Today is the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Probably the closest thing for my generation to that surprise attack by Japanese planes on Pearl Harbor in the year 1941 is 9/11. On Saturday evening a friend and I visited the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero.
When the taxi dropped us off at the entrance, we had to follow a quarter-mile of signs through a maze of temporarily erected dividers that cordoned off the site from the rest of downtown New York. It was a pilgrimage of sorts to walk the long passageway: security guards peppered the path, ushering us through after checking our passes, followed by a baggage inspection line and then more walking, until finally the long serpentine path opened up into a wide, open space under the night sky. There, under the city lights we, maybe a bit like medieval mystics having traveled a great distance in search of a meeting place with the sacred, had found our own modern-day shrine. No, our destination was not the relic of some long-dead saint. But it was, in a sense, holy ground. Holy ground because here, in the tragic deaths of those who had gone before us, we were reminded of our own fragility. Our woundedness not just as Americans but as human beings. Those two dark, gaping holes in the ground, their cavernous mouths drinking in an endless fountain of tears, and all around, inscribed in black marble, the names of nearly 3,000 persons who died when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell in the deadliest terrorist attack in our nation’s history, were a perpetual reminder of both our lostness and our hope for salvific meaning.
We stayed there for a while listening to a guide rattle off some trivia about the site. He pointed to the new World Trade Center buildings now under construction. 1 World Trade Center would be America’s tallest building. “Was it a tribute to the indefatigable nature of the human spirit or a sign that in our hard-headed pride we never learn?,” I wondered. Maybe both.
Then after paying our respects we were back retracing our steps through the labyrinth to the gift store where we watched a short video narrated in the words of 9/11 survivors. The fountains of tears were distilled here in these few very personal accounts of loss- the sudden, violent tearing away of of siblings, children and lovers. These were the rivers of grief magnified in their parts as drops of tears. The words that Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov puts in the mouth of his character, Ivan, a hardened skeptic in matters of faith, now come to mind: that Ivan would have to “return his ticket” to paradise if it required the tears of even one child. Evil after all seems perhaps most cruel and unacceptable when distilled in the tragedy of just one person, one child of God.
Our pilgrimage had come to an end. Now we were looking for a bathroom. The one closest to the memorial seemed to be at the W Hotel next door, which meant that we had to take an elevator up to the hotel bar. We stepped out of the elevator directly into another kind of darkness, this time the swanky black lines of a club, heaving to the loud, electronic beats of dance music. The waiters with their trays of cocktails passed by in black like shadowy muses, their offer much more than that of just drinks. Here was the promise of human sophistication in the form of whatever I would like it to be in the moment. The siren calls of wealth, power, style and unending youthfulness.
The dissonance between this concocted, artificial paradise and the picture we had beheld only minutes earlier in the lights under an open sky was striking. I had again been transported into another world, one that pretended that human fragility and loss and the pervasiveness of evil and our passing away were mere phantoms. Here in the dim light of a W hotel bar the only thing that seemed real was our own self-importance. Still, I couldn’t put away the images we had just seen. Images that told another part of the human story. They had made their impact.