I read Alexandra Schwartz’s column (“Five years after Sept. 11, pain still fresh,” 9/11) while sitting at the very top of Science Hill, on that bright, empty courtyard of summer-green grass. If you look up, the height of Kline Tower at just the right moment in the morning, you can see the red-stone bricks meld with the halo of the sun and the topmost windows extend as if beyond the clouds. I could not imagine that tower falling, that great behemoth of a building that seems to raise itself from the earth every day as I trek up to class.
Everyone knows the story of the towers that fell. No one would argue with Schwartz’s descriptions. Five years and a day ago: an attack on American soil. Ground Zero: a gaping reminder for New Yorkers. Sept. 11: a personal tragedy for those bereaved. But while Schwartz is certainly more of a New Yorker than I am, and has been an American longer than I have, I wonder if even she, in her idealism and activism, has forgotten what we lost — and what we did not lose.
Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, assaulted the symbol of our armed forces. The planned attack on the White House would have struck at the seat of our power. But somehow the destruction of the two towers attacked us. I wonder if even a ruined White House could evoke the same horror as that picture of the two towers gored by hurtling metal, bleeding smoke and fire.
The Twin Towers were always symbols. To the terrorists they were symbols of foreign oppression, of Western imperialism. Before Sept. 11, even to many of us, they were merely the offices of Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley, symbols of economic power and the corporate regime. Now it is perhaps too late — or too early — to examine what they really were to us. Their memory has been obscured by time and pain, transformed, as Schwartz said, “by fear and politics into a symbol of the American Way.” But still, I will try.
“American Way.” Schwartz said it ironically, sardonically. And perhaps that’s the only reason I’m even writing this response — because even now as I sit and type, our nation’s song pours languidly and emotionally from the sun-pierced eaves of Harkness Tower down to my room and to the dining hall below.
A friend once recommended the old Simon and Garfunkel version of “America” to me. I have no head for lyrics, but I can still remember the crescendo of every refrain, the band surging on the one long and lingering chord over which they sang “America.”
Is America in our politics, our prosperity, our solidarity or even our perseverance? What I’ve rambled so long about is not something that can be put into a word or coined in a phrase. It’s a dim kind of feeling, an understanding you can never find but steals upon you when you least expect it.
In one sense, I can understand Schwartz’s “three levels of principal mourners.” There are those who lost family and friends. Let them grieve, and let us comfort them as best we can. There are New Yorkers, who have been shocked in a deeply personal way. But we are all Americans, from the newest immigrant surveying the vast stretch of the Texas plain to the oldest man on the company board of directors who refuses to retire. This is why terror will never win as long as any towers in this nation stand, and this is why, as hard as it might be to say, the Astrodome will never be as “popular” as the Twin Towers, why the Jefferson Memorial will never grace as many pictures as the Washington Monument.
One day this winter, I climbed up the stairs of Harkness Tower with some friends. It was the morning after the second big snowstorm of the season, and the metal steps and balustrades were all covered in ice and slick with snow. But climbing up to the very top and standing up straight against the cold and biting wind, I felt I had gained something immeasurable. I am a small person in a big country, but even a child can imagine himself the tallest member of the audience while on a father’s shoulders. And even the most humble among us feel a surge of pride while gazing from the top of those towers that dare to touch the sky.
Joshua Tan is a sophomore in Saybrook College. He is a former production and design staffer and current magazine staffer for the News.