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A SIGN IN A
The sign, three feet high
by two feet wide, black, three-inch letters in bold type on a plain white
placard, has hung in the window of a house on a brownstone block for almost
ten years. I first noticed it in the weeks following the morning of Tuesday,
September 11th, 2001, when a diabolical fog the color of secondhand smoke
invaded that same gently sloping row house-lined street like a spectral
visitation from a medieval plague year.
The fog came from the two
burning towers of the World Trade Center via a combustion plume that arced
over the Hudson. It reminded me of the slowly extending finger from a hooded
skull on a colossal skeleton. As the vaporous dactyl touched the Brooklyn
waterfront, the toxic cloud condensed. It smelled of death, but unlike mortal
corruption. Its mortuary odors bespoke the death of machinery, of the ghosts
of miles of incinerated polymers, of vaporized forests of sheet rock and
acoustic tile, of blazing orchards of PCs and roasted swarms of plastic mice.
It also stank of the combined millions of cubic tons of aviation
gasoline known as JP-7 in the two 747s that had
exploded inside the buildings, a characteristic sour-sweet smell that was kin
to the charnel odors of murdered synthetics.
Mingled within this
airborne miasma were also the microscopic particles of the first of what was
eventually to be tallied at several thousand vaporized human beings,
including, at this stage, both the passengers and aircrew of the two hijacked
commercial jets and of the twenty-four terrorists who had forced the
intercontinental flights to turn around and make suicide runs at the iconic
nexus of American power.
This odor had been absent
from the pyres and hecatombs of past warfare. But curiously, in this
incineration of thousands of human beings that marked the start of what has
now lengthened to a decade of global warfare, our senses were assaulted not by
the burning of the flesh but by the sudden and catastrophic combustion of
machinery and the industrial infrastructure supporting it.
In the acrid stench of
that fog hung a question: was this an attack on human beings or the first
salvo fired in a war against digital machinery, and were the human casualties,
for all their horror, merely collateral damage? Here was a new diabolism, for
it announced that this new synthetic flesh enveloped the marrow of global 21st
century civilization and might indeed hold primacy over the old flesh of
biological entities that preceded it.
This was not such a
farfetched notion. In the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombing
that occurred in February, 1993, Air Force Colonel Ken
Minihan issued a white paper unfamiliar to most outside the Pentagon,
where its concept of "the microchip as aimpoint,"
quickly became a catchphrase. Colonel Minihan also
called this earlier World Trade Center bombing a "digital Pearl Harbor,"
because its target was perceived to be the computer-enabled nerve center of
the US commercial sector, which the bombing was launched to severely disrupt.
He added that “information itself is both a weapon and a target.”
How curious this phrase,
how apt, and yet how elusive. Elusive because its
connections to 911 seem unclear until one began to ponder its ramifications.
Apt because Minihan’s phrase about information
being a weapon and a target could almost have been Osama bin
Laden’s shibboleth, and the slogan of al Qaeda.
Paradoxes continue to
pullulate at the core of the meltdown of 911, an
event that I believe has been completely assimilated into the American psyche
not as fact but as myth. As Susan Faludi pointed
out in her book The Terror Dream, “We reacted to our trauma ... not by
interrogating it but by cocooning ourselves in the celluloid chrysalis of the
baby boom’s childhood.” Or, corollary to the preceding, as Electronic Frontier
Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow told me shortly after that fateful
Tuesday in September, and corollary to the preceding, “The control freaks are
going to lunch out on this forever.”
To this day, the
platitudes of 911 overshadow the apocalyptic core truths, the shallow
posturing of politicians and pundits overwhelm the event’s integral verities
and lessons. It seems almost as if the sheer complexity of the horror of the
events of 911 defy easy reductivism to anything
other than the vulgarizations of media mythology and the trivializing effects
of official explanations, interpretations and prevarications.
Maybe the sign in that
brownstone window, the sign that simply states "NEVER FORGET" was meant as an
elemental admonition to remember the cardinal truths of that awful event, to
continually reflect on its genuine rather than its invented meanings. Yet how
pathetic was the placement of this message, how insignificant its call to
remembrance from a window that faced a quiet side-street
off the beaten path. As weeks slipped into months and the years began
to pass, it began to appear more and more of a non-sequitur.
Never forget what,
exactly? That life sucked. That the price of a subway ride had gone up again?
It began to seem pointless, a meaningless question, full of sound, and fury
and perhaps even silent, helpless rage, but alas signifying nothing. Even
after the American Flags that had appeared, seemingly overnight, on
practically every subway car and bus in the city were no longer commonplace,
after the days and nights on end of wailing sirens and the
strobing of lights as vehicles sped through the
streets, even after the barricades in front of the Battery Tunnel had come
down and the detour signs vanished, even after national and local media
outlets grew tired of repetitions of sound bites from the Apocalypse and
replaced them with fresh and more current Menippean
satires, even after 911 had begun to recede into the realm of history and thus
from living reality, the sign remained steadfastly in that little window on
that street that began at a dead end and led to another two blocks away.
