The 19th Anniversary of the first 9-11 Commemoration

The 19th Anniversary of the first 9-11 Commemoration


Timothy Herrick

~Memoir ~ Prose-Poem ~ Philosophy~

Copyright 2021, held by author

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the first anniversary of 9-11.

How should we commemorate, what’s the proper tone?

Finding again that balance of somber and patriotic, but never too somber not to be hopeful. Americans are a positive people. Hopefulness expresses collective determination, but camouflages patriotism’s innate battle cry with compulsory respect for military personnel and first responders – that’s always worked, some variation will probably persist.

Always Remember… Never Forget… what used to be prayer seem now ultimatum.

Maybe that will change by the year after next (2023), that will be the first anniversary of one full year of 9-11 closure.

We could never reproduce the sincerity of the first commemoration –  reading of the names live from the pile, listened to the ceremonies by radio the next two, maybe three years – went out of our way to observe each moment of silence.

Even went down to the first Exchange Place ceremonies, Jersey City has its own memorial. World Trade Center Beam – tower wreckage turned into shrines for first responders and/or fallen soldiers can be found in dozens of patriotic parks in the tristate area – but here is where the rescue effort was staged after the buildings fell. This place.

I live near the western Hudson, a splendid walk I often take. The World Trade Center was my daily horizon for a decade, a guiding star. When the girlfriend and I first moved to Jersey City, we bought a disposable camera and took pictures of each other with the landmark in the background. We remembered when the local Channel 11 used the towers in its logo… talking about the childhood cartoons they showed on weekday afternoons after school always made us laugh.

I had never been to Exchange Place before, or experienced its breathtaking Manhattan view.

Ten years later, one sunny September Tuesday, pillars of smoke replaced what we took for granted as a permanent horizon. Only two directions to go when I leave my apartment – anywhere that’s not New York City, or towards the Towers – at the gym, I watched the second plane collide – then went outside, the sky now the smoke I just saw on TV.

Later, ferries and tugboats unloaded groups of evacuees. I remember grimy faces bleeding from minor lacerations – a guy in a suit that was coated in dust, chalky gray – same veneer on everyone getting off the boats – office workers, people you see on the PATH every day.  Nobody knew anything, just a lot of smoke and noise and falling debris. They were worried about getting home. The responders brought order to chaos.

The next day, the sirens were fewer, no new emergency vehicles speeding to the pier. People were being accounted for. My apartment building had all the tenants check in with management. You asked everyone you knew and everyone asked you, do you know any one missing.

That’s when or soon thereafter the pictures appeared, holiday snapshots, prom and wedding photographs photocopied with names and eye color and other identifying information on the pages taped to bus shelters, stapled to telephone poles.  Maybe they were wandering concussed, or somebody saw them in an emergency room. Please call this number.

Two tractor trailer trucks, refrigerated long haulers, parked on Grand Street, near one of the docking sites. Tropicana. The trucks were shiny black like wet tar but the bright lettering and succulent citrus shone incandescent. Why this much orange juice?

No, spreading murmurs explained.  They’re empty, they’re for the bodies.  Earlier, there were news stories about potential body bag shortages. They were bracing the public for the official announcement that the search for survivors was ending and there may be footage of corpses

That smell of the smoke, intensely acrid. It clogged the pores on your face and hands and arms. Gritty, felt like sand in your hair. We waited, gradually realizing that no more bodies were going to be found and the particle-ridden stench that made you undress and shower immediately upon coming home included the as yet unidentified 2,996 murdered.

This year, the three weeks leading up to 9-11 commemorations, Afghanistan pervaded our hearts and minds.  Final phase of a peace deal with the Taliban where the Afghan Government was not even invited to negotiations – we’re told the government was corrupt, so nobody really wanted to fight insurgents to save it – two decades of war, over – and other than finally getting out, little to be proud of, unless you count dignified surrender. Let’s hope this new peace lasts.

While many Americans are at fault – the one for whom I have utter disgust – is Colin Powell – he lied to the world – speaking at the U.N. – declaring  an alliance between Bin Laden and Saddam. As if anything about Islamic nations ever had a simplistic explanation. I actually respected him, what little I could muster for any republican or military leader.

State-sponsored terrorism was all anyone knew, Iraq had oil and corporate allies and if we are to logically fight a war on terror we need to wage an even more massive war in Iraq, who we did beat once, as the royal dictators of Kuwait can attest. It seemed circumstantially sensible, even though Powell barely proved his argument – he read from the transcript excerpt of a tapped phone call, showed blurry surveillance images – weapons of mass destruction here, friends with Saddam there – more passion than I’ve ever seen him express before or since, but now even the shortest clips of him get me overwhelmingly appalled.

But at that time, I trusted this media persona, this loyal soldier, an achiever who is modest, not even a hint of arrogance. Why wonder about how scant and questionable the Intel was, if you’re unable to believe a celebrity like Colin Powell, your cynicism towards America knows no limit.

