The City Rises

The City Rises

Rebuilding Meaning After 9/11

“Man,” said Nietzsche, “the bravest animal and the one most inured to trouble, does not deny suffering per se: he wants it, he even seeks it out, provided it can be given a meaning.” A striking feature of New York life after the 9/11 attacks was the hunger of people to find meaning in it. I don’t just mean intellectuals, who live for meaning. I mean a much larger body of everyday people who usually aren’t much concerned with history, who are usually willing to let it be. All through the fall of 2001, these people stayed out and filled up the downtown streets and squares; they hung around the many clusters of “missing person” signs, and brought candles and stones; they resisted going home, and stayed up talking and arguing with total strangers through the nights even when they had to get up for work in the morning. Downtown in those days looked weirder than ever. There was this enormous wreckage at the tip of the island. Only those with connections (not me) could get close enough to really see it-though the newspapers and television flooded us with images of broken stone and twisted beams-but what we couldn’t see loomed over us all. The site was lit by an immense array of floodlights, which could be blinding after dark, or else could make the streets nearby seem darker than ever, at a moment when darkness and emptiness felt so much like death. But once you got, say, half a mile from Ground Zero, lower Manhattan was more intensely occupied, more filled with life than it had been in years. Many of its grand old places were born again. My favorite was Union Square, which overnight became the kind of thriving agora it was said to have been a hundred years ago. Alas, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, perhaps upset to see all this vibrant public space opening up, got the jitters, built fences, and closed the area down.

New Yorkers had many problems with the menu of militant meanings that emanated from the White House after 9/11. The bombing was surely an act of war, but who or what was the enemy? If the world was divided into “Us” and “Them,” what was the identity of “Them”? Neither Osama bin Laden nor Saddam Hussein enjoyed much support in New York. But it was a strain for people flooded out by shock and grief to work through these emotions, when their heartbreak here and now was being used as a pretext for a war that clearly had been planned years ago.
In fact, 9/11 was, and still is, an enigma as well as a horror, and American bombs have done nothing to solve the mystery.

As winter began and our Afghan campaign abated, the question of meaning took on a new focus: what should be built at Ground Zero? The land is owned by the Port Authority, which shortly before 9/11 signed a 99-year lease with Silverstein Properties, one of the city’s biggest developers. City and state created a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) to expedite ...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: