The new ergonomically-designed subway cars in New York City are all festooned with American flag decals. They are shiny and unmolested in stark contrast to the irrepressible graffiti and busy scratching of every surface in this city. The flags receive a kind of diplomatic immunity as symbols of sanctity in the new religion of national chauvinism.
I left New York City two weeks after the raw cleavage that was September 11. This city, which embraces transplants and dreamers from every corner of the earth seeking a fresh start, cannot really belong to those who come and go. It offers no love to transients, those with only half a heart for its rigors.
Despite having worked with people who lost family members in the World Trade Center attacks, I’ve resisted up until now visiting the site of the cataclysm. I know well the usefulness of this imagery in the prosecution of atrocities against the Arab and Islamic world. I know the narrative advanced by countless news report of this site as the emblem of a peaceful nation’s basic goodness, its secular (read “commodifying”) embrace of multicultural diversity, its blamelessness in the suffering of the world.
Still, I had to make the pilgrimage, like so many others, to comprehend the devastation and total loss that occurred here–to come to grips with the horror that human beings impose on each other through war. The unspeakable, heretical question is this: can anything good come out of such a deplorable act of barbarity? In the case of New York, the answer is, Yes.
The people of this city have a look about them that I’ve never seen before. It is a look of defiance and resilience that says, “To hell with you, I’m still here. I’ve survived.” It’s evident in the eyes of the elderly, the infirm, and the economically-sidelined. It’s in the furrowed brows and wry grimace of beleaguered businessmen. At the same time, in the expressions of lovers and strangers alike, there is a new recognition of the small joys.
There is a richer, more spontaneous and textured response to circumstances than I saw when I left. It’s in the sight of a trio of Korean evangelical Christians playing gentle folk music and handing out religious tracts in front of St. Mark’s Bookstore. Some native eccentricity surely shook itself loose in the weeks after the first jarring impact. Before September 11, a bloodless, conformity-inducing mood of privatized self-interest had taken hold, pervading all levels of the class hierarchy. New York City is anything but bloodless now.
In the first week after the attacks, even as I ran a panicky inventory of acquaintances who might have been lost, I remember having the guilty yet hopeful apprehension of the city being on the verge of a new cultural flourishing. Was this like the humbled and humanized Madrid that novelist Jose Ortega y Gasset found himself in following the devastating loss of the Spanish Empire in the 1898 war with the United States?
There is a great sorrow at Ground Zero, to be sure. But there is also a tangible and discomforting air of voyeurism, and a garish attraction to the visceral reality of destruction. Then there are the street vendors hawking mementos: American flags, framed photographs of the towers, and expensive disposable cameras. Amidst the jostling and angling for view, a cop shepherds tourists across the street with a brusque greeting of “Thanks for visiting us, folks, and thanks for spending money. Now get out.” It is hard to feel much in these moments.
In truth, it is the upper class–and by overwhelming majority, the white upper class–that is in mourning here. It is patriotic Americans from Cleveland and Atlanta, western European visitors, as well as the working-class enforcers of the public order: firemen, police and military people. There is a gray US Marine Corps sweatshirt with some dozen signatures and the scrawled message, “we will never forget you,” draped over the wrought iron fence of St. Paul’s Chapel. The makeshift shrines to the dead at Ground Zero are overwhelmed by expressions of condolence and declared strength from representatives of the military and police forces from across the country. This is the essence of the site that is so profoundly dispiriting–that our collective welfare is held hostage to a triumphal authoritarianism.
Although a significant portion of the victims of 9/11 were working-class immigrants–custodians, restaurant workers and others who provided the support staff for the city’s prominent commercial brokers–it is not they who are compelled to brave the cold to pay homage. Immigrants and poor people have known terror before. For every public housing project turned to a free-fire zone by nihilistic narcotics entrepreneurs and contemptuous police, for every Third World war zone militarized by the proxies of American capitalism, for every month when the abyss of eviction and unemployment loomed, the immigrant poor have endured with quiet desperation.
Though there was no great outpouring of national feeling, immigrants have fled the array of disorders and depredations imposed on them by structural adjustment plans and U.S. military incursions around the perimeter of the Imperium. As former US Special Forces operative Stan Goff has written, “A lot of the brown people I ran into, in the process of securing Uncle Sam’s favorable investment climates around the world, never had any assumptions about the safety of the world.”
The destruction of the World Trade Center is not new in the pantheon of terrors.
Jordan Green, a two-time resident of New York City, is an editorial and research associate at the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, NC.