“Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W.H. Auden, and indeed this week New Yorkers would be forgiven for feeling they are drowning in a sea of well-meaning but useless words, and futile TV images, as the city observes the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. For the real narrative of that terrible day is already inscribed in the minds and hearts of each individual, and with this knowledge comes the responsibility that accrues to any witness of history’s massacres: to remember the 3,000 who perished, and to do what we can to prevent it from happening again.
In some ways, the most remarkable thing about Sept. 11, 2001, was not that the World Trade Center was attacked, but that the city of New York was not irrevocably shattered, psychologically and economically, by the assault. No matter how much ink is spilled extolling the community spirit and compassion of New Yorkers in the weeks and months following Sept. 11, there will always be something miraculous in the way the city pulled together and refused to recede into cynicism or despair. Much credit is due to then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who in an instant seemed to shuck off all that is petty about politics and assume heroic stature. But the citizens matched his moment, and while there was no way New Yorkers could have been prepared for what happened, there was a sense that residents of the city knew almost immediately, instinctively, what we would have to do to get through this.
Another startling fact: There has been no appreciable exodus of New Yorkers in the past year. Despite sustaining the worst terrorist attack on any country, anywhere, residents have stayed put, unwilling to leave the city because they know-and the world now knows-that there’s no other place like it.
Meanwhile, a strong bond has been forged between the city and the rest of the country. This new relationship will be critical as the city rebuilds and depends on the good will of tourists and the politicians who hold sway over federal dollars. New York is facing an alarming budget deficit of $5 billion, as well as the challenge of rebuilding the downtown site, which should incorporate a tasteful memorial, residential and office space, and an efficient transportation system.
The spouses and children of 343 firefighters, 23 city police officers and 37 Port Authority police officers have wounds that will take years to heal. We can only hope they take some comfort in knowing that their loved ones died while trying to save others, and that their heroism and sacrifice offered inspiration on a day when evil seemed triumphant. Before Sept. 11, too many of us regarded overpaid shortstops and dimwitted actors as heroes. A year ago, however, we witnessed genuine courage, and we learned that we live among heroes disguised as ordinary men and women in uniform. They put a lie to the notion that Americans have forgotten the virtues of selflessness and dedication; they showed that we are not soft and faint of heart. Our enemies misjudged our resolve. They didn’t count on the bravery of our firefighters, police and other first-responders. And that bravery was surely responsible for inspiring all New Yorkers to endure the awful months which followed.
New York has been, and always will be, a target because of its size, high-profile landmarks and prominence as the world’s financial and cultural center. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognizes this, and it is reassuring that his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, is taking steps to train city cops in anti-terror tactics. Indeed, Americans have learned in the past several months how the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, operated like Keystone Cops, oblivious to 10 years’ worth of clues that Al Qaeda had the will and the means to strike. While a pre-Sept. 11 sense of safety may be impossible to purchase at any price, now we know more about where the threat lies, and what possible steps can be taken to eradicate it.
It will be years before all of the effects of Sept. 11 are understood. A recent study by psychologists from the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania found that Americans are reporting increased experiences of love, gratitude, hope, kindness, spirituality and teamwork since the terrorist attacks. And there is a new appreciation for the freedoms and beliefs upon which America was founded, and a sober awareness that history may on occasion call upon us to fight in defense of these beliefs.