I put on a dark suit this morning, something somber for this day of remembrance. Instead of walking to work, I take the long escalator down to the E train at the 53rd and Lexington station. Although it is rush hour, the platform is nearly empty. When the train arrives, I easily find a seat. The subway clatters over to the West Side and then down to the World Trade Center at Manhattan’s southern tip.
I think of my college classmates. Tom Glasser died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Doug Gardner and Calvin Gooding worked for our classmate Howie Lutnik’s financial firm, Cantor Fitzgerald. They were on the top floor of the North Tower when, a little before 9 a.m. nineteen years ago, the plane hit.
I arrive at 9:20 and take the elevator up to street level. At this time on September 11, 2001, the buildings had not yet collapsed. They were burning. Firefighters were streaming up the stairwells. Desperate office workers trapped on the higher floors were flinging themselves out of windows and falling to their deaths.
The 9/11 Memorial is fenced off. Thousand of policemen monitor the perimeter. “Family and friends only,” they tell me, directing me to an entrance at Fulton and Greenwich Streets. The woman in charge tells me access is limited to family members with official authorization. I regret that I cannot trace Tom, Doug, and Calvin’s names with my finger, as I have done a number of times on earlier visits. But the policy is wise.
I go to West Street and walk slowly along the south side of the memorial. My mind returns to the morning of 9/11. I was in Omaha, heading to the hardware store to get supplies for a home improvement project. I stopped for a cappuccino on Dodge Street. The barista was distracted and drew my attention to the small TV mounted on the wall. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” he reported. We shook our heads in disbelief as we watched the smoke and flames pouring out of the building.
I dislike the 9/11 Memorial. Its design is nihilistic. The rows of trees that have matured nicely over the last decade soften the stark plaza with a green canopy of living things. I can see Tom, Doug, and Calvin in my mind’s eye. But they are fading. Time slowly robes the dead in gauze that blurs their features.
I marvel that the terrible events of that day occurred nineteen years ago. It seems like yesterday, yes, but also like ancient history, all the more so because this year’s anniversary is being marked by no major public events. The outrage that swept the country in 2001 receded long ago. Anger has become grief, more personal and private, more like a sore joint than an open wound.
There is a cruelty in our fading memories of those who have died. We feel it in the ravenous oblivion that the memorial’s architect, Michael Arad, so heartlessly put at the center of his design. But there is also a kindness, for the fading edges of memory soften the pain of loss.
I turn toward the Hudson River and walk along the embankment that forms the western side of Battery Park City. A young woman walking my way smiles and notes that it’s a beautiful day. A small flotilla of powerboats festooned with American flags (and some Trump flags) has gathered. The woman wonders aloud about what’s going on, then starts jogging. She moves beyond me, seemingly oblivious to the significance of the morning of September 11. She has no memories, faded or otherwise.
I circle back to the memorial’s northern side, noting with gratitude that nobody is protesting. An easterly wind breaks up clouds in the vibrant blue of the early September sky, which contrasted so sharply with the terrible smoke on that fateful day.
I hesitate before going down the stairs to the subway. Nearly two decades on, the events of September 11, 2001, are vivid. The vast memorial is meant to bring them to mind. I feel the loss. Emptiness is death’s daunting power. But the meaning of that day has become more and more obscure to me as the years have passed. Osama bin Laden? Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Our nation’s place in the affairs of men?
“Great is the LORD, and great to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:3). Our endeavors, even the most wicked and most noble, those radiant with joy as well as heavy with grief, tumble into the fathomless depths of the divine, where there is consolation, not comprehension.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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