Within a year, I hated myself for supporting the Iraq War and for giving any credence to the motivations of anyone in the Bush Administration. If you can’t trust Colin, who can you trust – no Republican ever since, that’s for sure.

9-11 ceremonies and their coverage took on new emotional drudgeries –  discussions about not politicizing them only antagonized the  how should 9-11 be commemorated debate – let’s take the politics out but not the patriotism – national interest demands the oil fields must be secured! Mission Accomplished.

I wonder how many generations it took for Memorial Day to become the first day of summer, sorrow free, loud shopping mall sales or community barbecues or first drive down the shore of the year?

If you have to convince yourself to feel grief, then what you’re feeling is something malleable that looks and sounds enough like grief to justify symbols and gestures also used by conservatives and republicans. If you don’t support them, why are you wearing this or saying that.

I bought an American flag lapel pin, the smallest I could find at one of those 14th Street stores – where there’s no door or cash register – sad souvenirs and cheap leather accessories, belts and wallets and fingerless gloves. The flag pin had never been this popular, flags were everywhere. I pinned it to my black denim jacket, I still felt young enough to be trendy.

I stopped wearing that pin completely well before the ’03 9-11 and by the ‘04 9-11, any commemoration was a burden. The 9-11 grief that lingered was anger at my country. My rare expression of patriotism now symbolized public support for wars that needed ending.

Powell proved the Republican Party’s only policy mission was to enrich oil companies. Giving Powell the benefit of the doubt was the patriotic thing, that’s why it was wrong. Patriotism insists compassion be selective. Killing is necessary and death is an acceptable means of achieving the only goals leaders have proclaimed worth defending… no, no more, never again, not I. Nations are constructs. One people, one planet.

Regret or insist that war was right but mistakes kept victory out of reach, doesn’t matter much now and no one can know how little that will matter a decade hence. But, war is wrong and so are you and so were they.

Patriotism is not worth murder and destruction– surely, even bravery and courage deserve no esteem when used to kill and destroy. Patriotism coopts many ideals – grief, faith, loyalty – add fear and pride – then war feels more justified. In the line of duty, given how things turned out, seems more hollow excuse than undisputable honor.

 Unless, you don’t support our troops. Now, you’re disrespecting the grief of those families.

We’ve all been used… it’s over, even the guilt. Let’s just share some silence.

Genuine grief is always in flux. It may flare but eventually fades into manageable portions. Love of country lasts longer, a better buzz, keeps giving, assuages sadness into something positive and what’s more optimistic than being on the winning side of democracy.

It’s not grief’s fault patriotism dupes us. Without patriotism, there can be no war. Who still has the energy to argue, it’s not our nation’s first defeat. Nothing short of pacifism for me; from now on the personal is political.

I was a river away from the attack – where this period now past started – and where whatever 9-11 feeling should be expressed can still be found. Truth is nuanced and conflicted, be ready to seek wisdom in apparent contradictions.

I rarely think about the actual eleventh of September when I return to Exchange Place and contemplate the river.

Except on 9-11. I ‘m at that pier that day every year, look at the river and Manhattan like I always do but instead think about what I can’t forget.

Shock and grief were exploited by greedy war mongers who wanted to keep civilization fueled by a deadly pollutant that has disrupted the weather system endangering us all.

9-11 became a duty, at least the ceremonies and commemorations. Eventually any sadness was gone, the actual injury healed. Every anniversary felt like when someone in your family suddenly dies, and at the funeral you have to greet all the mourners and there’s friends of the departed you never met or barely knew. Their consolations are genuine, but their significant others who never met you or the departed, can only mean well. You’re grateful, they’re sincere. But you both are wishing you were talking to someone else, which doesn’t make what is said any less well meant, just more strained and superficial.

If it happens, we will probably not live long enough to see politics disconnected from 9-11, but now perspectives can attain a fresh distance. The war is over, send in the historians.

The smoke went away then many years later a replacement WTC spired up, very silvery, a pleasant beacon vibe. I have to be near the river to really see it.  On the Jersey City side, only new sky scrapers allowed. Layers of geometric clutter fill my current skyline, nothing as imposing as the Twin Towers, but more to see.

Every year what I think about the most on my annual 9-11 pilgrimage to Exchange Place – those Tropicana Tractor Trailers and the smoke you couldn’t stop smelling, that stuck to your hair and skin, but the trucks the most. A street had to be cleared for them to park then they drove away empty while new fliers of the missing kept appearing.

Authors note: Other writings about and photographs of  9-11 by Timothy Herrick can be found here, here, here, and here.

One photograph is featured n Envisioning New Jersey: An Illustrated History of the Garden State (Rivergate Regionals Collection), available here.

Winner of the 2018 Award of Merit and the 2018 Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History; Winner of the 2017 New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance Author Award