“Get up here. You’re writing,” Don Forst, the Voice’s editor, commanded. I had called him after waiting in line to use a phone booth in Lower Manhattan to tell him what I had just seen: First, as I came up from the subway station at Chambers and Church, a flaming hole at the top of one of the World Trade Towers. And then, the second plane, gliding through a cerulean sky and piercing the other tower. I stood aghast with a small crowd of New Yorkers and wondered at the primal sound that streamed out of us, a collective gasping inhale and wailing exhale louder than the sirens that were already blaring nearby.
At first, Don said, “I know. We have the TV on. We’ll do something next week.” It was a Tuesday, and that week’s issue was already at the printing press; it would be loaded onto trucks for distribution in a matter of hours.
Then I added, “I have the name and number of a guy with a digital camera who took pictures.” He lived in the neighborhood and had been standing in that scrum on the corner; I had instinctively pulled a reporter’s pad out of my bag and asked for his contact info. We were still half a dozen years away from the first iPhone. There was no such thing as social media. Don told me to hurry to the office.
Dazed, shaken, guided only by the purpose Don had bestowed on me, I joined the throng trudging up Centre Street, interviewing along the way some World Trade Center secretaries who hadn’t quite made it in to work before the first plane hit. When I arrived at the Voice, at Cooper Square, Don insisted on pouring me a scotch — I looked ghostly, he said — then set me up at a terminal outside his office and instructed me to write what I saw and heard and felt. He tore out the page from my notebook with the number of the guy with the camera and left me alone. Maybe an hour later, he peered over my shoulder and picked up the phone on the desk where I was working, to call the plant. “Stop the presses,” he told them.
When the Voice hit newsstands, its cover bore a photo of one tower spewing fire and debris, the other, a cloud of gray ash. (And a headline — “The Bastards!” — that I hated. “Don’t even try arguing,” Don said, cutting off my objection. “I’m not changing it.”) My fevered account ran on the first inside page. In the meantime, my partner and I stood in line outside (the now departed) St. Vincent’s Hospital with dozens of others hoping to give blood. None was needed; there were few survivors.
For a time, the city changed — or more accurately, its best qualities surged to the fore. New Yorkers became solicitous in that way Rebecca Solnit writes about in A Paradise Built in Hell, when, in the face of disaster, people recognize their common plight and caring purpose. Strangers on the subway asked after each other’s well-being. Folks hailing cabs at the same time insisted that the others go first. Even Mayor Rudy Giuliani — locally reviled for his racist tough-on-crime campaign, efforts to ban protests and censor art, deployment of cops in schools, and gung-ho defense of police brutality (he had an approval rating of only 37 percent in April 2000) — gave voice to our shock and stoked our resilience. He was lauded as “America’s Mayor,” and as ludicrous as we knew that designation to be, we could take some comfort in his saying the right things. In the two decades since, what Giuliani has become stands as a perfect — and loathsome — emblem of our current national state, as our democracy faces an even graver threat than we confronted on that terribly beautiful September day in 2001. Calm and resolute as he strode north from the collapsing towers, coated in soot, then; sarcastic and whiny as he spouted conspiracy theories about election fraud in the parking lot of Philadelphia’s Four Seasons Total Landscaping on another blazingly bright day last year.
To the late great Voice muckraker Wayne Barrett, those two scenes would not have appeared so far apart. His reporting on the mayor — and on the real estate mogul — includes a 1993 exposé showing how, in 1989, Giuliani, then U.S. Attorney, quashed a probe into the dodgy financing of Trump Tower, soon after which Trump co-chaired a fundraiser for Giuliani’s first (failed) mayoral campaign. And in the book Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, Barrett and co-author Dan Collins undo the myth of the 9/11 hero, chronicling ways that the mayor blundered in establishing security measures for the city — or ignored them altogether.
Meanwhile, many of us covered the developing War on Terror, whose excesses — whose very essence — abroad and at home also ended up helping to lay the path to our perilous circumstances today (as Spencer Ackerman argues in his new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump). With unsuppressed alarm, we reported on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security; inflamed anti-immigrant animus and an exploding detention industry; the assault on civil liberties through expansive surveillance and arrest powers granted by laws like the USA Patriot Act (which passed speedily and almost unanimously); a hounding of Muslim and Arab New Yorkers (or those presumed to be Muslim or Arab) so severe that hordes fled the city to request asylum in Canada; a ramped-up rhetoric of jingoism that among other things led to harassment of academics, artists, writers, and others who raised questions about this disorder. The president’s spokesperson warned that Americans should “watch what they say” and the attorney general huffed that anyone expressing concern about the Bill of Rights was engaging in “tactics [that] only aid terrorists.” We followed, too, the militarization of the police, racial profiling as national policy, government monitoring of political and religious gatherings, “preventive detention,” secret trials, the brazen use of torture. And, of course, the military invasion of Afghanistan, with its benighted rashness, and Iraq, based on bogus intelligence. All in the name of “national security.”
But what did security mean? And who got to have it? The measures claiming to “preserve our freedoms” were curtailing them for untold numbers of people at home, while the civilian casualties abroad were fomenting fury and producing new enemies. Much of the U.S. tolerated such measures and even cheered them on — after all, they mostly didn’t affect white people. It was easy enough to sacrifice someone else’s rights and liberties.
This is an old story in the United States. You can find plenty of precedents in America’s history for the nativism, polarization, suppression of dissent, Islamophobia, xenophobia, warmongering, and violent white supremacy that heaved up as the towers fell. The post-9/11 reaction didn’t by itself produce Trumpism. The demise of the Fairness Doctrine, along with other Reagan-era deregulation, and, more recently, the lifting of restrictions on campaign spending the Supreme Court handed to corporations in Citizens United, and the Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, to cite only a few major blows to democratic progress, also deserve a share of the blame. But, as Ackerman suggests, Trump “recognized that the 9/11 era’s grotesque subtext — the perception of nonwhites as marauders, even as conquerors, from hostile foreign civilizations — was its engine,” and he stepped on the gas. He cast himself as savior from the humiliations of the “forever wars,” and made politics tribal.
The Trumpian tribe, as the Republicans have become, puts its faith in one unshakable idea, the same tenet that the War on Terror required: American innocence. The conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni attacked universities as the “weak link” in America’s response to 9/11, and in a report naming more than 40 professors who had made “anti-American” statements, condemned as seditious sentiments such as, “We need to understand the reasons behind the terrifying hatred directed against the U.S. and find ways to act that will not foment more hatred for generations to come.” It’s the same principle that has incited hysteria over a twisted idea of “critical race theory” — the U.S. need never examine its own injurious actions or goals, for it can never do any wrong.
Otherwise, the party has no political program or policy agenda. Its primary objective is to own the libs. Even if that means aggressive voter suppression and gerrymandering. Even at the expense of thousands of lives lost to the pandemic. Even at the cost of dire environmental calamity. The demolition of voting rights, the mutating coronavirus, and accelerating climate change are the urgent threats to American security today — those and one more: an armed base gunning for a fight that has bought into the falsehood that Biden illegitimately usurped the presidency. On January 6, they came much closer to destroying the seat of government than Flight 93 on 9/11, which had been aiming for the Capitol and crashed when passengers rushed the cockpit.
I will avoid the 9/11 commemorative hoopla this year. I have never been able to stand listening to the hyperventilating descriptions on the radio or watching the endless loops of disaster footage on TV on any anniversary. I will honor the day by lighting a candle for a friend lost in the rubble, the sweet-natured firefighter Pat Brown. And I will know that it is the homegrown terrorists who hate the rest of us for our freedom. ❖