And so I mocked it as I
passed it a thousand times, for it seemed at first to be no more than a
proclamation of platitudes and myths manufactured to substitute for the truth
and repeated with the Orwellian cunning of an O'Brien informing Winston Smith
to imagine the future as a "hobnailed boot smashing a human face forever."
Indeed it seemed to proclaim the same pipe-wrench-in-the-teeth style of a
media campaign of unending repetition of factoids that for ten years have been
driven into the American mass psyche like crucifixion nails.
Never forget those brave
heroes, the firefighters, cops and even politicians like then mayor Rudolph
Giuliani who were elevated almost overnight from the drab obscurity of being
merely what they actually were -- in some cases just mediocrities -- to the
status of super beings and demigods wreathed in the vainglorious neon of false
and unmerited majesty. So sang the hammer pounding on the head of each nail
that was driven into the impaled colossus of the nation.
who was caught near the site of the catastrophe in Lower Manhattan on that
fateful day, and millions of other New Yorkers, had seen these selfsame
paladins anointed by officialdom up close, and we knew the myth for what it
was. We’d seen the cops who looked for heads to bust and, for a while, the
male and female glamor cops with Hollywood
profiles that City Hall had posted at city landmarks like Grand Central
Station like effete mannequins, and the NYPD choppers buzzing like dragonflies
fifteen feet above backyards in the boros,
intently searching for ... what exactly? Al Qaeda in
Dempsey dumpsters? Or were they just wasting the taxpayer’s money,
making overtime while flying around and looking into windows?
Yes, we had seen them, we
embattled New Yorkers. And despite the pious hype and sanctimonious media
rhetoric we knew that all of us who had lived through that event were heroes,
no matter where we were or what we had done.
We knew that surviving
with our sanity and our humanity still intact was in itself an act of supreme
heroism in the face of the apocalyptic visitation that was 911, and for City
Hall or Washington or Madison Avenue to have consecrated an inner circle of
society for acclaim was ludicrous, and yet so quintessentially the bankrupt,
knee-jerk reflex action of craven pols and media
honchos bent on mouthing the platitudes that would get them reelected and
boost their ratings that no one should have been surprised at the outcome.
While firefighters did
certainly perish, and perish bravely, as the twin towers collapsed, many more
never came within a mile of them. The same held true for cops. The media
campaign that singled out certain groups for lionization based on the exploits
of a scant few true heroes, and made official heroes out of thousands of
others who had no right to claim this perquisite was to
diss myself and millions of others caught up in the painful drama;
many, who like myself, had been caught in or near the site of the World Trade
center that came to be called by the disingenuously banal term "Ground Zero"
in the wake of the disaster, a term more befitting a flavor of diet Coke than
the mass grave of the victims of 911 literally ground to powder amid the
rubble of the disaster.
So this sign in the
window that enjoined passersby on a side street all of two blocks long with
dead ends on both sides, was fit to be mocked, for it was obviously a tale
told by an idiot; and again, maybe it had nothing to do with 911 either,
because, after all, where was any clear and direct reference to the event?
Then, one day, as the tenth year anniversary of the tragedies loomed ahead,
following the announcement of the slaying of the terrorist chieftain who had
masterminded the combined attacks on America of September 11th, 2001, after
almost a decade of having passed that sign in that window, I noticed something
new: an American flag now fluttered on a pole beside the window. And as I
stopped to look I also noticed something that had escaped my vigilance
throughout the decade that I passed that particular window on that particular
I noticed that the
window was spotless, and so was the sign, as well as the white metal
venetian blinds behind which it had hung for so
long. This was unusual. Unreal was more like it. Windows in this part of the
Slope -- which incurs the exhaust from the Prospect Expressway cut and the
cross-Hudson simoom of dirt from the Brooklyn docks and the output of chemical
refineries and smokestack industries from the East Jersey shore, including the
exhaust from continuous flights from Newark Airport that pass overhead --
windows here exist in a perpetually grimy state.
Someone, I realized --
someone I had never once consciously seen or taken note of -- had kept that
window and the sign behind it scrupulously clean over the course of the last
ten years. Someone had periodically -- probably every few days -- cleaned that
window and polished that sign to insure that its message, NEVER FORGET, was
seen as clearly as possible by anyone who chanced to pass and to reflect on
its meaning, even in the face of the sure realization that few, if any,
actually might. And in the hours after the killing of Osama bin Laden a world
away in Pakistan I stood by the window in contemplation as the sign’s true
message clicked into place.
I realized in that
moment that whatever the person who had posted that sign had originally
intended its meaning to be, it was transcended by the mere fact of its
tenacious presence as an event that had begun as the onset of strange
unreality dwindled into the twilight of insignificance by the death of the
terror chieftain that played like the tawdry and predictable conclusion of a
non-premium cable action movie. The sign was reality. Its meaning was clear.
Never forget the reality of the event. That’s what it announced.
And then I realized
something else. "Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in
mankind," wrote the poet John Donne long ago, concluding, “therefore, send not
to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” I had realized that the
sign in the window had, all along, and no matter what its creator’s original
intention, been intended for me. The sign in the window was real, its message
was also real, and -- unlike many another legacy of 911 -- indisputably real.
This is considerably more than many of the most enduring legacies of 911.