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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Politics

Memorial


Those who perished on September 11 in the attacks on the World Trade Center received a minute of silence five years later, at the 2006 commemoration at the site of their death. Actually, there were two silences, 60 seconds each, separately timed to coincide with the moments that American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 struck the towers. Brief speeches were made. Music was played. Among the immediate audience (every individual vetted), perfectly groomed politicians remained pokerfaced (which is not the same as solemn), as though their handlers thought that stony expressions of vacuous impassivity would come across as somber, restrained, rather than indifferent to everything but the cameras. They (the politicians, many of them since September 11 as responsible as the hijackers for egregious violence against innocent human beings) watched dry-eyed, expressionless, as those (again, vetted) grieving their dead brought bouquets that were dropped into two square, shallow pools set into what have become known as the WTC footprints. They (the politicians) and we (everybody else) observed, and listened to, the ceremonial reading of the names of the dead, excluding those of the perpetrators, by those who lost loved ones that day. The readers—two by two, first one and then the next—carefully pronounced the names on their lists, ending with that of the person they lost, about whom (and sometimes to whom) they briefly spoke.

I’d never watched an anniversary broadcast from the World Trade Center. I haven’t been in New York during the Septembers subsequent to 2001, and I haven’t returned to Manhattan or to anywhere in the States since leaving there 18 months ago. Perhaps the final rupture of permanently relocating abroad predisposed me to turn on the BBC at the beginning of the ceremony; perhaps, I thought, enough time had passed. Moreover, a massive, granite-hued cumulous cloud spiraling in the cerulean canopy above the Alps that morning reminded me of lower Manhattan’s sky after the towers were hit and before they fell. We were on the road, or taking a break from it, on our way back to France from Greece. The hotel in which we were staying in Chambéry, like some of the town, had been badly damaged during the Second World War, as was much of Europe, of course, whose Western half was rebuilt with a respectable amount of US aid by people who, in many instances, quite literally dug themselves out of the rubble and tackled the task at hand with a great deal of what Americans then would have called spunk. As we tuned in to the memorial ceremony, that thought made the yet-bleak expanse of those 16 acres in lower Manhattan five years after the fact, and more than four years since the site was cleared of all debris, both inexplicable and infuriating. In reality, despite a transportation hub and one new office building having risen on two of the site’s peripheries, nothing much has changed in the richest city of the richest country in the world. Haggling and lawsuits continue over the plans, development, and nature of what might eventually be constructed on the site, including the ludicrously named and even more ludicrously conceived 1,776-foot-tall Freedom Tower. The condemned Deutsche Bank building still stands, its floors and furniture and walls and ceilings powdered with the ash/residue of toxic/hazardous substances and bone fragments from hundreds who were pulverized on September 11. There is no temporary, never mind permanent, memorial to the dead, and no public access to the earth referred to as Ground Zero.

But the site has indeed become a stage. We watched the one annual performance played upon it, and, yes, we both wept, but probably for what most Americans would consider all the wrong reasons as the roll-call of the dead went on, and on, punctuated by moving declarations of relentless sorrow and eternal love and, occasionally, blunt support for those fighting the “war on terror.” We both wept because we’d lived in Manhattan (New York being my husband’s home since childhood) for almost all of the 27 years of our marriage; wept because we lived September 11 not in front of our television sets but in the air we breathed; wept because we lived, until we no longer could, the loss of a city; wept, most of all, because we lived and live yet, now separated by an ocean, the loss of a country.

We turned the television off long before the performance was over. We later tuned in again, but the BBC had mysteriously gone off the air. The next morning I awoke at dawn from a black-and-white dream of a cut and bruised Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted, over and again, to where Jack Ruby will shoot him; over and again, Oswald said in perfect replay what he stated in life just before he was murdered: I’m a patsy. Well, of course, I thought, aren’t we all, perturbed by the spooling dream and the random realization that those reflecting pools in which flowers were cast during the commemoration would be dismantled, having been created just for the occasion.

***

I in no way want to belittle the dead by implying that films can somehow address the meaning of their loss. Nonetheless, because the commemoration I saw this year was so orchestrated as to be repulsive, I was oddly heartened upon our return to Paris to find that World Trade Center was about to open, United 93 was still playing, and 11’09”1 was showing in a small theater in the Latin Quarter. I didn’t expect much from these films, but I did hope that, as opposed to the theater of complicity produced by George W. Bush & Co in lower Manhattan these last five years, I would not be insulted. And although I’m one of those who has more often than not turned away from footage and photographs of the attacks—since I don’t need to be reminded of the stench, the sirens, sounds, smoke, ash, dread, and horror—I kept my eyes wide open throughout all three films. It seemed fitting.

Paul Greengrass’s United 93 reconstructs much of what we know happened on the hijacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. It is, like The 9/11 Commission Report, a sobering view—filmed in real time—of what air traffic controllers faced that morning as one hijacking took place closely after another, contact with the planes was lost, and then the planes themselves began disappearing from radar screens. It is also, like The 9/11 Commission Report, a damning indictment of the FAA’s paralysis (it was air traffic control, finally, that wisely made the decision to empty the skies of all aircraft), the White House’s unavailability, and NORAD’s incompetence (when it finally managed to scramble two—two—fighter jets over the skies of DC, the pilots were given no direction and so headed out over the Atlantic, without permission to shoot down civil aircraft). It is not, however, a rabid denunciation of the hijackers as either cowardly or satanic; and it does not make a hagiography of the hijacked.

