Touching Ground Zero

For New Yorkers, the urge to bear witness is irresistible.

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I’m writing nearly two months after September 11, and you’ll be reading this even later yet. The delay is inevitable, a cost of production. Writers factor it into their writing. Readers factor it out in their reading. And yet I feel, like never before, as though I’m writing from the past, sending words forward into an indiscernible future. There’s no way to know how much will have changed by the time you see these words. It may seem to you, thinking back to late autumn, that nothing has changed except the light and the season. That would be the good news.

But by noon on September 11, the day before had somehow been hurled backward, out of sight. A great berg of the past simply broke off and drifted away. Most of us will be able to talk about this endlessly, perhaps as long as we live. That sudden crease in time will remain one of the critical psychological facts in our lives, a reminder of how illusory, how elliptical the sense of time really is. That was the day the World Trade Center plundered our imaginations.

In the endless cycle of literature centering on the Trojan War, a writer had only to allude, as Yeats did in “Leda and the Swan,” to “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower” for a reader to know that he meant the final breach of Troy. We now own a similar grim shorthand, a reference so central to our understanding that the merest allusion calls it all back. “The towers” can mean only one thing to us, and so can “that morning.” A tone of voice, heard or overheard, tells you the whole shape of the story.

On September 11, all the meanings of the World Trade Center–all the ways that the place itself resounded in the world–collapsed into a new set of meanings. Its history was reorganized. The bland bureaucratic tale of its origins, the harsh criticisms of its architecture, the windswept banalities of its plaza during the first half-empty years, even the almost meretricious hundred feet by which it topped the Empire State Building–these now sound like the early adventures of a youth born in disheartening circumstances, destined for greatness but unaware that it is the greatness of tragedy.

The towers were sometimes personified in the early days–called Nelson and David, for the role the Rockefellers played in their creation–but that always sounded a little coy. The towers were too impersonal, too out of scale–even with Manhattan–to be humanized. And when they came down, the tragedy pertained not to them but to the humans trapped inside. When the skin of the buildings burst, as each plane struck its tower, it was still, for an instant, possible to feel, somehow, for the buildings themselves, to imagine their innocence, their solitude. But it immediately became clear to everyone that the struggle to evacuate, to save lives, was a struggle not only against the heat of the flames, the damage of the initial impact, but against the construct of the buildings themselves, the acre-wide floors, the infinite stairwells, the appalling height.

In the sudden absence of the towers, we’re relearning how meaning adheres to place, even as the idea of place slips its context. From the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, looking south, I used to be able to see the World Trade Center as I walked to work. At least I think I could. The sky looks unusually vacant there now, but I no longer know for certain whether the towers were actually visible from that corner or whether I’m seeing the absence I feel.

In the first days afterward, smoke marked the ruins, but the smoke was elusive, blowing sideways into Brooklyn and Staten Island. The day after, I watched emergency crews deploying a few blocks away from the fires. A week later, I walked up Wall Street to Trinity Church and down to the tip of Battery Park. A week later still, I had dinner on a street lit mainly by the glare from the rescue site. If you had asked me, on any of those occasions, to say where in the sky the towers had stood, I could only have pointed upward toward the diffusion of smoke and light. On Canal Street, when it still marked the edge of the exclusion zone, the sidewalk bazaars–even the ones selling extension cords and furniture casters–were filled with photos of the Manhattan skyline with the towers still intact. Even in the best of the photographs, the towers looked as though they had been cut and pasted into the skyline, as though they had existed only as a computer simulation in an architect’s presentation. The shock that they had fallen turned into the shock that they had ever been there to fall. In their unbelievable demise, even their existence had become unbelievable.

Disbelief is a symptom of psychological shock, a way of distancing the intolerable. But no one was prepared for the shadings of disbelief that marked that first week. As the hours passed, more and more raw footage was added to the television coverage–shots of the second plane striking the south tower, the fireball, the flames, the smoke, then the collapses, then suddenly a shot of the first plane striking the north tower, then more and more new angles as more and more tape poured into the networks. In the vortex of the event–and who can say just when that ended?–each of these video and film fragments seemed to reinforce something we already knew, adding to the weight of the unbearable. And then something changed. I remember watching, yet again, the repeating footage a few days later and realizing that it no longer proved anything. Instead of confirming the truth of what had happened, it seemed to be showing something that was inherently impossible, all the more impossible for the apparent fact of it before our eyes. This, too, was the past breaking off in chunks and being carried away.

