Confronting the Void: New York after 9/11

Susan Opotow and Zachary Baron Shemtob, editors, New York after 9/11. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.

For anyone in New York that day, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 remain very much in the present. But memory and raw emotions fade. Young men and women joining the armed forces today were not even born when the war they will be fighting in began. They have no memory of 9/11, but they have grown up in a world transformed by that history.

In New York after 9/11, Susan Opotow, a social psychologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and attorney Zachary Baron Shemtob consider this moment “when memory [was] becoming history.” The essays in their anthology address the rebuilding of the city, the memorial and museum, the physical and mental health of New Yorkers, and security and surveillance.

At times, the tone of the collection is critical of the city’s response to the attacks. Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s public health and security measures are critiqued, and always lurking in the background is the specter of anti-Muslim bigotry. But given the magnitude of the act, the city responded with remarkable civility and tolerance.

Ground Zero under construction, New York City
Ground Zero under construction, New York, New York, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, May 20, 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In their opening essay, Opotow, Shemtob, and Patrick Sweeny examine how a city recovers from a disaster. They base their analysis on response to natural disasters, not an act of war. What Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans was certainly a disaster. The attack on Pearl Harbor may have been a disaster for the Navy, but the nation experienced that as an attack. The distinction between a natural disaster and an act of war is left unexplored. Labeling what happened on 9/11 a disaster may make sense in understanding the city’s response, but it diminishes the political context of the event.

Next, Hirofumi Minami and Brian R. Davis ask whether there is a parallel between Hiroshima and Ground Zero. Employing a “Psychoanalysis of Cities” approach, they try “to provide a common psychoanalytic framework for considering the traumas” and examine how both cities “have rethought recovery within their urban landscapes.” Their discussion of collective trauma and memory in a comparative framework offers provoking insights, but they are dismayed that New Yorkers think comparing New York and Hiroshima is “somehow inappropriate,” and the authors do not entertain any possible reasons to reject such an uncomfortable linkage. Further, they offer a gratuitous insertion of presentist political piety. In their telling, the early phases of recovery were “marked by a collective solidarity around an immigrant experience representative of what the city [stood] for,” but was “gradually co-opted by the symbolic deployment of an aggressive ‘America first’ jingoism.” This is simply off the mark. To the contrary: what characterized New York, and America, after 9/11 was a very public rejection of nativism and bigotry.

Especially welcome are “Memory Foundations” by Daniel Libeskind on his master plan for Ground Zero and Michael Arad’s “Building the 9/11 Memorial.” Libeskind began with the certainty that “nothing should be built where the tragedy took place,” but the realities of Manhattan real estate were unavoidable. “The site of the World Trade Center is not a business-as-usual site, though it must also work as business as usual.” Just as the resulting design differed from the World Trade Center, so did the process reject the “top-down” approach which resulted in the Twin Towers. This ushered in “an era of public participation. … People are the core of the city, and people should make decisions.” While insight into Libeskind’s thinking is helpful, he might have discussed the extent to which the final plans deviated from his original submission.

9-11-01, New York City, print by Andrea Arroyo, 2001, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Explaining the concept behind “Reflecting Absence,” his winning submission in the design competition, Michael Arad writes, “The moment of coming up to the site would be a moment of comprehension, from seeing the scale of the towers’ footprints being echoed in the memorial, seeing the size of the void in the middle of the city, an seeing the multitude of names that would surround each footprint.” The waterfalls express both individual and collective loss, the separate strands forming a single curtain halfway down.

The concluding essay, by Opotow and Karyna Pryiomka details the complexities inherent in a place-based commemoration of loss. Davis Brody Bond, the architectural firm commissioned to design the museum, began by confronting the space itself: the void, the largest, most vital historical artifact and “a metaphor for the enormities of loss experienced after 9/11.” Anyone visiting the museum would surely agree that the architects and curators successfully navigated a rather treacherous terrain to create an extraordinarily respectful experience.

Rements form a cross from the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster.
Remnants form a cross from the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, New York, New York, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, July 25, 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How 9/11 affected New Yorkers in terms of public health and security is a less triumphant story. Norman Groner concludes that tall buildings are generally safer, but adopting the new codes took over a decade, and even then “the more stringent requirements apply only to new construction.” While we might have assumed that all parties pulled together from the beginning to identify and mitigate the health impacts, a transcript of a discussion among doctors, labor unionists, and community activists reveals just how much unfounded and sometimes intentionally misleading information came out of government agencies. Surprisingly, for example, Ground Zero was not designated a hazardous waste site.

Questions regarding counterterrorism remain controversial. Charles R. Jennings states in “Urban Security in New York City After 9/11: Risks and Realities” that the city will remain a prime terror target, but “the reality of securing New York City from terrorists is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible.” Nonetheless, law enforcement had to plan and deploy forces as best they could.

Dream state, 10:05 a.m., 9/11/01, part of Exit Gallery Art Reactions, 2001, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

After 9/11, the NYPD formed a “Demographic Unit” within the Intelligence Bureau, deploying informants and undercover officers to monitor Muslim New Yorkers. Diala Shamas, a human rights and civil liberties attorney, condemns NYPD surveillance and asserts that Muslim youth “bore the brunt of the backlash” after 9/11. She contends that “surveillance chilled constitutionally protected rights” and stigmatized entire communities as suspect. Her evidence consists of statements by Muslim youth describing their feelings, not incidents of actual harm. This is not to dismiss the danger of police targeting “suspect communities,” but she does not acknowledge that law enforcement was wrestling with a new kind of threat to public safety. Her primary example of intrusive police activity is a female undercover officer operating at Brooklyn College. That officer’s identity became known after the arrest of two Muslim women, one a convert, for conspiring to plant bombs. What might have happened had she not been present?

The editors have compiled a compelling volume, bringing together the many strands of the city’s recovery and reinvention after 9/11, and the social and cultural problems the city wrestled with in the process. Among New York after 9/11’s many triumphs is a complex analysis of the interplay of memory and history, and how both play out in public policy and discourse. As 9/11 evolves from memory into history, what is irretrievably fading is the immediacy of the event as eyewitnesses experienced it. That aspect of history may be preserved, but it cannot be recovered.

Jeffrey A. Kroessler is an Associate Professor in the Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Featured image (at top): Ground Zero under construction, New York, New York, November 6, 2009, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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