My brother rang from his office at Nato in Brussels and said that the forces that supported Timothy McVeigh were attacking the World Trade Center.
McVeigh was behind the Oklahoma bombing, to this day the worst homegrown terrorist attack on American soil. He had been executed and was three months dead by the morning of September 11, 2001, but this explanation of what was happening made sense to my brother. Who else could it be?
And then the full facts began to emerge and it was possible to see how it could have happened and why it could happen in New York City.
I lived on the Lower East Side in the late seventies to mid-’80s when it was dangerous and dirty and dodgy and you could get a cheap place to live if you did not mind not having a door on the building and junkies shooting up on the roof.
Not far from that were the twin buildings of the World Trade Center, monuments to capitalism and the idea of the primacy of what is sometimes called The West. And of course, New York City.
When I could afford it, I would take the fast elevator up to the windows at the top of one of the Towers. The doors opened right onto them and gave you vertigo for a few seconds.
There were viewing telescopes where you could see things up close, but what always amazed me was how small an island Manhattan itself is. It was something that I did, a kind of meditation, thinking about all of the millions of people who have come to that tiny island. Looking For Something; trying To Be Something.
Even me. I really heard the lyrics of that song New York, New York: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”
You could go to a party and most of the people there would not be native-born New Yorkers. You could always tell a person who came from somewhere else: they walked too slowly. New Yorkers are always in a hurry.
I have never seen the footage of the attack; never read anything about it; never seen any movies of it.
Two weeks after the attack, the BBC sent me back there to make a documentary and to talk about what I had seen. I was to give the case for America, why what had happened was existential. Most of the viewers wanted to hear the counterargument, about how this attack was decades, maybe centuries in the making. And maybe inevitable.
There were still desk papers floating in the air around where the buildings were when I got there. It was possible to smell the toxins in the air. These toxins may have contributed to the high rate of lung disease and inflammation that developed months after the event.
There was fencing on which people had pasted photos of lost loved ones and prayers for those still missing. One guy I met from Manchester who lived within eyeshot of the Towers said that suddenly everything went black.
Whether this was his own mind or something sonic as a result of the explosions, I don’t know. But in the blackness, he rang his father back in England to tell him how much he loved him. I think that some of this gesture was influenced by New York City, too.
I met an old friend from my days in the Lower East Side and she said that she had told her Muslim friends to take off their veils, observance or no observance. There were rumours of buildings called “victory mosques” where Muslims were said to be celebrating the attack. In my old building, the window sills, she told me, had been covered in dust and debris.
The president was George W Bush, from a family which would be classed in America as aristocratic, having come over on the Mayflower, settled on the East Coast and transplanted to Texas. Dubya embodied Texas, like the cowboy movie Texans, and therefore his response was straight out of John Wayne. “Smoke ’em out and get ’em runnin’,” he said.
This was the cri de guerre taken into Iraq, this is what was on the battlefield and probably why the country now is wired with US listening devices plugged into the Pentagon. Gotta keep ’em on the reservation.
I now think of the WTC’s windows – its Windows on the World, as its top-floor restaurant was called – as a kind of all-seeing eye, as part of the American Dream. Because America is a dream, and an experiment, too. One teetering now on the very edge of its meaning.
Since I have never watched, nor read anything about 9/11, I have no idea who the perps were or the long saga of how they came to be. All that I knew then and know now is that America was blasted out of the American Dream and that everything after 9/11 is an attempt to reclaim it.
“Change is coming to America,” the first person of colour to be elected president announced. “Make America Great Again!” shouted the first TV shill to become commander in chief.
And Joe Biden says, “Straight from the shoulder”. Which is Scranton talk for no bullshit.
Except without bullshit, there is no America. Bullshit is an American dream for everybody.
America is a nation that states that its aspiration is that all people can come and form “a more perfect union”. Even as it steals land from the indigenous peoples, enslaves my ancestors and further impoverishes the poor.
The men who attacked the World Trade Center attempted to straighten out the contradiction that is the United States. But they couldn’t.
That’s where the Republic’s power lies.