I first caught sight of American Airlines Flight 11 when it was over mid-town. In my memory, the explosion when it hit the North Tower sounded like the crunch of breaking glass. “I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame,” as James Joyce’s Stephen Daedelus might have put it. The second plane’s engines shrieked before it struck; I felt as much as heard the boom. As I have written elsewhere, it took me a few minutes to realize what I was witnessing; when the nickel did drop, it wasn’t fear I felt so much as dislocation–it was for all the world like I had been lifted outside the boundaries of my own life and was being borne away by the stream of history.
A couple of evenings later, when the ruins were still smoking and the smell was thick in the air, we walked down to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade to attend an Interfaith ceremony of Muslims, Christians, and Jews and light candles for the victims. Almost nine years later, on the evening of September 10th, I walked over the bridge with my family to Park Place for another candle light ceremony, this one to show support for the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.
It was a big disappointment for me. The police herded us into a designated “free speech zone” that they’d set up along Church Street, a block away from 45-51 Park Place. Not only was it crowded and claustrophobic, the sightline down the street offered a splendid view of Ground Zero, which I was afraid some unethical photographer would take advantage of. I could just see the headline in the next day’s Post–“Shariah Advocates Demonstrate in the Shadow of the Rising Freedom Tower.” We didn’t stay long enough to hear any of the speeches, but I was glad to see that the event was well-covered by the media (here’s The Washington Post, NY1, and AP).
Saturday afternoon, I went to hear New York magazine’s Mark Jacobson give a talk about the anti-mosque hysteria in Staten Island, Sheepshead Bay, Murfreesboro, TN, and of course Manhattan. Jacobson is the author of The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans, a hypnotically fascinating book that I was lucky enough to read in manuscript a couple of months ago and that I highly recommend.
His take on the mosque issue is pretty much the same as mine–that it’s driven by both bigotry and cynical calculation–but he isn’t as fired up as I’ve been, he’s much more haimesche and easy-going. “Bigots have rights too,” he said with a shrug. They do, but one would hope that our national political and spiritual leaders would try to enlighten them rather than exploit them. Some of them are, of course–plenty of rabbis and ministers and elected officials have made courageous stands–but many who know better have done just the opposite.
“We’ve been in a fog since 9/11,” he said at one point, “We still don’t know how to talk about it.”
I disagree. As shattering an event as it was, nothing that happened that day should have surprised us. We had been at war with al Qaeda for years; they had targeted the towers already. Dozens of jets were hijacked in the 1970s; thousands of innocents had been killed by terrorists. What changed was the sense of American invulnerability; what was challenged (as it should have been) was our faith in our own innocence and invincibility.
The world is bigger than we are; not everybody loves us. Life is complicated and dangerous; any of us can die at any moment. To understand those things is the beginning of wisdom. Maybe that’s why so few of us do.