A view from inside the World Trade Center, February 2001Like most everyone who was in the city that day, I remember exactly where I was when the Twin Towers fell. The corner of Seventh Avenue and Twelfth Street offered a direct view of both towers, and I was on my way to work when all the pointing got my sleepy eyes up from the pavement and to the gash in the building.
At that point, with one building hit, it was like any other spectacular happening in the city-people looked at it with practiced cool. We were worried, of course, about how many people were injured, but we were also shaking our heads. A plane in a building? Where else would this happen? New York had seen it all. We were not close enough to see the people jumping out.
"Dad, you won't believe this," I said into a pay phone, having called him collect, as I often did when the city had reached a new point of incredulity. "There's a plane in a building out here."
Then the second plane hit. In my memory, which has been heavily tampered with by the million recordings which would flood television screens over the next month, there was a flash of light and a horrible sound, followed by stunned silence. Traffic stopped. Car radios reported a terrorist attack. My dad, still on the phone, flipped from news channel to news channel, trying to tell me anything, which I dutifully reported to the people who were now gathered around me. I hung up when a woman whose husband was in the first tower ran up, needing to reach him.
Minutes later, we watched the first tower collapse with the disbelief of people seeing mountains vanish. There was no more cool on the streets, just gasps and sobs and occasionally one stranger trying to help another find a loved one they feared had been hurt. We looked across the street at St. Vincent's Hospital, waiting for the flood of ambulances that would inevitably come with the injured, only none came.
Talking about what was lost on 9/11 is impossible and complicated. How do you count what you lose when your city is destroyed, when neighbors are killed, when you know you've seen something that will keep part of you quietly wrecked forever? And then, how do other people count it for you? Talking about what you lost performs the strange magic of allowing others to size up how real your pain is, how justified your response is, how entitled you are to your opinions about the state of the country now. Did you lose a family member, a coworker, an acquaintance? Did you lose your innocence, your hope, your sense mankind was moving into the bright dawn of the new century? Did you lose a little bit of sleep and then get up and go about your day? Well then.
Like everyone else in this city and many people outside of it, I lost plenty on 9/11. I would lose more in the years that followed-friends and faith and even that father who collected my phone calls, but the thing that still haunts me, that feels freshly painful on this anniversary, is how I lost my city.
This anniversary of 9/11, with a pastor in Gainesville, Florida monopolizing the national dialogue on religious tolerance, I feel that loss more keenly than ever. How one man and his followers can imagine they honor anyone by burning a book sacred to Muslims is as baffling as it is awful. But then, this is what happens when your city-a city that literally thrived with internationality, where everyone celebrated the fact that we all came from somewhere else-is twisted into a symbol by some of the most scared and close-minded folks in America.
Here is what I want to say to Terry Jones, and to those who seek to "protect freedom" by persecuting a group of people whole cloth: There is no loss big enough to justify your actions. There just isn't. And to pretend that you're doing so in the name of the victims of 9/11 is to not really know or understand anything about this city. It is an insult to every single life that was lost.
"Book burning is antithetical to American ideals," Sarah Palin said yesterday, going on to point out these actions are a far cry from the Christian teachings of mercy, justice, freedom and equality. President Obama pointed out that actions like these are "completely contrary to our values of Americans." He also asked that Terry Jones "listen to his better angels." I wish we could all do that right now, because I do think those angels are out there, right across the river from me now, greeting another fall morning. I say listen to the spirit of my city, the one you pretend to honor.