September 10, 2007
Tuesday, September 11 was a warm, bright day. I stopped at the post office to send some express mail, and reported to work as usual on the thirteenth floor of 101 Barclay Street, the technology headquarters built for the Irving Trust. From the sixteenth floor cafeteria there was an unobstructed view of the Twin Towers. Behind them stood little St. Nicholas’ Church, the spiritual center of what had been one of the last of the Eastern Mediterranean neighborhoods in Manhattan. (The original Dutch Reformed St. Nicholas had been within the old wooden fortress of New Amsterdam a little downtown.) You could look across the river to the part of Jersey City where my father’s father was born in 1879, and I was convinced that with binoculars I could have seen my mother’s mother’s house on top of the cliff in Weehawken. I could look down on what is now the Kalikow building, with the grandest Doric interior I have seen anywhere, where my father worked when it was the world headquarters of AT&T, and across to the great mechanical clock on 346 Broadway, where I had my first job after defending my dissertation, and where I got to know computers in the form of an even then antiquated DEC-11. More directly below was St. Peter’s, the oldest Catholic parish in New York, where my father would often come to pray.
When the first plane hit I thought there had been some kind of accident on the floor above and stood up in my cubicle; halfway between me and the North windows a little more than a city block away the office manager was standing up, pointing at me with her mouth open. But she was pointing past me to the South windows a little less than a block behind me, and a hole in the side of the World Trade Center the shape of a small plane, which was beginning to smoke. It looked small to everyone; you couldn’t really estimate accurately just how big the tower was, or how far away. I saw everyone going to the windows to see the fire a block away and far above, and I followed them. I looked up into a dark fire, like the fire of hell, maybe—the burning was deep red within the upper floors, before the yellow flames and billows of smoke came out. After I saw the first body fall, seeming as tiny as a speck of confetti but I knew what it was, I went back to my work station weeping. My boss was still at the windows when the second plane hit, poor man—it was not the kind of thing you could turn away from unless you had to. I dug a prayerbook out from the stacks of papers on my desk and tried to recite Orthros, the morning office of the Eastern Church, but found my attention as unreliable as my vision. Some of the verses were all too appropriate: (M)y soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave. I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength. Adrift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand. You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the depths. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves…
I balked at what came next, and closed the book: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits: Who forgives you all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases. Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies, Who satisfies your mouth with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
We were told it was not safe to leave the building, but that we had to evacuate the south side, where my desk is located; I went to the printer room, where I was able to get online and send email, letting the world know, prematurely, that I was safe. It was the first some heard of the disaster. Not having had anything to eat, and not knowing when I would be permitted to leave, I went up to the cafeteria level, where some walkways were open to the lobby, which extends up to the the roof of the building with the elevators rising like missile silos from the center, connected to the work areas by glassed in bridges on every floor. Suddenly the windows were covered with brown darkness and there was a sound of screaming from fifteen floors down: the first tower had fallen. I went back down to my cube and picked up my briefcase. Soon we evacuated; had I been permitted to leave earlier, I might be dead.
I walked down twelve flights of stairs and headed uptown. Hundreds of us computer people were huddled in the parking lot below when a vibration too deep to be heard was felt in the small of the back, the knees, and the abdomen. I turned around to see the North Tower, fall a half mile away. I couldn’t even imagine the numbers of people still in it. Clouds of destruction swept up Church Street to our east, and West Street toward the River, but we were sheltered by the bulk of Number Seven, still standing. I walked home.
The walk was exhausting, which is good and gave me an excuse to rest without the television when I finally got home. I was one of a small army of refugees heading uptown, some of them still covered with rubble and ash. One of the oddest sights I saw was about a half dozen horse vans among the emergency vehicles heading the other way, in case mounted police were needed for crowd control, yes, but more importantly because the beasts in the downtown stables, which I hadn’t really noticed, were spooked.
There was a line about a block long in front of St Vincent’s Hospital. I assumed it was people lined up to ask about relatives, but actually it was the line to donate blood. Men and women must have left home and office as soon as they heard of the trouble; they had to turn people away. For months there has been a bad shortage of blood, but as soon as this thing happened, folks headed for the hospitals to give. The need for blood was not so great now as everyone thought; survivors were too few. I was still glad I was myself a donor.
I stopped for an iced tea and grilled cheese around Fifteenth Street after walking in a daze back and forth and back and forth from the corner of Sixth to the corner of Fifth hoping to get into a bus. I put my head down on my cloth briefcase on the lunch counter and broke down silently for a moment, and the stranger on the next stool silently put his hand on my shoulder for a second. By the time I reached Times Square the trains were running uptown, so I was able to ride the last mile and a half. At the corner of 72nd and West End I met the owner of the All State Cafe, who told me my wife was inside with her sister in law, evacuated from the United Nations.