Indeed, UA 93’s hijackers are treated—bravely, I would say—with stunning neutrality. They are young. They are human. They seem intelligent. They pray, but without a hint of fanaticism, before beginning the journey. One of them leaves a last message of love on an answering machine. They are, once UA 93 is in the air, tense, in some disagreement as to which moment is the right one to act and perhaps whether to act at all. They know that if they accomplish what they have trained to do, they will die. When they finally move to take over the plane, they are as murderous as they must be. They are, thereafter, neither above doubt nor fear; indeed, the hijacker strapped into a bogus bomb and charged with keeping the passengers at bay is as frightened as his hostages. And those hostages are not unlike the hijackers, in that they eventually face the same quandary—whether, and when, to act—after learning that other hijacked planes have been flown into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Those who can, telephone their loved ones; others leave what we know will be last messages. Some people pray, none fanatically. Everyone, young and old, is frightened. Those who decide to rush the hijackers in the attempt to take back the plane doubt they can succeed but are convinced they have no choice. Tense, determined, and as murderous as they, too, must be, they do what must be done as a matter of course, and do so without exuding superhuman courage, in order to thwart death, and more destruction. Ordinary people trapped within an extraordinary circumstance, they refuse to remain passive in the face of an outcome they know will otherwise be a foregone conclusion.

In Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, based on the ordeal of the eighteenth and nineteenth survivors (of only 20) pulled from the wreckage of the collapsed towers, two policemen do survive. (To this day, police stand on a lower pedestal than the one erected in the public’s imagination for firefighters who responded to the call of duty on September 11, but still far above the un-uniformed hoi polloi who perished that day). Their police unit, based in the Port Authority bus terminal, has as little information as anyone on the ground when they arrive on site—first reports are that a commuter plane has crashed into the tower—until the second airliner hits. They realize quickly that the situation is something never quite imagined, and more dangerous for that reason: upon being asked, members of the unit quite reasonably hesitate to volunteer to enter the buildings. Those who step forward never get beyond collecting the materials they need—oxygen tanks, for instance—to ascend the stairwells in the South Tower. Three of the unit survive the building’s collapse, but one man—the only one not pinned—dies when he is struck by falling debris. Neither of the remaining two, each pinned and unable to pull himself free, understands that the entire building has pancaked, or that the second tower—despite the deafening roar and earthquake-like shifting of wreckage—has also come crashing down.

World Trade Center is, like United 93, focused on a story many times told and, except for minutiae and nuance, already known. Except for initial glimpses of Manhattan the way many of us wish to remember it, as a place where a lot of different people pretty much rubbed elbows, the film restricts itself to the plight of the trapped policemen who manage to stay alive, and of their families who don’t know whether they are. Death is, as in United 93, the great equalizer, since there are no unblemished souls or fiends among the deceased: these distinctions exist only for the living, who try to justify the deaths of those they love as they celebrate the deaths of those they hate. And just as United 93 does not make saints of the hijacked, World Trade Center does not make heroes of the survivors, who, simply in the end, rejoin their lives.

Making September 11’s victims or perpetrators human is one way to unravel fables spun since that day (or to spin new ones). 11”09’1’s 11 directors (Youssef Chachine, Amos Gitai, Shohei Imamura, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Samira Makhmalbaf, Mira Nair, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Sean Penn, and Danis Tanovic) were each given eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame to grapple with September 11. They sought out “human interest” stories or documentary footage, came up with scenarios of metaphor or simile, confused dream with reality, melded reality into fiction and vice versa, wrote and shot and edited their segments without consulting one another. Together, however, they created a work firmly, if accidentally, anchored by two underlying tenets: the world’s complexity and history’s existence. Taken together, they translate into a seminal point: the US does not “own” September 11, and never did. Indeed, the most poignant, and lucid, segment of 11”09’1 belongs to Ken Loach, who focuses on a Chilean exile living in Britain, who lost his country—and almost his life—during the American-sponsored coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government on September 11 (also a Tuesday), 1973, and placed Augusto Pinochet in power for the next 17 years, during which time some 30,000 Chileans were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered.

It is Sean Penn, however, who directs what is arguably 11’09”1’s most provocative segment, in which Ernest Borgnine is cast as an aged, achingly lonely widower who shares his cramped, dingy apartment with a dead plant long ago deprived of sunshine. Decrepit, delusional, hermetic, Borgnine’s character refuses to acknowledge that his wife is long deceased and blunders his way through time, whose days and nights remain as barren as the plant, until the Twin Towers—in whose shadow, it turns out, he lives—collapse. He awakens to sunshine and to a plant that has suddenly, impossibly, blossomed. His joy, such as it is, is not without epiphany but happens to be devoid of reason: for though he suddenly, finally, grasps the fact that his wife is dead, he remains unconcerned with the source of light and unconscious of the larger meaning of what has taken place. He is left holding that flowerpot of weirdly colored blossoms, as though in celebration of the insane.

***

According to a UN report last month, 3,590 Iraqis were killed in July, and 3,009 in August. The violence in Kabul is daily worsening, for the Taliban are at the door if not already within the gates. Perhaps 300,000 people—or, according to another study released just this week by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, over 650,000 in Iraq alone—mostly noncombatants, have died in the first four years of the Long War: a hundred, two hundred, three hundred times more than perished in Lower Manhattan. None of them, so far as I know, have a permanent memorial either.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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