Place is what we substitute for time as it slips past. If you’ve ever gone back to a place where you once lived a long time ago, you know that you go there in the hopes of seeing time itself, like a thickening in the atmosphere, an early winter fog. And if enough time has passed, a kind of incredulity accumulates, whether you remember everything or nothing, whether you’re surprised that the place still exists or that it’s been torn down. Some version of that incredulity is, I think, what many New Yorkers have experienced in recent months. Even if you didn’t work in those buildings, didn’t work downtown, the towers had a strange utility. From uptown, they gave range to the long axis of the island. From the Jersey side, they established proximity, showing, by their size, how near the city you were getting. But their greatest utility was temporal. They endured, and they were tall enough that we could witness, even without noticing, their endurance. Their presence was something New Yorkers took for granted, and the depth of that grantedness–a measure of how long they had lurked in our eye–is the depth of the shock that came that morning.

And now there is a new place where the towers once stood, a field of ruin, a place of overwhelming moral gravity, an urban Gettysburg. If you wander downtown, you can feel the vacuum of the place drawing you closer and closer, until you find yourself standing among a crowd of people peering over the barricades, trying to look into the past, to the moment when the second tower had just collapsed or, perhaps, to the day before. Nearly everyone who was not an intimate of that neighborhood discovers a different Lower Manhattan from the one they remembered. The buildings seem taller, the streets narrower, because the towers are no longer there. The actual footprint of the World Trade Center seems remarkably well hidden, not by the security lines but by the 17th-century layout of the old city itself. Down there, you can still feel the force of those old maps, the ones on which the steeple of Trinity Church looms over the masts of sailing ships in the harbor and men in rowboats harvest oysters not far from where the Statue of Liberty now stands.

I can’t help wondering how we’ll remember that site. This is a different question from how we’ll commemorate it. Each floor of the World Trade Center was an acre in size–220 acres in all, more than a third of a square mile–and all of it fell into the space of a few blocks. It was, by noon of that day, an unimaginable morass of steel and glass and dust and–the smallest fraction–human remains. But as the days have moved forward, its topography has shifted, almost hour by hour. Roads have been cut into the debris. Its peaks have been leveled. In some spots, the rubble was shifted hand to hand, and in other places, the heavy work began almost immediately. The men and women working in that wasteland know it now as well as they have known anything in their lives, and yet every day there has been a different version of it to know. Every day, terra incognita. It is a city in miniature, a world unto itself. It deserves mapping and remapping and remapping again. All the work that is being done is being done to make the ruins disappear, and when they have finally been eradicated, we’ll discover that it was the ruins that mattered to us, emotionally, and not the vacancy that remains or anything constructed afterward.

I have never known the city gripped by anything stronger than the desire to get close to those ruins, to attest to their existence. If the authorities hadn’t established the perimeters they did, the people of New York would have clambered onto the still-burning heap to do what they could. Standing beside the perimeter nearest the ruins the day after the attack, I realized that the men and women authorized to be working under the pall of the smoke and dust had also been authorized to see things that the rest of us had not. That’s one of their jobs in ordinary times, the firefighters, the emergency and rescue squads, the police. They take on the burden of looking at scenes that most of us would turn away from in horror, that would, in some sense, uncivilize us. But for almost an hour on September 11, the horror played out in plain sight of the cameras, the city, and the world. It could not be controlled. What would burn burned. Who would leap leaped. And what would fall did ultimately fall.

Something more than curiosity brought New Yorkers as close as they could get to the edge of the disaster. They wanted to see to the very core of the tragedy, to accept the responsibility of knowing the worst, to construct a memory less detached than the footage that kept playing, soon over music, on television.

I know that I will want to remember two things from that new place. One is only a hope, the hope that someone might have made a survey of the wreckage as it stood in the afternoon of that morning, as it somehow seems apt to say. Such a survey would tell us nothing about good or evil or freedom or terrorism. It’s hard to know exactly what it would tell us. Perhaps it would simply show us the map of a new world whose name no one knows and that can last only until the demolition crews have finished their work. Call it simply the map of change. And I will also want to remember how, to most New Yorkers, the urge to go back down there was as strong as the urge to flee as the towers were collapsing. The exodus on foot across the bridges has been more than matched by a returning tide. The dead do call out to us, and we do answer. In the sound of those falling towers–that dreadful roar–there was an invocation that will echo in memory for the rest of our lives.


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