MotM Essay | Holes

At the 9/11 Memorial, New York City. September 11, 2018. © 2018 Pamela Kerpius

At the 9/11 Memorial, New York City. September 11, 2018. © 2018 Pamela Kerpius


14 September 2018

MotM Essay

Seventeen years after the fact and we are still in a state of shock. Seventeen years ago was another time, you know, but we are still there in it, it seems. 

The New York Times had a documentary short on the front page on Tuesday. In it, a voice capture of a tour guide describes the World Trade Center memorial site as a "void." 

Imagine, a memorial as a void. Isn't a memorial by definition meant to be more? Isn't it at its core purpose meant to fill in something that was lost? Yet, we chose to create a memorial of emptiness. The memorial is moving. It is even beautiful. But it is first and more than anything else, empty. The 9/11 Memorial is a hole in the ground that appears into infinity. A hole in the ground that has never been buried over. 

So why did we choose this? New York City, downtown especially, is always a weepy atmosphere on the anniversary. NYPD and Fire of all stripes zig-zagging the streets in clusters, in dress. The commemoration ceremony letting out. The Irish pubs filling up.

I was thinking of my friend who told me he remembers ashen bodies walking away from the site that morning. I was thinking of a friend, a longtime New Yorker, who said he still had not been downtown since 2001. There are others who are maybe more recovered. I thought of an old coworker whose brother died in the collapse. I remembered when she said that she was okay now. That it was safe to talk about it plainly, while the rest of us froze and said we were so sorry. She had put it to rest. She seemed equipped, actually, to talk to all of us who were unable to let it go. 

I'm thinking of the posts I saw on social media, and elsewhere, on Tuesday, September 11, 2018. Still photos. The cascading debris from the gray flower of ash unfolding on the streets. You know the moment. Blood dripping on faces of bodies in business suits. Technology has enabled us now to further zoom in and clarify these grainier pictures from millennium-era lenses. The exact frame before the second plane enters the side of tower two. You want to think in seeing it stopped there that you can actually stop it there. The freeze frames of bodies falling and we're still trying to catch them. 

We think we can make history not unfold like it will, that seems to be the sentiment. Less of acceptance. Much less of forgiveness. "Never forget." How patronizing to think we would. It's that we are forgetting ourselves in the process of this historical course that it turns out is elliptical. That we are practically two decades away from this moment and we still watch it every year like a fresh spectacle, a catharsis anew, shows us this is a trauma fantasy we have found no other way to manage but to relive.

I think, this is probably how it was for people of my grandmother's generation as December 7th came round. Until her last lucid days, she still stomped her foot with outrage because of "what happened to our boys" there at Pearl Harbor. September 11th as it happens is also my late grandmother's birthday. I remember calling her in 2001 to wish her a happy day, but finding it hard to believe the words. But I suspect her kind of nostalgia, or stubbornness to let Pearl Harbor go into a place of peace is the refusal my generation is applying to 9/11. Even as I criticize it, I am not exactly immune. I was thinking of the finance man I knew in Milan who said he lost his friends at "Cantor" that day.

That name. He uttered it last spring in some long conversation we were having about nothing in particular, and my bones chilled. The mere breath of the word "Cantor," for the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald that lost more than 650 people in the attacks, and all of the air drops from your chest. I am not over it. How could you be when the space never fully opened to imagine a tragedy's meaning in any other way beyond that of its happening.

I was thinking of the images and videos people in housing camps in Italy send me. Videos of beheadings in Libya. Others of dismembered bodies. Images of people lined up, hands on their heads, being filed into concrete detention centers. I try not to look at the very gruesome ones any longer than it takes to recognize their content, but I realize these are the things they have lived through and witnessed, and the only way they know how to manage that trauma is to watch it again and again.

In the U.S., if we found meaning at all to 9/11, it was in a swift string of reactions: WMDs, war, and then ICE, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency that was borne out of the era. This is a simplification, of course, but still the broad strokes of a political environment that depressed collective healing.

So far away, so close we actually were to ICE agents in Brooklyn banging down doors to confiscate non-whites to have thrown into detention without oversight. This too a barbarian act in its intentional design to eliminate a perceived enemy. 

On Friday, September 7, The Intercept hosted a panel discussion in the heart of Bushwick, Brooklyn on “Resisting and Reporting on ICE.” I silently whined about the commute to this corner of the city that's serviced just barely by subway––Come on, man, Bushwick?––only realizing in the end that the polished speaking space you might find in Manhattan would be far less affecting. There, we were at the epicenter of the very targeted immigrant community we were discussing. There was no better place to meet. There was remarkable momentum. Truly terrible wine on tap at the attached bar, but remarkable momentum.

With all of this retrospect, yet still with the open wounds around us, we can begin to do things to heal them. Pain without resolution is a trap. It is staring at the freeze frame. It is staring at a hole in the ground into infinity and wondering Why do I feel so bad? So we shift our seeing. We can shift it to the moving continuum around us––you know, to reality, where humanity is still breathing, begging to be seen––with the wisdom that seventeen years is too long to stare trembling at a loop.