For The Best View of City’s Soul, Go to the Hole

GROUND ZERO-“Best view” that way , the helpful sign and arrow on the chain-link fence overlooking the pit tells the tourists. “Best view”: It has unfortunate suggestions of “scenic overlook.”

What is the “best view” of 9/11 as we near the one-year mark? You can tell this is a “site of contestation,” as they say, just from the clashing titles of the souvenir booklets they’re selling down here, along with the “crystal” snow-dome-like things that you can shake up and rain confetti on the Twin Towers within.

Was it a Day of Terror , as one booklet’s title says, or a Day of Tragedy , as another title says?

I’d already bought Day of Terror -10 bucks for a 48-page pamphlet of color pix of the burning towers-when I saw Day of Tragedy , which looked very much like Day of Terror.

“What’s the difference?” I asked one of the vendors behind the souvenir tables across from the pit, indicating my Day of Terror and his Day of Tragedy.

“Same, same,” he said, helpfully. And they were: same booklet, different title.

But they’re not exactly “same, same,” Terror and Tragedy. Tragedy is supposed to purge us of pity and terror, ultimately bringing us catharsis, peace. And something about this stifling summer suggests that we’re not quite there yet. The pit has been cleaned up, the suppurating bottomless hole sealed with concrete, but pity and terror haven’t been purged yet.

I’ve come to think of this as the summer of the Lisbon Earthquake Effect. The summer of the aftershocks. The summer when the heat has forced us to stand still and let it finally sink in.

You know about the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, right? It’s been called “the first modern disaster.” Not just because it was a mass catastrophe-casualty estimates range from 30,000 to 70,000 killed-but because print media had reached a kind of critical mass by then, so that it was, in effect, “broadcast” throughout the world, in newspapers, pamphlets and sermons, books and novels. Many of them reflected the spiritual crisis, the spiritual aftershocks of the earthquake, which shook up the settled certainties of the 18th century. Voltaire was prompted to write Candide in part because of the Lisbon Earthquake. It was an attack on Leibniz and the strain of the Enlightenment that had enshrined Reason as God, or God as Reason, those who couldn’t imagine that either God or Reason would have permitted such a horrific slaughter of the innocent-despite Dr. Pangloss’ (Leibniz’s) assurances that “all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Then Rousseau attacked Voltaire over his pessimism, suggesting that we may just not know the Mystery behind God’s (or Reason’s) plan. (For Voltaire, it was a “Day of Terror”; for Rousseau, a more rationalized “Day of Tragedy.”)

The Pat Robertsons of 1755 (like the anti-American wing of the Left of today) viewed the calamity as a kind of righteous judgment on an arrogant and sinful people. A sign: God’s crop circle of ashes, you might say. The Lisbon Earthquake reawakened a debate over evil and “theodicy”-how could a just and loving, reasonable God permit such catastrophic “natural evils” as the earthquake to kill the just and unjust in such mass quantities?

Of course, 9/11 was the product of human rather than “natural” evils, which only makes the problem worse-as does the fact that it was done in the name of God, or what the hijackers believed was God’s name and God’s will.

Our 9/11 death toll is barely a tenth of the Lisbon Earthquake, a far tinier fraction of the Holocaust (which reawakened similar debate over theodicy), but the questions are persistent, recurrent and similar, the answers still unsatisfying to many.

I think it’s only now, in this stifling, stand-still summer, a kind of enforced moment of stasis and reflection, that we’re feeling this sort of aftershock, the Lisbon Earthquake Effect.

Part of it, this pause for reflection in this dead-zone summer, comes from the fact that for months many people felt-justly, I believe-that the best response, once the bodies had been pulled from the pit, was to trudge forward, maintain normality, otherwise “the terrorists win.”

But at a certain point, the trudging has to stop. It’s too hard to trudge in this heat, anyway. And suddenly all these issues fraught with profound significance for the future meaning of 9/11 are in our face: How should we cover up the hole in the ground, the hole in the city, the hole in our soul?

