Last summer I visited the painfully exquisite 9/11 Memorial & Museum, in lower Manhattan. Through a carefully constructed flow of architecture, images, sounds, and objects, the institution skillfully recreates that terrible September morning and its immediate aftermath.
I walked past burnt fire engines and video loops of planes smashing into the World Trade Towers. An audio stream – shocked newscasts, panicked emergency calls, and voicemails to and from the soon-to-be dead – played in the background. Within seconds I was transported to that doomed day, almost brought to my knees by the abrupt reappearance of the anxiety and deep sadness I, and the rest of America, experienced 17 years ago.
Not a visit I’d want to make daily, to a place of historic, collective, pain, but a necessary call, an important reminder of a catastrophe all Americans now eligible to vote lived through in some fashion, whose implications continue to reverberate.
The terrorist attack ushered in a period of war-without-end, marked the partial disintegration of much of the Middle East – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria – brought to life America’s security state, distracted U.S. foreign policy away from the new world order emerging in Asia, and, arguably, gave us President Donald Trump. The horror of that day is seared into our souls. It’s a part of our DNA, reshaping our emotional and intellectual faculties. The resulting fear and anger lingers like gigantic threatening storm clouds, far larger than the rebuilt World Trade Center, prompting many of us, mostly in Red States, to yell a long and loud expletive to the rest of the world, angry flames that Trump and his supporters continue to nurture.
On the ground, the area in and around the former Twin Towers sparkles with the best, and the worst, of America. Cascades of water flow into two large square pits, down, down, down into the ground, like the collapsing of the buildings and our collective sense of safety. Nearby, Manhattan’s largest indoor shopping mall, operated by Westfield, sits under a roof-sculpture that could represent the bones of a diving whale or skeleton of a crashing jumbo jet. At an impeccably renovated Battery Park, clusters of tourists mix with lovers of all colors, while children frolic on grassy meadows in the shadow of multi-million-dollar condominiums affordable only to the wealthiest 10 percent.
9/11’s direct wound has more than healed. Lower Manhattan is healthier than ever, acknowledging, through the Memorial & Museum and its grounds, what’s been suffered, what’s been lost, countering it, in nearby parks and amusements, with a roar of happiness and triumph, of life. It’s a testament to what New York – and California – wants to be: a place that remembers its history, but strives to mark it with peace, prosperity, and compassion.