Guest-hosting for Rush on Friday, I mentioned that, for a writer, one of the pleasures of doing the show is that a listener's call will start your mind heading to places it might never have got to if you were just sitting in a room typing away. One example of that occurred last year when I was hosting the show during the Ground Zero Mosque controversy, and my resulting riff attracted a lot of commentary. I subsequently expanded my thoughts in After America, and it seems appropriate to excerpt that passage on this anniversary day:
The pop-cultural detonation of national landmarks is a mostly American phenomenon. In the rest of the world, it happens for real. In the early 1940s, when Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction were running covers of the Statue of Liberty decapitated and toppled in one lurid dystopian fantasy after another, Buckingham Palace took nine direct hits during the Blitz. Reducing British landmarks to rubble wasn't Fiction and it wasn't that Astounding, and it didn't even require much Science: on one occasion, an enterprising lone German bomber flew low up the Mall and dropped his load directly above the Royal Family's living quarters. The King and Queen were in their drawing room and showered with shards of glass. When American audiences whoop and holler at the vaporizing of the White House in Independence Day, it's because such thrills are purely the stuff of weekend multiplex diversion.
Or at least they were until a Tuesday morning one September when a guy in a cave remade the Manhattan skyline.
Somewhere along the way, back home in Saudi, at summer school in Oxford, or on a VCR hooked up to the generator at Camp Jihad in Waziristan, Osama bin Laden must surely have seen some of those despised Hollywood blockbusters, because he evidently gave some thought to the iconography of the moment. Planning the operation, did he ever consider taking out the Statue of Liberty? Fewer dead, but what a statement! A couple of days after 9/11, the celebrated German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen told a radio interviewer that the destruction of the World Trade Center was "the greatest work of art ever". I'm reminded of the late Sir Thomas Beecham's remark when asked if he'd ever conducted any Stockhausen: "No," he replied. "But I once stepped in some." Stockhausen stepped in his own that week: In those first days after the assault, even the anti-American left felt obliged to be somewhat circumspect. But at a certain level the composer understood what Osama was getting at.
Nevertheless, Stockhausen was wrong. The "greatest work of art" is not the morning of 9/11, with the planes slicing through the building, and the smoke and the screaming and the jumping, and the swift, eerily smooth collapse of the towers. No, the most eloquent statement about America in the early 21st century is Ground Zero in the years after. 9/11 was something America's enemies did to us. The hole in the ground a decade later is something we did to ourselves. By 2010, Michael Bloomberg, the take-charge get-it-done make-it-happen mayor of New York was reduced to promising that that big hole in Lower Manhattan isn't going to be there for another decade, no, sir. "I'm not going to leave this world with that hole in the ground ten years from now," he declared defiantly. In the 21st century, that's what passes for action, for get-tough leadership, for riding herd. When the going gets tough, the tough boot the can another decade down the road. Sure, those jihad boys got lucky and took out a couple skyscrapers, but the old can't-do spirit kicked in and a mere ten years later we had a seven-storey hole on which seven billion dollars had been lavished. But, if we can't put up a replacement building within a decade, we can definitely do it within two. Probably. As a lonely steel skeleton began lethargically to rise from the 16-acre site, the unofficial estimated date of completion for the brand new "1 World Trade Center" was said to be 2018. That date should shame every American.
What happened? Everyone knows the "amber waves of grain" and "purple mountain majesties" in "America The Beautiful", but Katharine Lee Bates' words are also a hymn to modernity:
Oh beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears...
"America The Beautiful" is not a nostalgic evocation of a pastoral landscape but a paean to its potential, including the gleaming metropolis. Miss Bates visited the Columbian Exposition in Chicago just before July 4th 1893, and she meant the word "alabaster" very literally: The centerpiece of the fair was the "White City" of the future, fourteen blocks of architectural marvels with marble facades painted white, and shining even whiter in the nightly glow of thousands of electric light bulbs, like a primitive prototype of Al Gore's carbon-offset palace in Tennessee. They were good times, but even in bad the United States could still build marvels. Much of the New York skyline dates from the worst of times. As Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang in the Thirties:
They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now they're fighting to get in…
The Empire State Building, then the tallest in the world, was put up in 18 months during a depression – because the head of General Motors wanted to show the head of Chrysler that he could build something that went higher than the Chrysler Building. Three-quarters of a century later, the biggest thing either man's successor had created was a mountain of unsustainable losses – and both GM and Chrysler were now owned and controlled by government and unions.