Or is covering up the hole-whatever the combination of malls, memorial parks and office towers that we do it with-a kind of cover-up , papering over the hole in the soul, the wound that won’t be healed by a mall or theme park?

And then, in this stultifying season of supposed “recreation,” we are suddenly forced to contemplate forms of re-creation : not just models of rebuilt towers, but the media re -creations and commemorations that have been timed for the one-year mark. (Full disclosure: I worked on one for PBS’s Frontline ). Suddenly we’re forced to decide what, in the words of the sign, is the “best view” of the Day of Terror (or Day of Tragedy). Once again, all the delicate, touchy questions of what is the Right Thing to Do come back: Should TV networks run commercials on 9/11? Do the terrorists win if we run Pringles ads, or do they win if we don’t go about business as usual?

And TV is not the only cultural site of contestation in which the meaning of the hole in the ground is the subtext of a debate. Take the conflict over Bruce Springsteen’s 9/11 CD, The Rising .

Has Bruce become “the Oprah of 9/11,” as an acidic essay by David Skinner asserts in The Weekly Standard Online , seeking to fill the hole in our soul with ritualistic “heart talk”? Or has he cut to the heart of the matter and become “our saloon Steinbeck, our troubadour of transcendence,” as Jack Newfield put it in The New York Sun ?

I feel conflicted about the Springsteen CD, not yet ready to venture a definitive judgment, although I must admit the one song I like most, “My City of Ruins,” was a song that Bruce wrote before 9/11.

A beautiful song, not about this city in ruins, but about his city, Asbury Park. It was the one he sang at the “Tribute to Heroes” telethon shortly after 9/11, and it got to me with its irresistible, incantatory chorus of “Rise up!” But then he tried another song on the “rising” theme after 9/11, the title song of the CD The Rising -and it somehow doesn’t work for me. It feels forced. “Come on up for the Rising,” the chorus goes, and various inappropriate allusions to “Rising” come to mind-not least of which is that “rising” is a Southern word for a boil (as Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, once told me when he talked about the time his protégé, Elvis Presley, “‘had a risin'” and thought it was syphilis). Then there’s that kind of Neil Diamond “Dr. Love,” fake-revivalist vibe to “Come on up for the Rising,” and there’s rising dough and other things “rising.” My advice: stick with “Rise up!” over “The Rising.”

And there’s a similar debate emerging over M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs . In Slate , David Edelstein related it explicitly to 9/11 when he concluded a persuasive critique by saying that “in a year in which many of us gathered around the television to witness acts of seemingly inhuman destruction, Signs offers a way of framing the experience for maximum righteous uplift.” Just like Bruce! Mr. Edelstein is suggesting that Signs is the Oprah of 9/11 films. It’s 9/11-related as well in that it’s explicitly a film that deals with theodicy: Mel Gibson is a minister who loses his faith after his wife dies in a car accident. It’s his family’s own private Lisbon Earthquake.

One thing I liked about David Skinner’s essay was the way he phrased one aspect of the debate, one that may underlie others : “The Rising does contribute, in a way, to the debate over whether nothing or everything changed on September 11 ” (my italics).

And he has the rare self-effacement to say he’s not sure: “I switch back and forth on this point.”

I do, too! Will 9/11 one day become just another tragedy? Does it seem like more than that just because it happened to us ? I think it’s too early to say for sure. I remember thinking “Nothing will ever be the same” in the immediate aftermath, but then normalization set in, and a bit of denial-after the anthrax scare, anyway, and every now and then another “dirty nuke” forecast. Is there, will there always be a sword of Damocles hanging over the city, over our lives, one that could fall in an instant-and if so, how should that affect daily life, our view of the future?

