A SIGN IN A WINDOW
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.
Yet I 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 street.
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.
Copyright (C) 2012 David Alexander