bites."
Maybe this is all a distraction? A South Asian chap joined me in this line of argument. "A distraction from what?" the black T-shirt asked. "From US foreign policy", the fellow replied. He too was verbally pummeled with data from Professor Griffin, and assurances that once people really tapped into this they’d "see" how this is just one lie, the biggest lie, on top of a whole lot of other lies that constitute US foreign policy. Why not just start with US foreign policy? Because this is the biggest lie. This is what crystallizes everything. Round and round we go.
How do you explain such perfect discipline and silence in the face of horror? "Look at the Manhattan Project; that was a really well kept secret that involved many, many people."
Apart from the fact that the Manhattan Project seems to have been kind of an open secret in international physics circles, and the secrets did get out, courtesy of spies who thought the US should not be the only nation on earth to have the Bomb, there is the matter of remorse. Most people don’t like living with the memory that they have blood on their hands. Oppenheimer didn’t. I’m sure scores of lower level scientists didn’t once the Bomb wasn’t a theoretical problem or a test in the desert but the consuming fire of Hiroshima and, especially, Nagasaki.
It’s inconceivable that five years after September 11 no one involved in the incineration of thousands of people would have regrets, second thoughts — or even towering self-interest. Imagine the book deal, the movie deal waiting for that whistle blower.
What happened to Flight 77, the one that, according to the conspiracy theory, didn’t hit the Pentagon because a missile made that hole? Were all those people just taken somewhere and murdered? "Probably. Maybe, but that’s not for us to answer, that’s for them to answer."
Why use planes at all if you’d gone through all the trouble to place charges throughout the buildings? "They needed scapegoats. No one would have believed it was a terrorist attack."
But everyone believed the 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a terrorist attack. You think if the buildings had come down in a huge explosion people wouldn’t think, ‘terror’? "Not in the same way. They needed the spectacle."
Why is it so hard to believe that when you kick people around for so long, destroy their countries and kill their children, eventually someone will kick back? "Sure they’ll want to, but they couldn’t have done this. You’ve just got to do the research." There were lots of references to "people in caves" who couldn’t possibly have pulled something like this off. Only America, only the most powerful nation on earth, could do something so big.
It was like religion, and profoundly sad. At one point one of the black T-shirts confessed that there’s nothing people can do in the face of such evil, because they killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11 and they’ll have no compunction to kill their critics if they need to. What a starting point for politics, and the best argument for why people might as well go to their computer screens and just stay there. But the truth! We need to know the truth! It’s a truth of fools, simple in the extreme, requiring no more than the memorization of the "unexplained" events of that day, the eye-witness anecdotes and quick-fire repetition of same to others. It’s also the politics of the schoolroom, akin to the argument that if every American just sent in a dollar, we’d have $350 million to fight poverty. If every American just does the research, just demands the truth, the truth will come out, the columns will tremble, the temples fall.
I don’t believe the temples were going to fall because of those conversations in Union Square on that first September 11. But they were at least a logical starting point. At least they held possibilities. And I don’t believe that the woman in front of me at the bagel shop at the start of the bombing of Afghanistan (crying over a cover of the Times with the picture of smoke billowing from the Red Cross building that was eerily reminiscent, in smaller scale, of the pictures of the towers) was representative of everyone in New York. But there was a time when the simplest message of a lot of talk in the city was, "We don’t want this to happen ever again, not here, not anywhere."
After the towers fell a guy in a building on Cedar Street, a neighbor of my hand therapist with windows facing the wreckage, painted a huge black and white peace sign in one window and in the window beside it a simple counter to all the flags and nationalist hoo-ha that was sprouting around him to his disgust. "Dissent Is Patriotic", he wrote. Both those messages are still there, still looming above "hallowed ground", still easy to capture by chance in tourists’ cameras. But they meant something in 2001 that is different from what they could be imagined to mean on the fifth anniversary when the only dissenters were the black T-shirts. He never intended his peace sign as an accompaniment to arguments that theUS military is all-powerful and was just forced to stand down. He never intended "dissent" to be confined to a pissing match about the details of one day. There was something bigger and more encompassing, something about the whole long grim drama that brought us to 9/11 and the hope of reversing that, of imagining a different world.
Maybe there is some energy in the meetings of the conspiracy buyers and sellers, but if that’s true it’s all the sadder, because what a waste. At Union Square this September 11 there was no passionate discussion. The city held musical concerts all over New York; "a celebration" one of the bagpipers said. Odd word. So, mutely, people sunned themselves and listened. At Washington Square the only political message I noticed were huge chalked messages on the ground, "Save Darfur". Maybe we can get NORAD on the case.
A week later, September 19, George Bush came to town for the UN meeting and UFPJ called a little protest, but its emotion was unequal to the moment. At the end, after Jesse Jackson asked everyone to "Stop the War. Save the Children", and the crowd, having repeated the sing-song jingle without much conviction, was departing, the chant rose up, "9/11 was an inside job! 9/11 was an inside job!" There weren’t as many black T-shirts as had congregated by the hole the previous week. I saw a clutch of the same people I’d seen there, only now most were wearing more universal antiwar shirts. But even their passion was puny beside that of the followers of Maryam Rajavi and the People’s Mojahedin of Iran. I’ve never seen the comely Maryam and her husband, I presume, Mohammed, but their portraits were held aloft by throngs of peppy Iranians, who had smiles and recorded music and a banging drum with cymbals. When they moved, it was with purposeful excitement. Their flags flapped gayly, and they’d decorated their podium with gold papier mache lions and buckets of sunflowers. An enthusiastic bunch, so different from the sadsacks on the antiwar side of the street.
Soon after the Iranian rally kicked off, a parade of men started up 47th Street from 2nd Avenue toward 1st, arms raised, flags aloft, American and Pakistani ones this time, as well as bobbing portraits of their hero, Musharraf. The joy of the dictator’s devotees was matched by that of his opponents, who pressed hard against a barricade on 1st Avenue with their own Pakistani flags, portraits of Benazir and Jinnah and signs denouncing Musharraf and all he stood for. Near them were Thais in yellow T-shirts, more beaming faces and flags flying, more bouyant cries against Thaksin ("Thugs-in" on their handmade signs) who that morning was deposed, and next to them the Musharraf brigade.
Whatever one makes of their politics, weighed against the dominant home-grown American images of the morning — policemen, police dogs, police vehicles, secret service, rooftop sharpshooters, SWAT teams, men in suits riding shotgun in SUVs with carbines, underdogged peace activists, black T-shirts — the foreign delegations of celebration or resistance conveyed one message: We’re swinging now. America is finished.
JoANN WYPIJEWSKI can be reached at email@example.com