Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11/01 - We Need a Sense of History

On the day before my mother & father's 30th wedding anniversary, 3,000 innocent people lost their lives on American soil. 10 years later, my father reflects in his New Jersey Star Ledger blog.


On the evening of September 10, 2001, my wife and I arrived at a hotel at the Jersey shore to celebrate our anniversary. Next morning, when the planes hit, the first thing I did was call my office in NYC. The father of one of the young women who worked for me was an executive at a company on the upper floors of the World Trade Center. Waiting for some word, she did not come to the phone.

Now, in my mind's eye, it is Friday morning, September 14. I am getting off the train at Hoboken, track 17, next to the lapping waters. Ruins across the Hudson still smoulder. At noon, I leave the office after a useless morning and head out to lunch for lack of anything better to do. Flaky ashes drift over
East 29th Street .
I take a furtive glance down Madison Avenue; the sky fades from peerless blue to murky grey. I start walking, aimlessly, uncertain of which takeout place I should choose.

During the weekend, as self-administered therapy, I clean and re-stain our back deck. Every time a plane flies over into Newark Airport on an altered flight plan, I imagine an explosion.

In those days after the trauma there was plenty of unadulterated existentialism in the air: Resolution to go on with business as usual would be rudely interrupted by speculation about who did this horrendous thing -- and why. People resolved to change daily habits, become more empathic toward others. To remember the dead. In a Vanity Fair editorial, Graydon Carter declared an "end to irony" and called for a return to grounded values. No more cynicism. No more conspicuous consumption.

In retrospect – and I hadn't realized this until now, established as a teacher at Montclair State University, and no longer commuting – the fact that I had been working in the City, day in and day out, for fifteen years had a lot to do with my disposition in the weeks and months after 9/11. I felt as if I were entering the fray every time I emerged from the subway; as if I were a member of the advance-guard for the culture at large, stoically representing "American interests at home" or some such.

We were, each one of us, "soldiers of civilization," indispensable interlocking cogs determined to keep the Huge Machine cranking along. Hence the cosmopolitan surge in eye-contact, the counterintuitive desire to connect with passers-by who would have been ignored in the era before That Day.

The layers of years accrete, and iconic images of billowing smoke and gashed concrete and ruined glass remain in the forefront of my mind, and I still hear the wail of echoing sirens.

But as an historian, I have spent my writing life trying quixotically to make coherence out of events that have already happened. It's not just because, as a writer, I have come to believe that when you live through a global drama of epic proportions you need to memorialize it. And it's not just because I am compelled by a popular pedagogical obligation to "teach the conflicts."

I wish for our students that they will take some time during this grey and dreary week to reflect upon 9/11/01 as a way in to historical consciousness in general.

By Neil Baldwin

No comments:

Post a Comment