In the months after 9/11, I used to get the same joke emailed to me every few days: The proposed design for the replacement World Trade Center. A new skyscraper towering over the city, with the top looking like a stylized hand – three towers cut off at the joint, and the "middle finger" rising above them, flipping the bird not only to Osama bin Laden but also to Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and the sneering Euro-lefties and all the rest who rejoiced that day at America getting it, pow, right in the kisser: They all laughed at the Twin Towers takedown. Soon they'll be fighting to get in to whatever reach-for-the-skies only-in-America edifice replaces it. The very word "skyscraper" is quintessentially American: It doesn't literally scrape the sky, but hell, as soon as we figure out how to build an even more express elevator, there's no reason why it shouldn't.
But the years go by, and they stopped emailing that joke, because it's not quite so funny after two, three, five, nine years of walking past Windows On The Hole every morning. It doesn't matter what the eventual replacement building is at Ground Zero. The ten-year hole is the memorial: a gaping, multi-storey, multi-billion-dollar pit, profound and eloquent in its nullity.
As for the gleam of a brand new "White City", well, in the interests of saving the planet, Congress went and outlawed Edison's light bulb. And on the grounds of the White City hymned by Katherine Lee Bates stands Hyde Park, home to community organizer Barack Obama, terrorist educator William Ayers and Nation of Islam numerologist and Jeremiah Wright Award winner Louis Farrakhan. That's one fruited plain all of its own.
In the decade after 9/11, China (which America still thinks of as a cheap assembly plant for your local KrappiMart) built the Three Gorges Dam, the largest electricity-generating plant in the world. Dubai, a mere sub-jurisdiction of the United Arab Emirates, put up the world's tallest building and built a Busby Berkeley geometric kaleidoscope of offshore artificial islands. Brazil, an emerging economic power, began diverting the Sao Francisco river to create some 400 miles of canals to irrigate its parched north-east. But the hyperpower can't put up a building.
Happily, there is one block in Lower Manhattan where ambitious redevelopment is in the air. In 2010 plans were announced to build a 15-story mosque at Ground Zero, on the site of an old Burlington Coat Factory damaged by airplane debris that Tuesday morning.
So, in the ruins of a building reduced to rubble in the name of Islam, a temple to Islam will arise.
A couple of years after the events of that Tuesday morning, James Lileks, the bard of Minnesota, wrote:
If 9/11 had really changed us, there'd be a 150-story building on the site of the World Trade Center today. It would have a classical memorial in the plaza with allegorical figures representing Sorrow and Resolve, and a fountain watched over by stern stone eagles. Instead there's a pit, and arguments over the usual muted dolorous abstraction approved by the National Association of Grief Counselors.
The best response to 9/11 on the home front - if only to demonstrate that there is a "home front" (which is the nub of al-Qaeda's critique of a soft and decadent west) - would have been to rebuild the World Trade Center bigger, better, taller – not 150 stories, but 250, a marvel of the age. And, if there had to be "the usual muted dolorous abstraction", the National Healing Circle would have been on the penthouse floor with a clear view all the way to Osama's executive latrine in Waziristan.
Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Committee on Foreign Relations, is no right-winger but rather a sober, respected, judicious paragon of torpidly conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, musing on American decline, he writes, "The country's economy, infrastructure, public schools and political system have been allowed to deteriorate. The result has been diminished economic strength, a less-vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit."
That last is the one to watch: A great power can survive a lot of things, but not "a mediocrity of spirit". A wealthy nation living on the accumulated cultural capital of a glorious past can dodge its rendezvous with fate, but only for so long. "Si monumentum requiris, circumspice" reads the inscription on the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren in St Paul's Cathedral: If you seek my monument, look around. After two-thirds of the City of London were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, Wren designed and rebuilt the capital's tallest building (St Paul's), another 50 churches, and a new skyline for a devastated metropolis. Three centuries later, if you seek our monument, look in the hole.
It's not about al-Qaeda. It's about us.
~That's an excerpt from After America. On this tenth anniversary, we're also running other 9/11 material, old and new. We started with Smelling Blood, my column on the summer of 2001, and a special audio edition of our Song of the Week: God Bless America. Then we looked at the war in its narrow, terrorist sense - Crying Lone Wolf - and on the broader front - Winning And Losing. Mark's Friday Feature considered September 11th in cinematic terms, and on Saturday we looked back at the war from five years on. And finally we've re-posted the words I wrote exactly a decade ago, on Tuesday, September 11th 2001, for the following morning's National Post in Canada and that week's Spectator in Britain: A War For Civilization.