Monday, September 12, 2005

Promises not kept
Promises not kept

Where are the memorials, the gleaming new buildings?


Smoke pours from the twin towers after the deadly terror strikes of Sept. 11, 2001. All that remains are gaping wounds.

Four years gone, and the void remains.

Four years gone, and the fence still surrounds our ruined 16 acres, while nothing rises to the skies.

Four years gone. Longer than it took the United States to fight World War II.

Tourists still arrive at the site of the vanished World Trade Center, aiming digital cameras at each other, or past the fence, but there are fewer of them now. Some gaze at the three panels of the Ground Zero time line on the fence, with its scenes of destruction and heroism. A few seem choked with memory, or anger, recalling where they were when the south tower fell. A few are New Yorkers. For many, it was a television event.

"It was right over there, Margaret," a pudgy man says to his wife, pointing at the void. "Right there." A pause. "Remember?"

The void is, of course, filled with memory - of life, of death, neither of which can be photographed. The visitors move on, merging with platoons of people selling bootleg DVDs, and Yankee caps, and T-shirts bearing the initials of the Police and Fire departments, as if the valor of cops and firefighters could be transferred to the wearers by paying $10. Some cross to Century 21, the first of the area's businesses to open after the horror, now expanding. Some gaze into the graveyard of St. Paul's Chapel, now green and pristine after its long season of dust and disaster.

Four years gone, and the emotions have faded, and still there is nothing to fill the emptiness. On Monday, work will at last begin on the PATH station so beautifully designed by Santiago Calatrava. But the transportation hub which it will serve as a crown won't be complete until 2009.

The other plans, once filled with so much energy and passion and insistence on memory, are snarled in wretched quarrels. Architecture is being edited by real estate operators and anti-terrorism experts. Various factions have different visions of what should go into those 16 acres, and they can't easily be resolved. How can you have a freedom museum, for example, without dealing with slavery? How can anything at all be placed upon land that is considered sacred ground? Mix those conflicting visions with New York's own gifts for vehemence, and you begin to understand the void.

But there are surely other reasons for the emptiness. The site itself was cleared of its millions of tons of rubble in an astonishing eight months. This was a triumph of planning, muscle and will. But even before it was cleared, the site was the focus of various forces: real estate and political interests, the wishes of the families of the almost 3,000 dead, the desires of New Yorkers in the immediate neighborhood and beyond. They were not all cynical. Many were idealistic. For some it was sacred ground, never to be touched. Others resisted turning the site into a necropolis, a place inhabited by ghosts. They wanted it brimming with life, filled with children's laughter, while providing a place of repose for the old. Most of the opposing viewpoints were valid. But the result has been paralysis.

And there are other factors. One of them was George W. Bush. He was warned by memo on Aug. 6, 2001, while on his first vacation in Crawford, Tex., that followers of Osama Bin Laden were preparing "hijackings and other types of attacks, including recent surveillance of federal buildings in New York." We don't know if he read the memo. But he did not instantly order increased security at the nation's airports, and in the following month, those 19 hijackers boarded four airliners armed only with box cutters, and came to kill. Of the 19 Islamic fanatics, 15 were Saudis. Bush then went on to invade Iraq, and continues to insist on a linkage not supported by hard facts. It was no surprise that in 2004 74.3% of New Yorkers voted for John Kerry.

The war in Iraq robbed us in New York of the emotional focus that followed Sept. 11. Bush kept invoking Sept. 11 to justify his war - a war of choice, not necessity.

In New York, they keep telling us that great things will soon fill the emptiness. Soaring buildings. Ponds of memory. But many New Yorkers stopped caring a long time ago about what was coming to those 16 acres. They're too busy working and living. On my street - nine blocks to the north - I haven't heard it mentioned for a couple of years.

And yet ... and yet each time I pass on my daily walk to the Battery, it is impossible to erase memory. There is the corner at Church and Vesey where I stood with my wife, Fukiko, watching human beings leaping from the flames of the north tower. She is a journalist, too. We were both doing what journalists do, looking, and making notes. There is the street where I saw the immense wheel of one of the airliners, and the puddle of fresh blood and the spilled coffee cup and the unopened bottle of juice and the single high-heeled shoe.

Sometimes my heart trembles as I remember the way the south tower abruptly tipped, as if it would fall across Church St., and then righted itself, and then came straight down, with a high-pitched sound that must have contained a chorus of screams. In memory the fall took a long time, like a slow-motion vision from a Sam Peckinpah movie. In reality, it came down in a bit more than 10 seconds. It came down and instantly erupted into that immense cloud of pulverized matter and pulverized human beings, like some evil genie rising from the horror. It engulfed us at Church and Vesey, engulfed firefighters and cops and civilians and reporters.

For a small eternity, I lost my wife. She thought I was behind her, I thought she was behind me. I was shoved by cops and firefighters into the vestibule of a building on Vesey St. She was hurled toward Broadway by a cop shouting, "Run, run, run, run, run!" We found each other an hour later, at the entrance to our home. Others were much less fortunate. There were wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, children, friends who would never find each other. Not that day. Not ever.

All of that comes back each time I pass the void. All that, and my own fury in the days that followed. I'm from Brooklyn. One of the Brooklyn codes - and, by extension, one of the New York codes - is very simple: If you come to hurt us, we will hurt you back. So I was for the attack on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It took too long. It allowed Bin Laden and Mullah Omar to escape. But I support it now. Alas, the purity of that response was eroded in Iraq, by the way our calamity was used to justify something entirely different, a process now leading to an Islamic republic, while Iraq has become the Parris Island of terrorism. When I pass the void now, my old fury is too often replaced by another.

Still, I often pause, and bow my head in sorrow and communion. Everybody involved deserved better. Four years gone, and the void remains.