For days I was still catching up on the details, but couldn’t really comprehend them. I saw the terrible fires burning and one body falling before we were removed to the safer side of our building. Then the unbelievable collapse. The television pictures only made it more and more unreal. Everyone who owns a television has seen it all before in movies, with actors dressed as newscasters, or even newscasters hired as actors, saying that this time it was real. The press conferences showed a setting strangely familiar; it was, of course, 101 Barclay. Rudy Giuliani’s secret command center had been at WTC Seven across the street, and when it caught fire he sent in troops to secure our building. A SWAT team shut down the main data center, disrupting securities trading throughout the world, since the main backup was taken out by the collapse of the South Tower. I understand someone tried to talk sense to the imperial stormtroopers—operations could have been shifted to the location which would have taken over if Manhattan had been wiped out in a thermonuclear blast—but orders are orders and civilians were already the enemy. This might already have happened by the time I got out, but I didn’t learn of it for many months.
Wednesday was to have been my Middle Eastern night at the Lafayette Grill on Franklin Street, but of course it was in the forbidden zone. There would be no dance recital. What the vulgar call "belly dance," is in its own way a celebration of life, which I felt a great need for, having seen thousands die, incinerated, vaporized, crushed in a matter of seconds; I also felt a strong need to reach out to our Arab neighbors, many of whom came here to escape persecution at the hands of fanatical Muslims. I was pleased to be able to attend the event when it was rescheduled a week later, though I was only able to get through the police lines because the restaurant owner told the officer at the barricade that he knew me; I was an audience of one. He had only had electricity since the morning, and the telephone service had not yet been restored. When the event was over I looked down West Broadway from the Canal Street station, and at the end of the street, there was nothing there.
Thursday there was to have been a Vesper Liturgy of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross at my litle church on Mulberry Street, but it was still behind police lines, but Friday we were made welcome by the little Orthodox community at Union Seminary. It was at this time of year in 1812 that Moscow burned and everyone who has heard the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Overture knows the melody of the mighty troparion: Lord save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance: Grant victory to Orthodox Christians over their enemies And by the power of Thy Cross safeguard all Thy people. At a time when it was hard to pray in words, it was good to touch our foreheads to the floor at the icon of the crucifixion: Before Thy cross we fall down in worship And Thy holy resurrection we glorify.
The following weeks I worked from home, waiting for my call to the emergency monitoring station in New Jersey from which the bank was managing some of its internet operations. Military jets flew overhead continually. Awakened one night I tore apart the sides of an empty envelope, smoothed it into a kind of page, and wrote a single iambic line: “How shall he live, who lives by accident?” I could not sleep until I had written a second: How shall he live, who lives by accident, More strictly speaking, Providence?
I could then sleep. The torn envelope would go with me to the New Jersey mountaintop where I would work my irregular shifts. I wrote in exhaustion as a black limousine driven by a Christian Arab took me back toward the pillar of smoke on the Eastern horizon that marked the island where I lived—the fire would burn for a hundred days. In the course of a few weeks the poem, if I may be permitted to call it that, grew to some four score lines, and still embodies whatever historical, philosophical and even theological sense I can make of it all.
America had made history but until now not experienced history, at least not since the War Between the States, and most of us are from families who immigrated since then. The day of the attacks it was said that this would be America’s second bloodiest day, second to that of Antietam, when twenty three thousand died in a couple of hours. But—thank God—the casualties are much less than was first expected, and even at the worst there could have been no comparison with Hamburg or Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki, Warsaw or Nanking.
Three weeks after the Event I crossed police lines again, to buy ink for a German pen that could only be filled from a special bottle available at the Fountain Pen Hospital. It was the closest I came to Ground Zero for many months. From where pedestrians were allowed the site of the Towers resembled a cross between a bizarre junkyard and a construction site; what really got to me was the blackened hulk of WTC Five still standing at the end of Fulton Street. What angered and depressed me bitterly was the sight of the so-called evangelists every block or so, well groomed and energetic in their shirtsleeves, in constant cell phone contact with the commanding officers I imagined back in their hotel suites uptown. Preying on the fears of the vulnerable, these ghouls mesmerized their victims with the curse of a demon-god who would feast on their souls’ pain forever unless they made a total submission to Jesus as their personal savior.
I have read of the voluptuous ecstasy of total submission, and its seductive appeal to certain people, and people in certain circumstances. It is well known in the context of what was once quaintly called sexual perversion. In religion, it has nothing to do with Christianity. It’s true name, in Arabic, is Islam. This false Christianity seemed then perhaps a more benign form of Islam than that which caused the destruction so near to us, but as implacable an enemy of the faith I profess and the religion I practice, which I take to be that founded on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And in less than a year and a half the “Christian” jihadists had launched a campaign of destruction more cruel and remorseless than anything mere Muslims could imagine, one which had been promised to their backers long before the day of which I have been writing, and which was intended to have no terminus.
But at the time I wrote this: “It now appears our own leaders may have groomed the man behind the September 11 atrocities to be the supreme warlord of the Islamic world because they didn’t trust the Afghans to be bloodthirsty enough to drive the Russians out of their country. If so, this is a ghastly thing. We must pray that we do not do even worse in our attempt to destroy him. Perhaps the Muslims themselves will realize that he has incurred the death penalty under their own sacred law, not so much for taking innocent life, but for claiming to be a Muslim while doing so, and inflicting a lasting shame which could spell the end of Islam as a world religion.” Six years later I cannot read these words without real bitterness, for the great shame now is ours.
