“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition…
This race — this race between the destroying planes and the struggling Parliament of Man — it stcks in all our heads. The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled.”
From Here is New York, by E.B. White, 1949.
A little over two months ago I visted the site of the World Trade Center attakcs and was surprisingly moved. The attacks happened my senior year in high school when my world was much smaller and the scenes unfolding on screen seemed to me as distant as a foreign war or a historical battle. I was aware of the tragedy, but it affected me as a distant observer. While 9/11 no doubt changed the world I lived in for the past ten years as part of the landscape of our collective memories, it had never moved me the way it did when I stood at the site of the attacks and ongoing reconstruction.
Perhaps the site itsef comferred upon me some residual terror, like radiation left in the ground years after a nuclear spill, but at least part of the chill came from the brute antithetical nature of the attack. Planes are supposed to carry people to their families, business meetings, vacations, honeymoons. Planes are not supposed to crash into buildings and kill people.
When I returned from New York this summer, I picked up Here is New York, E.B. White’s account of life in New York City at the end of the 1940s. His essay is a quaint and observant picture of a city he obviously loved. Yet as I read the above selections from the last pages of the book, I was startled by the almost prophetic look at a rising city in a violent world. It was eerie, uncanny, unsettling in its relevance. In White’s world, planes were used to decimate cities, and he sensed the precarious position of urban New York, which he deemed a sort of ‘capital of the world.’
As I walked around Church St. in lower Manhattan this summer, the impression that kept coming to mind as I imagined witnessing the attacks from below was how the shadow of the planes as they raced towards the towers must have passed over pedestrians on the sidewalks. We are now still in the shadow of 9/11, as our nation is at war, terror is immanent, and families continue to grieve the loss of the victims’ lives. This world is not as it should be, and 9/11 demonstrated that as we experienced a sort of collective loss of inocence.
Our only hope is true reconstruction: a day is coming when the world will be made new, 9/11 will be forgotten as a shadow passes along the landscape and is gone, and planes will only carry people from place to place in safety. Come Lord Jesus, come.