Culture Clash at Ground Zero

From where I sit I can look out across New York Harbor, past the sunlight glinting off the green copper facade of the Statue of Liberty, to the Manhattan skyline and the hole in the sky where the World Trade Center once was. I’m on a bench on the 69th Street Pier, which extends into New York harbor off of Shore Road. It’s just a block from the house I grew up in, in Bay Ridge Brooklyn where my mother still lives. Even more than a trip to Ground Zero, this place, for me, is the appropriate starting point to come to grips with that hole in the sky. For this pier, and especially the bicycle path and lush parks and baseball fields which stretch out along the edge of the harbor and the waters of the Narrows behind me, comprised the window from which, during the 1950s to the 1970s, I viewed New York.

Starting in 1956 when our family moved from near Prospect Park in another Brooklyn neighborhood to Bay Ridge, the harbor and the skyline, Manhattan to the north, Staten Island to the west, New Jersey off in the distance further west and north, provided the backdrop to everyday life. And it was a backdrop. It was always there, and it was always changing, evolving, getting larger as more and bigger buildings crowded into the skyline. And yet only a dramatic change such as the building of the Verrazano Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island, right in our proverbial backyard, had any real impact on us. The bridge was a quick bicycle ride down Shore Road from the pier. My friends and I could watch the building of Verrazano Bridge through a telescope, the wheels going endlessly back and forth across the Narrows spinning the connecting bridge cables. We soon learned there was a personal price to be paid for this new bridge. Our beloved little Brooklyn-Staten Island Ferry (not its more famous cousin, the Manhattan-Staten Island Ferry which still plies New York Harbor) which sailed from the 69th Street Pier, and which took us on hot summer days to our favorite city pool in Staten Island, was shut down. No more could we “captain” our ships across the choppy waters.

The loss of our ferry made me become aware of a long, ongoing debate over the city’s growth — what should be built, where it should be built, and how big it should be. This debate included the building of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Two books, written before 9/11 but recently reviewed by Michael Tomasky in The New York Review of Books (March 28, 2002), Divided We Stand by Eric Darton and Twin Towers by Angus Gillespie, detail the fierce political, economic, and architectural battle which surrounded the World Trade Center’s development and construction.

For many New Yorkers during the time, especially younger ones such as I, this struggle over the future shape of the Manhattan skyline proceeded without much notice on our part. In New York buildings went up, others came down. It was a constant cycle of construction and destruction that went on largely unnoticed; that is, until the bridge went up in our backyard and our ferry disappeared. Darton and Gillespie’s books about the World Trade Center indicate that the debate over the Tower’s continued up to the day of their destruction. And now, in the wake of that horrific moment of destruction, a second debate over the WTC began that relegates the first to architecture textbooks.

Over the last six months this new controversy has evolved more quickly than anyone might have thought in the immediate aftermath of September 11. The new debate is about politics and ideology, and about culture, and about the perception of what happened that day and why it happened. Two months after 9/11 The New York Times (November 13, 2001) reported that there was “At least for the moment, a cooling off in the Culture Wars.” The article noted that both liberals and conservatives were now pulling back from the ongoing “arguments over violence, sexuality and blasphemy in films, pop music, museum shows, video games and television shows — part of a larger set of issues known collectively as the ‘culture wars’. . .” The article noted that whether and how long this hiatus would continue remained to be seen.

To my mind this hiatus is not only over, it never really began. To paraphrase Captain Renaldo in Casablanca, the “usual suspects” very quickly drew the lines of the post-9/11 debate. Initially there were the next day comments of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, claiming that America’s growing secularization had led God to allow the attacks. These comments were quickly condemned, from all points of the political spectrum, and quickly withdrawn. Still, however, those initial, visceral comments that focused blame on America for the 9/11 attacks were soon echoed, strangely enough, by those from the liberal end of the political spectrum. On September 24, 2001 Susan Sontag wrote in The New Yorker that the attacks were “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” This is somewhat of a different take on the view that the US is to blame for the attacks, but it also speaks to America’s moral failings as inspiring those attacks.

On October 22, 2001 The New Yorker reported Oliver Stone’s comments that “I think the revolt of September 11th was about ‘Fuck you! Fuck your order . . . All great changes have come from people or events that were initially misunderstood. . .” Alexander Cockburn writing in the Los Angeles Times on September 30, 2001, also suggested that America must shoulder the blame for the attacks, that the hijackers were motivated by hatred of past US foreign policy actions. For Cockburn, on September 11 America’s wars finally had “come home”, and those who died in the WTC and the Pentagon paid the price for the nation’s past wrongs, wrongs such as “Israel’s occupation of Palestine and US complicity with that occupation.”

