Seven years ago today, it looked as though the world would never again be what it was before the attack on the World Trade Center. At the south end of Manhattan I, too, had trouble breathing, and the choking dust carried with it a yellowish, nauseating threat.
A few days later, late at night, I was permitted to descend to the depths of Ground Zero with a group of rabbis who had volunteered to bring kosher sandwiches to the rescue teams. Most of the bodies had not yet been removed, the fire was still burning, and I thought that this was indeed what hell must be like. Nothing will ever be the same, I thought again.
But within 24 hours of the attack, I was also thinking about the greatness of New York City: Because already in the southern parts of Central Park, I encountered a familiar routine, almost as though nothing had happened. I noticed that the Disney Store on Fifth Ave. was closed, but then I also recalled another cliche: Life goes on. New York will overcome. And it did; life continued almost the way it had been before the most dramatic attack in the history of modern terror.
On the first anniversary, everyone tried to define the historical significance of the 9/11 attacks, and to formulate profound insights about the social changes they had brought about. It was a pretentious and foolish attempt.
Everyone also spoke about the patriotism that had swept America, a clear expression of insecurity and a conservative attempt to hold on to the values of the past. I remember a large American flag that was hung above the entrance to one of the last sex shops that still survived in New York. Most of those shops have since disappeared, one reason being that porn today is purchased via the Internet; in the past seven years the Web has changed the lives of far more people than did the attack on the World Trade Center.
Many assumed at the time that mayor Rudy Giuliani would be the next president of the United States, and had that really happened, it would have been possible to say the attack on the Twin Towers really did make history. The real story is that the shock of the attack didn't last long, and the glory of the leader-savior enjoyed by Giuliani evaporated quite quickly.
"September 11th," as people now say in almost every language, also offered a good opening for a historical discussion on the decline of America. The U.S. has lost its status as the sole superpower, and the recent economic crisis has brought about a situation whereby most Americans do not believe today that their children will live a better life than they have. This is ostensibly the most profound expression of the loss of personal security that everyone attributed to the attack; after all, the need to remove one's shoes during the security check before boarding a plane has not really changed the American dream.
Nor is America sinking, of course. As opposed to the muscular atrophy that it broadcasts occasionally, during the past year, it has demonstrated social vitality and an amazing ability for renewal, with almost half of the American public apparently having decided that for the first time they are ready for a black president. The conservative patriotism that seized them seven years ago and that often includes racist elements, did not destroy their ability to advance toward their national dream.
Possibly this is also happening under the influence of cinema and television. A few days before the attack on the Trade Center, I saw Harrison Ford in the role of the president of the United States: His plane is hijacked, he protects it with his own body. When I saw the people jumping from the burning Twin Towers on television, it looked like something I had seen innumerable times in films. It took a few minutes until I understood what I was really seeing.
It may be possible to defend the theory that the attacks of 9/11 did not bring about any more profound historical change because things of that kind had been seen so often on television. This week they once again screened "Air Force One" on one of the cable channels, and I noticed that President "James Marshall," the chief executive depicted by Ford, has a female vice president. She functions well. In recent years, Americans have also seen a black president as the hero of a television series. It may have worked as a general rehearsal: On television it involves no obligation, because it's not real; by the time it happens in reality, it's easier to get used to, because there's a feeling that it already happened once.
Seven years after that day in September, the attack is too distant for tears, too near for understanding. Therefore, it may be no coincidence that the American media are returning this week to the survivors of the attack and the bereaved, asking them what they feel and what has happened to them since then, as though it were their private disaster. We can learn from that - it's easier to enter the culture of memory than the history books.
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