It would have been right and proper to pursue this man bin Laden and his henchmen to the ends of the earth. Instead the United States presented the Afghans with an ultimatum like that of Austria to Serbia which plunged the West into a quarter century of civil war and in so doing doomed our whole civilization. When the Taliban failed to capture and surrender bin Laden we devastated, conquered, and occupied Afghanistan without hitting our main target. Indeed, we gave up on bin Laden entirely and decided to destroy his worst enemy instead. Saddam might have been the symbol of that secular nationalism that al Qaeda fears and despises most, but he happened to be at the top of the hit list, and Iraq was thought to be an easy target.
Between the Gulf Wars I had expressed dismay at fact that American sanctions were mostly hurting the aged, the sick, and the children of Iraq. It was answered that every Arab baby dead was one less enemy we would have to face later on. To me it was a terrible crime against humanity, as the Supreme Pontiff of Christendom, sick as he was, did not tire of pointing out. It was a crime that would have terrible consequences for America and the world.
As I limped home unharmed from the disaster ruins I paused in front of a television set which had been brought on to the sidewalk and was made aware of bin Laden and the justifications he advanced for the attack. I was confirmed in my conviction that this was the inevitable consequence, not only of ten years of brutal sanctions, but of a half century of bribery and blackmail which corrupted the American body politic to the extent that the security of a foreign power was preferred to the peace and prosperity of the United States, and the Christian idea of the law of nature and of nations was suppressed in favor of the ancient Assyrian ethos of conquest and extermination.
If my reflections stop short of out and out anti-Semitism, you can blame the Jews for that, the ones I worked with, many of them from the Soviet Union by way of Israel, who came here not so much for material advantage, but to breathe the free air of a peaceful country. For these Orthodox colleagues being Jewish was not a matter of nationality and military splendor, but a sacred calling to serve the Creator in a special way. They put their trust in “G_d” rather than in princes, and some are given to patriotic enthusiasm—for the America of 1776. Israel? When the Messiah comes! (That, you should know, is Newyorkese for “Don’t hold your breath.”) It cheered me no end to see these men heading for the elevators at lunch hour clutching their ancient black books, their prayer cushions, and their formal black hats, just as it did to observe the Friday crowd prostrating themselves on the sidewalk in front of the Fountain Pen Hospital because there was no more room in the mosque upstairs. (Praying to our pens, a shop clerk said, but with real if bemused affection.) It’s good to know people are praying, even when you don’t.
It is these Jews, patriotic Americans of Jewish descent, culture, and religion, who will be made to suffer in the anti-Semitic reaction to our lost Mesopotamian war. But it is not Moshe Rabbenu who whispers into the Presidential ears, it is a delusional or even demonic simulacrum of Jesus Christ. The truly powerful conspirators against America are true believers in a ghastly Cromwellian gnosis, and they will see to it that it is others who are punished for their sins.
Unlike the religious Jews and the worldly Zionists, these Christian fanatics are dedicated enemies of the United States as a secular democratic republic. The so-called PATRIOT Act, rationalized as a necessity of the War on Terror, was primarily intended to reduce to a dead letter a Federal Constitution they fear, hate, and despise. If terrorism should prevent the elections of 2008, they will see the hand of God in it. If a three day blitzkrieg against Iran serves to provoke another 9/11, this could only hasten the demise of a secular constitutional state, leading to a dictatorship of those who answer to that imaginary Jesus who now dictates to George Bush. On my bad days, so I reflect.
I survived 9/11 with no worse than sore feet, and I survived kidney cancer a couple of years later. I lost my job to Mother India, but that was probably in the cards anyway. I want to celebrate my enormous pride in the unbelievable heroism and self-sacrifice of my fellow New Yorkers, not all of them in uniform whatever the Giulianis imply, but our pride has been hijacked along with our grief by the armchair terrorists of the war party. I will need to fight down my temptations to self-pity, personal, municipal, and national, to superstitious guilt over my own survival, to fears for a future so much less secure than it seemed on September 10 six years ago.
How shall he live, who lives by accident,
More strictly speaking, Providence?
Shall he now live as dead to world, to self, to dreams,
To ghosts of dreams long dead, to bitterness
That took their place in chill and numb of heart?
Can he be faithful to a dream reborn,
Perhaps embodied in illusion, and
Illusion but another name for that
Sacred image and word proceeding from
The divine center of the human soul?
Endure the unendurable a little yet,
Be glad each day is over, and the next.
Admit no enmity with mortal flesh;
In time of war speak only words of peace.
Worship your God, alone if it need be,
Protect the child from violent despair.
Attend the rites of beauty as you can,
Content that it exists, not craving more.
Embrace philosophy, ruler of souls.
That’s what I needed to write then. That’s what I need to read now.