On the conservative side of the culture wars, William Bennett responded that the idea “that these attacks were the inevitable reaction to modern-day American imperialism. . .(such as) our support of Israel, our attacks on Saddam Hussein, cruise missiles launched at Afghanistan and Sudan . . .is nonsense.” (Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2001). Ann Coulter’s response to the attacks, to “the homicidal maniacs”, was the suggestion that “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” (National Review Online, September 13, 2001, as reported in The New Republic, October 8, 2001).

More expressions emerged with the revelation of more details about the hijackers and their backgrounds, the commencement of the war in Afghanistan, the controversy over the treatment of the Taliban and Al Quaeda detainees in the US military base at Guantanamo Cuba, the fate of the American Taliban John Walker Lindh, the presentation of the CBS documentary, 9/11 , and —over what kind of building or memorial should be constructed at Ground Zero. In a way the debate over the WTC attacks had returned to echo that earlier argument about the original building of the WTC. Still, if the debate about building the WTC is now relegated to history, the debate over its destruction and the events of the last six months have become dishearteningly familiar in tone and content.

I was recently sent a collection of writings, September 11, 2001 Readings for Writers, edited by Myron Turman. The book is filled with the predictable responses to the 9/11 by liberals and conservatives. The WTC once again become immediate grist for the Culture Wars mill.

My family was fortunate that no relations or friends were killed or injured on 9/11. Only my mother still lives in New York, but the family was frantically phoning and e-mailing each other that day. First there was the concern that my mother, who sometimes takes in an early movie in lower Manhattan, might have gone into the City that day. She hadn’t. In fact she didn’t even go down to the 69th Street Pier, as others in the neighborhood did, to watch the unfolding disaster. That wonderful pier, our window on the city, was now tinged with horror.

Later that day we found out what a deep impression the 9/11 destruction had made all over the world. My daughter received an e-mail from the German exchange student who stayed with us for two weeks in the spring of 2001. “Was Katie all right? Was her family all right? Was America all right?” Only a few minutes after she answered the e-mail the phone rang. It was the Canadian Girl Scout who had stayed with us during the fall of 2000. She was asking those same questions. The two young girls from Germany and Canada who had stayed with us, and who had also traveled to New York during their stay, were worried about us in particular and all Americans in general. Their concern felt personal and poignant.

Not long after September 11, my daughter was cleaning up her room and came upon a package of picture postcards from New York, a souvenir from one of our many trips. The set of city panoramas featured the WTC, along with the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Looking at the postcards, now become relics, it was clear that the WTC had become one of the instantly recognizable embodiments of the city. It was the place foreign students wanted to visit. Although a latecomer as a symbol, compared to the Statue of Liberty (1886) or the Empire State Building (1931), the WTC had, literally and figuratively, staked a firm claim for recognition in the soil of lower Manhattan.

The postcards helped me to fuse the pre and post 9/11 debates about the construction and destruction of the WTC. Looking at the pictures took me back to my visits to other famous city and national symbols. In Moscow, standing in Red Square in both snow and cold and summer heat, as I absorbed the beauty of St. Basil’s Cathedral, I remembered how that cathedral was nearly destroyed by Russia’s brutal ruler, Joseph Stalin. Stalin was responsible for the destruction of other Orthodox churches, such as the Church of Christ the Redeemer, also in Moscow. The church has been rebuilt — a meticulous copy of the original — and an example of reconstruction triumphing over destruction. In Romania’s capitol Bucharest, and in other cities in Romania, the dictator Nicolai Ceacescu had wantonly destroyed acres of old villages and buildings, the heritage of the nation. In Bucharest he had erected on the ashes a new symbol of the nation — his enormous, grandiose “Palace of the People”. The very title mocked those for whom the building was named.

Those early criticisms of the WTC were actually about what some felt was an act as terrible as those of Stalin or Ceacescu — the destruction of Manhattan by the construction of the WTC. And though some felt that “destruction” keenly, the twin towers had, noisily at first and then more quietly, affirmed their place in the city’s iconography. Now the WTC is destroyed. Those who destroyed the towers were in their destructiveness not unlike Stalin or Ceacescu. True, they did not destroy architecture in their own country. But, like the dictators, they destroyed what they feared and hated. For Stalin and Ceacescu it was the church, or the vestiges of an old society that they desired to erase. For the hijackers it was, perhaps, the seemingly impervious American conceit represented by the WTC and the Pentagon. Though they ruled for many years, killed many, and destroyed much of their countries’ heritage, the dictators have ultimately been thwarted. The Russian Orthodox Church lives again, and Bucharest is being reborn in freedom. But what of the hijackers and the WTC. . .?

Now I sit here on the pier and stare across the harbor. I remember the first time our family climbed to the top of the WTC. It was in the early 1990s when my children were young, five and ten. The day was perfect. We got to the top and walked slowly around to take in the whole panorama of a miniature New York spread out in all directions. Finally my son, who was ten, asked as we gazed towards Brooklyn, shimmering in the distance to the south, “Can we see Grandma’s house from here? Can we see the 69th Street Pier?” “Maybe,” I replied, “if we look real hard.”