The towers were down and there were warplanes screeching over Manhattan. Thousands were dead in a smoking ruin that looked like a scene from another war in another city in another time. But it was here and it was now, and it was said on the streets and in private conversations that we would never be the same. Irony was dead, it was proclaimed. Mindless media banter would give way to a new seriousness of purpose. Personal aggrandizement, the pursuit of shallow celebrity or hollow riches or both, now looked worse than a mere exercise in vanity. Now it was shameful.
Things were not the same. Men and women wept outside of firehouses draped in purple crepe, and passersby stopped to gaze at the pictures of the missing pasted or taped on walls in Penn Station, Grand Central and other public places. Families pleaded for information about those last seen in or near the towers on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Those with information were asked to call a home phone number. Desperate family members did not worry about such a public display of private information. Who, in that awful moment, would think to abuse the privacy of a fellow New Yorker?
The island of Manhattan, detached from the American mainland by more than mere geography, soon was awash in the colors of Team USA. Flags began to appear outside apartment windows and on the Park Avenue median within hours of the attacks. They stayed there, night and day, for many months, through the eulogies and funerals and memorial services. Not a day went by in the fall of 2001 without a remembrance of one of the new century’s heroes, men and women who wore uniforms to work and who responded to the catastrophe as they were trained to do and so died when floor fell upon floor in that sickening implosion. The mayor delivered eulogies. The bagpipers played “Going Home.” It was all so sad. We knew we would never be the same.
Patrols of soldiers and police officers armed with automatic weapons were in our subways and on our streets. Bags left in public places were suspect; so, in the eyes of some, were other New Yorkers who worshiped on Friday evening rather than Saturday or Sunday morning. Precautions were taken and security protocols implemented so that some among us wondered if we lived in the new Belfast or in an American Tel Aviv.
The president came to the smoking pile that would one day sicken and kill some of those who were working so desperately to rescue the living and recover the dead. He wrapped his arm around a firefighter and spoke into a bullhorn, and for a moment anyway, George W. Bush sounded like a Texas version of Winston Churchill. The man who knocked down the towers, the president said, would soon be hearing from us.
If he had told us on that Friday after the attacks that it would take the better part of 10 years and no small portion of the nation’s treasury to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden, we would have said that we’d pay any price and bear any burden to see that vengeance was ours. And so we have. And on a Sunday night in the spring of 2010, we learned that the effort and the resources were not expended in vain.
The city that so offended his medieval sensibilities remains scarred by the attacks he planned.
But so many of the changes that seemed permanent in those days after the towers came down are now cultural artifacts, reminders of a time when New Yorkers and those who work here but live elsewhere feared that men who love death as we love life would turn this chaotic, abrasive, vulgar, cosmopolitan, literate and irreverent city into an outpost of fear and suspicion. Letterman still holds court in the Ed Sullivan Theater. The Post reliably provides daily insights into the souls of starlets. Grown men and women still worship those who play children’s games for a living. The price of property still dominates dinner party conversation. A man on Park Avenue thought nothing of stealing the life savings of other New Yorkers so that he might live in luxury.
We did not banish irony. We simply put it into storage for a while. We did not redefine heroism. We paid tribute to the dead, but then we built new arenas and new parks, opened new restaurants. We did not stop laughing. We grieved and then moved on–that is, those of us who did not suffer personal loss, who did not dial unanswering phones after the towers fell, who did not post pictures on walls the next day, who did not sit shiva when our worst fears proved true.
He believed he would deliver a mortal wound to the city’s psyche, but in fact he only sealed his demise, belated though it was. He no doubt hoped that this act of unspeakable terror would indeed change New York, would banish the heresy of frivolity and profanity, would chase away ambition with the dogs of fear and loathing.
He failed. Yes, public spaces continue under the watch of men and women with boots and helmets and assault weapons, and yes, we take off our shoes and throw aside modesty when we board airlines, and yes, the PA system on trains and buses remind us to say something if we see something. These are not the sights and sounds of the New York that existed on the night of Sept. 10, 2001.
But bin Laden failed in every possible way to bring about his dream of a worldwide Islamic state that would impose its will on infidels in unholy places like New York. He was responsible for killing nearly 3,000 people in New York on that day a decade ago, but even that figure, terrible though it was and is, surely was far lower than he expected. Thousands survived his assault, some because they were helped to safety by emergency workers who so loved their calling that they walked into hell knowing or suspecting that they would not return, but that others might live because of their bravery.
Perhaps they will come again. Some have tried already. Some may be more determined than ever to achieve all that eluded bin Laden. But the city will no longer be unprepared–that much surely has changed, and for the better. Men and women representing the city’s interests are abroad, gathering information to be brought home and shared with others mobilized to counter a fanaticism we cannot claim to understand. Our understanding of how we must protect ourselves has changed, and that, too, is good, and that is because of Osama bin Laden.
But in so many other, equally important ways, the changes that we thought were permanent turned out to be fleeting. We have laughed again, even some of us who still suffer so. We scream at relief pitchers and gossip about celebrities and bitch about the price of gas. We keep going to the Met and Lincoln Center and the local multiplex.
Yes, life in New York is different now. Anxiety is just a credible threat away. But the man who attacked New York is dead, a failure, while the city he hoped to destroy lives on.