Recently there was a debate on the letters page of Jim Romenesko’s Media News Web site over whether just living in Manhattan is an act of “physical bravery.” For most of us, I think, it’s a mixture of love and inertia. But for people who were living and working in the shadow of Ground Zero, I think there is real courage in staying on this imperiled island. But where is the red line of courage to be drawn: below Canal Street, below Houston Street? How close a friend do you have to have lost? Is there a single, universal 9/11 experience that unites us, or are we divided by degrees of suffering?

In certain ways, some of the larger questions are being projected onto the debate over what to do with the hole in the ground. To what extent should it be made holy ground? I go back and forth on that as well. Lately I feel there’s a strong argument to be made for letting it be. Covering it up is a kind of cover-up, isn’t it-a pretense that things are back to normal? But don’t “the terrorists win” if we leave the wound open? I’m not sure: I think the terrorists win if we decide every argument on the basis of whether the terrorists win. Somehow trying to read their minds and register whether a potential action will make them smile or frown puts them in the driver’s seat.

In any case, all these questions, all these factors add up to the possibility we’re experiencing something like the Lisbon Earthquake Effect in the aftermath of 9/11. For me, it intensified this summer when that blanket of smoke from a distant Canadian fire couldn’t help but conjure up the smoke from the not-so-distant Sept. 11 fire.

But I’d been thinking about these things for some months anyway, ever since I was invited by Helen Whitney to work on this Frontline documentary which ended up titled Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero . It’s about people wrestling with God and faith after 9/11. (It airs on Sept. 3 and 11.)

Ms. Whitney is one of those people you recognize as a “God-wrestler,” and her previous documentaries reflect her fascination with these questions. When we met a few years ago to discuss the possibility of working on something based on my Hitler book, the problem of evil and other equally lighthearted matters, she gave me a tape of The Monastery , one of her early documentaries on Trappist monks. The ones who don’t talk. Only somehow she got the Trappists to speak! Often very movingly about their wrestling with God.

Then there was the final hour of her multipart PBS documentary The Millennial Pope: John Paul II -an hour devoted not so much to the Pope as to God-wrestlers of all sorts grappling with faith and belief. And featuring what for me was an astonishing, heart-stopping story she elicited from Robert Stone-perhaps my favorite American novelist , whose books attain some level of utter bleakness that is both exhilarating and frightening to contemplate. In the documentary, Mr. Stone talks about rediscovering his faith on the floor of a tropical ocean amidst the flash of tropical fish, when he was suddenly struck with a sense of beauty and transcendence, a rapture of the Deep.

Anyway, by the time Helen asked me if I wanted to be the co-writer with her on this PBS project, she’d already begun what had become an exhausting six-month blitz of some 300 interviews that ranged from those close in time and place to Ground Zero-survivors, victims families, rescue workers-to those more distant, all of whom argued about Lisbon Earthquake–like questions: questions of theodicy, questions about religion itself as a source of violence, questions about faith and doubt.

Although I have a credit as co-writer, most of the credit goes to Helen and her gifted editor, Ted Winterburn. There’s very little writing as such; her interviewing technique-intense, empathetic, relentless-elicited so many strong, emotional, thoughtful, often eloquent voices that, in effect, those voices wrote the documentary themselves.

But the voice that got to me on a gut level, the voice that still gets to me even after watching the documentary over and over again at various stages of production, is the voice of Bernie Heeran, a retired fireman who lost a son on the 104th floor and a number of firemen he knew. In a quiet voice, he describes what he did when he heard the news:

“I came to church and I kind of negotiated with God, and I asked Him to … if He could, give me this one.”

” Give me this one “: give him his son.

