Most people can tell you exactly where they were when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. I can’t even tell you what state I was in. To be sure I would have been in one of two. I was in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, as I was on a 7 mile run that twice crossed the Delaware River from one state to the other. I was none the wiser when I got home either because I didn’t own a TV and I didn’t listen to the radio and I was entirely on my own. I was, in short, a man living in a proverbial cave.
That I could occupy practically the center of gravity of the biggest moment in recent American history and not know anything about it was irony enough. That I was finally told about it later that morning in an email from a friend in England (who some two years later consented to become my wife) made it all the more poignantly ironic.
Had it all happened a year earlier I might have not found out about the whole thing by a week or more. The Friday after the 2000 election I still didn’t know there was a controversy about who the president of the United States was. I was what you might call in a long depressive state. Circumstances, including September 11, 2001, changed all that.
That day reminded me that there were human tragedies greater than mine, human anguish far beyond anything I knew. It reminded me that I was part of the human race and the human condition, that some of our species were monstrously evil but most of us were wonderfully good.
Like most Americans I took the attack on New York City personally. It was (and remains) my favourite city in the world. In the 90s my former wife and I would go into what everyone within driving distance familiarly and affectionately called “The City” every weekend for a play or the Met or MoMa or the Frick or the Whitney or you name it. I even toured all five boroughs on foot in the New York City Marathon. I believe it was John Updike who said “Anyone who doesn’t live in New York City is just kidding,” and I firmly believed that. I think I still do.
Driving or taking the bus into The City I would always let my eyes run from Harlem in the North down past midtown and the Empire State Building to the southern tip of the Battery majestically presided over by the Twin Towers. The Towers gave a satisfying balance to the island like stylish bookends at the foot of a beautiful diversity of well-loved volumes. New York was my city and it had been grievously wounded.
The change the attacks brought on our humanity was profound. A solemn darkness, kind, earnest, sad and sedate descended on us all. We moved through crowds of each other like guests at a funeral where every face was a beloved family member we were at once glad and tearful to encounter. We were Americans and we clung together for comfort and encouragement. The very quality of the air had changed to a deeper autumnal, like a movie shot through tears and a nylon stocking.
After the attacks President Bush had the highest approval rating in the history of the Gallup Poll. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and George Bush famously hugged on the floor of the Capitol. It was us against religious fascism and we were united as one people with a single voice. Three months later, when I first came to England, we still retained the love and goodwill of the world. Everywhere I went I was greeted as a bereaved and welcome cousin.
It was a time characterized by the words of a fictional Prime Minister in the movie “Love Actually.” In the film’s opening, Hugh Grant in a voiceover of scenes from London Heathrow Airport’s arrival gate says, “When the planes hit the Twin Towers as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge. They were all messages of love.”
So what happened? How have we fallen so far and so fast? We paid a bitter price for 9/11 and 20 years later we have nothing to show for it. Fascism with a Muslim face has since been replaced by fascism with a Christian face. We all know the cliche about our failure to learn from history. Were we doomed to repeat it in such a short period of time?
It would seem so. Only 15 years and a handful of weeks later, 9/11 became 11/9, when we awoke that morning to another horror, when a monster became president of the United States. Only this time the tragedy didn’t bring us together, it tore us asunder.
So here we are after twenty years and still the face of religious hatred and intolerance and bigotry and misogyny defaces our skyline. We are in the midst of another attack on America only this time the attack comes from within. This time we cannot safely walk through a crowd of fellow Americans and find uniform acceptance and goodwill. This time some of them are the Enemy.
It’s a tragedy that so many of us cannot discern that the deforming mask of fascism is ugly no matter whose religion wears it. Twenty years ago 9/11 brought me out of depression and caused me to engage with life again. I will not let this new predicament defeat the lesson of that tragedy. I can still close my eyes and recall a time when, for one brief shining moment, we were one people, united by a single horror that we refused to let defeat us. I believe with time and patience and perseverance we can become a single, united people once again. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.