Remembering 9/11 on a dime

I love seeing or hearing second hand accounts of seasoned and articulate travelers who can provide insights into the culture and secrets of hidden places. Lately my vicarious trips have landed me–as often as not–in New York City, and that is no accident.

An armchair traveler most of my life, I’ve been around the world many times. I’ve traveled with Rick Steves so many times, I could write my own European travel guide. Truth is, I am less an armchair traveler than a vicarious traveler. I love seeing or hearing second hand accounts of seasoned and articulate travelers who can provide insights into the culture and secrets of hidden places. Lately my vicarious trips have landed me–as often as not–in New York City, and that is no accident. As the 10th anniversary to 9/11 approaches, various cable channels have been rolling out their own slants on its meaning: honoring the victims, the heroes, and their families. These past few weeks all eyes have been on Ground Zero and the herculean efforts to finish the memorial and rebuild the World Trade Center. There has been an amazing documentary on Discovery showing the drama of the massive construction project taking place and the delicate balance being struck between commerce and remembrance, fear and hope, art and architecture.

Everyone remembers the events of 9/11: where you were, how you felt, the sheer impossibility of it. The media coverage produced such a massive overkill that there was a point where I lost interest. No one–not a country, not a person–can live constantly in a moment of crisis. As the years receded, 9/11 seemed less incredible and more inevitable.

The engineering feat that was the World Trade Center had a massive Achilles heel, one that save for the evil genius of Osama Bin Laden and the inefficiencies of the largest intelligence organizations in the world, would have never been discovered. There is an engineering maxim about building lighter, stronger, and cheaper. It results in structures of incredible beauty. You see it in bridges and buildings around the world and for the most part works magnificently. The problem is, you can never foresee every possibility, including the possibility that someone would deliberately fly a plane laden with thousands of gallons of jet fuel into the 90th floor of what was for many years, the tallest building in the world. Had this been the Empire State Building, built in a different era, I suspect a vastly different result, but the Twin Towers with their elegant internal, bridgelike design, folded up like a house of cards.

Time, like it does to all things, has softened the memory of 9/11. Even World War II seems warm and fuzzy 65 years on. The ensuing decade though, has been tumultuous. The economy boomed, then busted. America exacted its revenge on the Taliban and vice versa. We blew Saddam out of the desert in 60 days, declared victory, and forgot to go home. If anything qualifies as “our long national nightmare”, it is our war on terror. 9/11 was over in hours. The war on terror never seems to end.

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I actually did get to New York City a few years ago. Like the inept traveler that I am, I overpacked and hopped aboard one of several Chinatown buses that traverse the Atlantic seaboard. If you don’t mind compromising safety for cash, this is the way to go. We left at 1:00 am and after six uneventful hours we were dumped on the streets of lower Manhattan to fend for ourselves. Chinatown is only a short walk from Battery Park, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and oh yeah, Ground Zero.

I actually tripped across it without looking for it. My first encounter was the small Episcopal church and the fire station just a block away. Being the veteran TV watcher that I am I knew these places but couldn’t place them in the real world. When the world comes to you through television the real thing seems out of place. I knew what I was looking at, but I felt like I had stepped through the looking glass. These were things from a fairy tale, not real life. But, yes, indeed they were real, surprisingly small, and ordinary looking. Real life doesn’t come with a sound track or a narrator so I was in a bit of shock when it all kicked in.

Ground Zero itself was disappointing. Just three short years ago it was still a hole in the ground and a massive construction site. A nearby viewing platform revealed a massive pit that looked impossible to fill. Already several years into construction it seemed like they had only begun. Maybe I missed something, but I felt none of the awe and sorrow a place like this should evoke. Of memories of that trip, few of them are of that site.

When I go back, soon I hope, the place will be transformed. In the footprint of the Twin Towers there will be two artificial waterfalls surrounded by a newly planted urban forest. The names of 3,000 people will be engraved on the railings surrounding them–not listed by last name, but where they died, who they knew, and what they were. I’ve studied the memorial from afar and was tempted to return and see it for myself today, but the wisdom and fatigue of age won out in the end. I’ll be watching Sunday morning from my arm chair perch with millions of others. Thousands of friends and relatives will finally have a place to visit their loved ones, and maybe then Ground Zero will be transformed from a place of tragedy to a place of peace.

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Paul Hammond

Paul has been writing about life and politics in Richmond for 11 years. You can often find him walking his dog up and down Franklin Street and yes, he does bite, the dog that is.

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