You emerge from the subterranean corridors, and find the quintessential metropolis is abnormally quiet and motionless – even for a Sunday morning. There are no plowing and swerving cars; the only sounds of vehicles are the engines of the many police motors idly humming on every corner and each side street. Even the typical susurrus of conversations and trudging shoes of the citizenry, that daily and sonically dapple the downtown streets, are not present. The people who vivify the carapace of downtown Gotham have all converged and congregated near the Void of Ground Zero.
As you walk from the City Hall subway stop, the odd silence of the day envelopes you more – it is an underwater type of silence. But then you detect strange, muffled noises – you hear them truly like sounds that are above water as you are below the surface. I walk toward those sounds.
On the way, there are visitors who have come to pay respects. I see women who – without shame – wipe tears from their eyes as their bodies drop and lose strength – their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers catch them as they falter. These men make feeble efforts to not weep, to be strong. They fail.
As you get closer yet, you feel as if you finally breach the water’s surface, as it were, you enter into that space which is Ground Zero. And now the strange sounds are intelligible: it is the sounds of humans speaking over microphones. Yet like a séance, you can see no one speaking, only these disembodied voices float through the Void. And you soon discover that the voices are that of the family members reading the names of their dead from September 11, 2001.
The first words I discern clearly are that of woman who is telling the story of her sister who died in Bin Laden’s demonic attack. The words come echoing out from speakers which are perched in many places and her voice bounces all over the otherwise silent city: “My sister was on her way out to survival,” the woman says, “when she ran back to rescue a missing co-worker.” The woman paused, and imbibed a jerky, deep breath as she was suffocating from the overwhelming memory that was having its tenth birthday – nearly to the precise minute – as she spoke. The woman, gathering herself, then said of her sister, in a tone usually reserved only for devotion to Divinity, “You are my hero.” And, dear reader, the woman’s sister is our hero too.
Very seldom in our time upon earth do we hear such words with absolutely zero affectation. In this woman’s entire life, it clear she will never speak words truer than those she said of her sister – “You are my hero.”
I told my friends outside of the city as well those in the city, who were not able to make it to lower Manhattan for the tribute, that the emotional tension of the ceremony was something television just could not capture. One could set a blind and deaf man near Ground Zero this morning – and he would have felt the ambit’s gravitas sans any visual or auditory cues.
After the ceremony, you would pass the kith of the deceased leaving the site. Brave people. There was no sign of either anger or apathy, but merely quiet courage and resolve – a resolve to go onward and live. No caskets did they ever wish to hoist and walk down the streets in mob formation, shrieking; there were no chants to “kill” the foe, no chants of “death to” anyone. They are consummate Americans – the perfection of our Republic.
Much later that same day, late at night, as I solitarily walked the dark, empty streets, I thought back to the morning of September 11, 2001. And without too mawkishly connecting the macrocosm to the microcosm, the Void created by evil in lower Manhattan actually ended up filling a void in me; it made me capable things I may have never been capable of unless that hell on earth had happened. Chiefly, I am speaking of being able to care for, and to love – without guilt – the United States of America. To be patriotic.
Indeed, as I leaned against a rough, red-brick building in the West Village, I peered downtown toward the two pillars of light, which now signified the lost towers. I thought of all the great men and women who died that autumn day, of all the acts of heroism I had heard about – and of all the ones I would never hear of. I thought of how ineffably noble the survivors of these attacks were, and I also thought of how my nation, which after an attack on its way of life and its diversity and its true multiculturalism, decided not to fold in on itself, but to increase its role in spreading democracy and to elect its first African-American President (who had a Muslim father).
As I stood gazing, at once toward the site of the worst terrorist attack in history and at the greatest city and nation the world has known, antipode feelings flushed through me: first, a horrible sadness for my country’s loss; next a gigantic pride in what my country was. And my chin dimpled, and my eyelids quivered, and I feebly held back tears.