“But I knew from being a fireman that my son could not have been in a worse possible position …. I asked Him for help that day, and He couldn’t do it. You know, I was looking for more give-backs. I thought a couple more firemen would walk out of that building, but it just didn’t work that way. But I continue to ask. My son’s two brothers were there that day. I could have lost three sons … lost more firemen … that I knew …. And they made it. So these are the give-backs. I mean I question why not me and leave my son …. “

The “give-backs”-a heartbreaking concept, and I don’t want to spoil this moment by quoting further without your hearing Mr. Heeran’s voice, infinitely sad and dignified as he tries to reconcile his faith with all these questions that keep coming up. It’s the real Springsteen lament. No knee-jerk redemptiveness, just hard-won resignation to Mystery. These questions have been asked before; everybody, at some moment in their lives, asks them. But we tried to document the way so many people were talking about them at the same time after 9/11. A kind of national conversation about theodicy.

Take the rabbi (Brad Hirschfeld) who rejected the idea that one could get some consolation from the notion that it was “all part of God’s plan,” the traditional religious consolation:

“You want a plan? Then tell me about plan. But if you’re going to tell me about how the plan saved you [on 9/11], you better also be able to explain how the plan killed them . And the test of that has nothing to do with saying it at your synagogue or your church. The test of that has to do with going and saying it to the person who has just buried someone. Look in their eyes and tell them God’s plan was to blow your loved one apart. Look at them and tell them God’s plan was that their children should go to bed every night without a parent …. “

Faith and Doubt ends with a focus on the people in the burning towers who held hands and jumped together. Helen had found an essay by Brian Doyle in the American Scholar ‘s 9/11 issue, and she had Mr. Doyle read from it:

“A couple leaped from the South Tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met, and they jumped. So many people saw this as a scar burned onto our brains. But a man reached for a woman’s hand and she reached for his hand, and they jumped out of the window holding hands. I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers, but I keep coming back to his hand in her hand. Nestled in each other with such extraordinary, ordinary, naked love. It’s the most powerful prayer I can imagine. The most eloquent. The most graceful. It’s everything we’re capable of against horror and loss and tragedy. It’s what makes me believe that we’re not fools to believe in God. To believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fire. To believe that who we are persists past what we were. To believe, against evil evidenced hourly, that love is why we are here.”

“Seeds that open only under great fire”: What to think of that image of people jumping hand-in-hand? Counterpoised to Mr. Doyle’s optimism is Ian McEwan’s view of it as “the bleakest possible image of all,” evidence of the indifference of any God that might exist. Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a brilliant thinker who had a parish on the Lower East Side on 9/11 speaks of that image as presenting “a choice.” How we react, he says, is ” the choice of Sept. 11.”

Epilogue:

Ground Zero again, a stifling August Sunday visit to the hole in the ground with a throng of tourists.

There’s something appropriate about the way it’s still raw space. The way it’s still all makeshift. If you’ve been down there recently, you know the way you approach it, through the phalanx of tacky souvenir tables and all the shirts from the out-of-town fire departments and basketball teams hanging on the spikes of the fence surrounding the Trinity Church graveyard across the street, with their hand-lettered words of comfort all stained and blurred from the rain. You know how you have to walk a great length on one side of the site, which is veiled from view by a ratty green mesh netting that has holes torn in it from people too impatient not to sneak a peak.

And then finally, when do you see it in the “viewing area,” you see it through a chain-link fence on a makeshift walkway. It’s a little tacky and tawdry-the whole scene with all the people who feel they have to buy souvenirs and take digital pictures of themselves with the hole in the ground as a scenic backdrop-but it’s kind of organic tackiness (as opposed to the Official State Tackiness of the proposed memorials) that in some way is true to the reality, to the desolation.

The bottom of the pit itself looks clean and paved now, but the raw holes in the walls of the pit’s sides, the open veins and arteries of the various conduits that serviced the site, still look like the aftermath of an autopsy. Dudes are making deals over souvenir postcard stashes that actually show the shadowy image of the second plane as it approaches the south tower. Two teenagers are making out furiously, pressed against the chain-link fence. Is this the “terror sex” we heard about, or normalization?

I don’t know. I think I like it the way it is, Ground Zero now, before gentrification.

My modest proposal: Keep the hole, make it into a memorial; don’t cover it up.