What he actually said was worse.
I’m reminded of the late Sir Thomas Beecham’s remark when asked if he’d ever conducted any Stockhausen: “No,” he replied. “But I think I’ve trodden in some.” Stockhausen stepped in his own that week: in those first days after the assault, even the anti-American Left felt obliged to be somewhat circumspect. But at a certain level the composer understood what Osama was getting at.
Nevertheless, Stockhausen was wrong. The “greatest work of art” is not the morning of 9/11, with the planes slicing through the buildings, and the smoke and the screaming and the jumping, and the swift, eerily smooth collapse of the towers. No, the most eloquent statement about America in the early twenty-first century is Ground Zero in the years after. 9/11 was something America’s enemies did to us. The hole in the ground a decade later is something we did to ourselves. By 2010, Michael Bloomberg, the take-charge get-it-done make-it-happen mayor of New York was reduced to promising that that big hole in Lower Manhattan isn’t going to be there for another decade, no sir. “I’m not going to leave this world with that hole in the ground ten years from now,” he declared defiantly. In the twenty-first century, that’s what passes for action, for get-tough boot the can another decade down the road. Sure, those jihad boys got lucky and took out a couple of skyscrapers, but the old can’t-do spirit kicked in, and a mere ten years later we had a seven-story hole on which seven billion dollars had been lavished. But, if we can’t put up a replacement building within a decade, we can definitely do it within two. Probably. As a lonely steel skeleton began lethargically to rise from the 16-acre site, the unofficial estimated date of the completion for the brand new “1 World Trade Center” was said to be 2018. That date should shame every American.
What happened? Everyone knows the “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountain majesties” in “America the Beautiful,” but Katharine Lee Bates’ words are also a hymn to modernity:
Oh beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears…
America the Beautiful” is not a nostalgic evocation of a pastoral landscape but a paean to its potential, including the gleaming metropolis. Miss Bates visited the Columbian Exposition in Chicago just before July 4, 1893, and she meant the word “alabaster” very literally: the centerpiece of the fair was the “White City” of the future, fourteen blocks of architectural marvels with marble facades painted white, and shining even whiter in the nightly glow of thousands of electric light bulbs, like a primitive prototype of Al Gore’s carbon-offset palace in Tennessee. They were good times, but even in bad the United States could still build marvels. Much of the New York skyline dates from the worst of times. As Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang in the Thirties: “They all laughed at Rockefeller Center, Now they’re fighting to get in…”
The Empire State Building, then the tallest in the world, was put up in eighteen months during a depression — because the head of General Motors wanted to show the head of Chrysler that he could build something that went higher than the Chrysler building. Three-quarters of a century later, the biggest thing either man’s successor had created was a mountain of unsustainable losses — and both GM and Chrysler were now owned and controlled by government and unions.
In the months after 9/11, I used to get the same joke emailed to me every few days: the proposed design for the replacement World Trade Center. A new skyscraper towering over the city, with the top looking like a stylized hand — three towers cut off at the joint, and the “middle finger” rising above them, flipping the bird not only to Osama bin Laden but also to Karlheinz Stockhausen and the sneering Euro-lefties and all the rest who rejoiced that day at America getting it, pow, right in the kisser; they all laughed at the Twin Towers takedown. Soon they’ll be fighting to get into whatever reach-for-the-skies only-in-America edifice replaces it. The very word “skyscraper” is quintessentially American: it doesn’t literally scrape the sky, but hell, as soon as we figure out how to build an even more express elevator, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t.
But the years go by, and they stopped emailing that joke, because it’s not quite so funny after two, three, five, nine years of walking past Windows on the Hole every morning. It doesn’t matter what the eventual replacement building is at Ground Zero. The ten-year hole is the memorial: a gaping, multi-story, multi-billion-dollar pit, profound and eloquent in its nullity.
As for the gleam of a brand new “White City,” well, in the interests of saving the planet, Congress went and outlawed Edison’s light bulb. And on the grounds of the White City hymned by Katherine Lee Bates stands Hyde Park, home to community organizer Barack Obama, terrorist educator William Ayers, and Nation of Islam numerologist and Jeremiah Wright Award-winner Louis Farrakhan. That’s one fruited plain all of its own.
In the decade after 9/11, China (which America still thinks of as a cheap assembly plant for your local KrappiMart) built the Three Gorges Dam, the largest electricity-generating plant in the world. Dubai, a mere sub-jurisdiction of the United Arab Emirates, put up the world’s tallest building and built a Busby Berkeley geometric kaleidoscope of offshore artificial islands. Brazil, an emerging economic power, began diverting the Sao Francisco River to create some 400 miles of canals to irrigate its parched northeast.
But the hyperpower can’t put up a building.
Happily, there is one block in Lower Manhattan where ambitious redevelopnment is in the air. In 2010, plans were announced to build a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero, on the sight of an old Burlington Coat Factory damaged by airplane debris that Tuesday morning.
So, in the ruins of a building reduced to rubble in the name of Islam, a temple to Islam will arise.
A couple of years after the events of that Tuesday morning, James Lileks, the bard of Minnesota, wrote:
If 9/11 had really changed us, there’d be a 150-story building on the site of the World Trade Center today. It would have a classical memorial in the plaza with allegorical figures representing Sorrow and Resolve, and a fountain watched over by stern stone eagles. Instead, there’s a pit, and arguments over the usual muted dolorous abstraction approved by the National Association of Grief Counselors.
The best response to 9/11 on the home front — if only to demonstrate that there is a “home front” (which is the nub of al-Qaeda’s critique of a soft and decadent West) — would have been to rebuild the World Trade Center bigger, better, taller — not 150 stories but 250, a marvel of the age. And, if there had to be “the usual muted dolorous abstraction,” the National Healing Circle would have been on the penthouse floor with a clear view all the way to al-Quaeda’s executive latrine in Waziristan.
Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Committee on Foreign Relations, is not right-winger but rather a sober, respected, judicious paragon of torpidly conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, musing on American decline, he writes: “The country’s economy, infrastructure, public schools and political system have been allowed to deteriorate. The result has been diminished economic strength, a less-vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit.”
That last is the one to watch: a great power can survive a lot of things, but not “a mediocrity of spirit.” A wealthy nation living on the accumulated cultural capital of a glorious past can dodge its rendezvous with fate, but only for so long. “Si monumentum requiris, curcumspice” reads the inscription on the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral: If you seek my monument, look around. After two-thirds of the City of London was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, Wren designed and rebuilt the capital’s tallest building (St. Paul’s), another fifty churches, and a new skyline for a devastated metropolis. Three centuries later, if you seek our monument, look in the hole.
It’s not about al-Qaeda. It’s about us.