Bruce Hoffman

The New Amnesia

When it comes to terrorism, our memories are either too short or too long. Too short given that, in the absence of a recent attack, we try to convince ourselves that either it can’t or won’t happen again or that our response to the last one was perhaps exaggerated or excessive or even hyped by politics and emotion.

Paradoxically, our memories can also be too long in that we often draw the wrong lessons from the last incident: believing that we can somehow wrap ourselves in a protective security blanket through bureaucratic reorganization, redundancy, and expenditure and thus shield ourselves from some new attack.

Each of these has been the subject of a past blog and requires no further explication. Rather, the current offering is meant to reflect on my observations from this same day nine years ago, when I drove up to New York City from Washington, DC for the first time since the September 11 attacks.

At the time, the then-editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly, Michael Kelly, and my old friend, Benjamin C. Schwarz, the magazine’s literary editor and national editor, had asked me to keep a daily journal at the start of what they rightly guessed would be a long war.

I never kept it. A combination of the intense work pressures of that febrile, and profoundly melancholy, time combined with the nature of the work I was doing left no opportunity or scope for journal writing.

I did, though, make an inchoate attempt before abandoning the effort, and the two journal entries that follow below were the first and only two that I made.

They came to mind last night as I was reading Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, which was published on Monday.

The book’s discussion of the debates and framing of the Obama administration’s Afghanistan policy suggests that it’s evidently easier now to tolerate a terrorist attack and its aftermath then it was then. Woodward quotes President Obama in an on-the-record interview from July stating, “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever . . . we absorbed it and we are stronger.”

Perhaps. But when I reread my lone two journal entries for September 2001 I was left with a profound disquiet born of the events from nine years ago when our world was turned upside down and a handful of repugnant, odious terrorists changed the course of history.

Saturday, September 29th 2001

Driving up to NYC through NJ Meadowlands and gazing in awe that there are no twin towers. It is remarkable how prominent a place those buildings played in the lives of those who visited as well as lived in NYC. Last night my wife was combing through family photographs to put together a scrapbook for my father's 80th birthday celebration [BH note of 9/29/10: the reason for my trip to New York City that weekend] and we were amazed how many family snaps there were with the WTC as a backdrop. None intentional. I could hardly have really focused on the WTC before. It is just testament to the extent that the Twin Towers overshadowed and dominated NYC. It was impossible, I realized, to visit the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island or take the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan and not have at least one photo from each with the WTC in the background.

NYC is a changed place. More reminiscent of Europe at the height of their terrorism travails than the NYC I grew up in. Policemen at almost every corner; the streets around the Port Authority bus terminal blocked off and then lower Manhattan: almost too depressing for words. The West Side Highway closed below 40th Street and all traffic barred below Canal Street. All the north-south streets closed--Church, Broadway, West Broadway: blocked off with blue NYPD saw horses and guarded by phalanxes of police and state troopers. Only emergency services, residents and deliveries allowed and all trucks searched. In fact, before entering the Lincoln Tunnel, police were stationed next to the E-Z Pass lanes and were stopping vans and panel trucks and searching them. For a New Yorker (by birth): amazing. Most saddening are the endless posters pasted on lamp posts and the sides of buildings in lower Manhattan: put there by relatives and friends searching for their loved ones.

My mother, a life-long New Yorker, just remarked to my wife, "The city's sad, isn't it? The flashing lights on police cars, the saw horses and the skyline, for the first time in my life, I just don’t like coming into Manhattan."

Every store has a flag in it; almost every car displayed a flag decal.

It's the first time in my life I've ever seen the city sullen. Almost humiliated or embarrassed at having suffered so dramatic a blow to its beloved icons.

Sunday, September 30th 2001

Autumn came to NYC this morning. The sky was gray and a chill wind whipped through the streets. Somber to compliment the melancholy in evidence yesterday was how the city seemed. The fact that it seemed empty only contributed to the feeling of suspended animation. This wasn't entirely surprising given that I had awakened before 7:00am on an unappealing Sunday morning and was out the door of my hotel room shortly after to go down to what is now known as "ground zero"--the spot where the WTC once stood.