World Trade Center, 2007: A Journey Across Cultures—Revisited
Two weeks ago, I became an American. I’ve lived here for 15 years, and had previously resisted taking citizenship; living on a Green Card and being more or less content to walk the line between divergent nationalities, families, groups of friends, all conjoined in similar love and differentiated belonging. Sometimes, it strained my sense of identity. But even this, as a Buddhist, I found useful. Ultimately, whether I was Scottish, British, Canadian, Italian, or American, didn’t seem to matter. Until it did.
What happened? The pandemic, I suppose, and its sudden, sharp reminder that international travel is a very recent human luxury still only granted at the pleasure of nation states. And, of course, the political upheavals on both sides of the Atlantic that have accelerated and deepened into trouble since Blair went in 2007 and Obama was elected the following year. Who knew that what felt like possible progress at the time to anyone of a liberal disposition could deliver us in fairly short order to the nativist, populist, collusive fever dreams of Brexit and Johnson, Trump and Republican anti-democratic tantrums?
Ironically, this is what made me an American. I have left Scotland and the UK twice in my life, partly heartbroken by the hopeless, unfair politics of life in the “Union”. And, though I’m yet to witness the “more perfect” vision of a union promised by the Constitution, I want to make a contribution. So when I tried to volunteer to help out at the general election in 2020 here, and was denied on the grounds of not being a citizen (despite all those tax-paying years without representation!), that finally did it. Some friends and I meditated for peace outside the polls instead. Then I resolved to make myself eligible.
And here we are. American and, oddly, growing into being proud of it. It’s a distinctly mixed bag as an act. Notwithstanding the otherwise very nice lady at my final interview who tried to talk me out of my formal pacifist refusal to take up arms, and into swearing the Oath on God, I found preparing for citizenship unexpectedly moving. All that history of aspiration. It’s one thing to stand away from words so easily twisted as an act of intellectual self-protection; it’s quite another to stand there and say them, and test the borders of what you can hold as meaningful truth in your heart.
All of which, brings me to 9/11, and this 20th anniversary of the most recent great scar across the American psyche that has, I suppose, been the context for a lot of what I have found difficult about my new home since arriving here in 2006. To mark the day for the first time as a citizen, I hope thoughtfully, I’m re-posting below an updated version of an article I wrote in 2013 reflecting on a pilgrimage of sorts I made to Ground Zero not long after settling in New Hampshire and realising I was at odds with my own ground. I hope it honors the victims, their families, and some of the complexity that has come to pass since. May we all find a better way together, as friends upon this fragile earth.
NOTE ON THE GALLERY: The pictures were all taken (pre-iPhone!) with my then beloved Palm Treo device, which had a 0.3 megapixel camera with a broken focus mechanism. This made for some interesting flaring and blurring that seemed, somehow, to fit the scene… Some of the photographs were then re-balanced on a computer.
I’ve lived in America for 7 years now, and though I’m grateful for my new home I’ve not always had an easy relationship to it. I grew up in a squarely left-wing Scotland that was largely appalled by the excesses of ’80s Thatcherism and Reaganism, in both domestic and foreign policy matters. Positive working models of socialism get fairly short thrift in the US mainstream media; and on Facebook and Twitter you’re more likely to encounter ill-informed bogeyman stories about national health care systems than you will considered reflections on the merits of collective organisation and State-organised welfare. So you can imagine, despite the deep-seated kindness of most Americans I know, politically it’s been an adjustment…
Like many, I’ve had a particularly hard time with the so-called ‘War On Terror’, the military and ‘national security’ response to 9/11 that has, in my view, been such a huge cultural step backwards for the country and continues (via the NSA spying regime) to greatly damage America’s reputation and ideal in the eyes of the world.
Back in 2007, when I first really faced up to how uncomfortable this all made me in daily life, I went to visit Ground Zero to try and get a better feel for the emotional weight of the World Trade Center tragedy for Americans; to better understand why the response has been so violent (and so ferociously sustained). I’d argue that response still colors for the worse reactions to contemporary ‘homeland’ atrocities (like the recent Boston marathon bombings). So, in finally revisiting that little pilgrimage now via this set of pictures taken at the time, it’s been helpful to be reminded again of the sheer depth of emotionality the site itself evokes.
It’s also been good to remember the impact it had on me to see the place itself, to connect it then and now with the famous, horrific TV images that we all soaked in during those awful days in 2001. As a Buddhist, however hard it feels at times, I believe empathy has to work both ways — with the victims and the perpetrators of violence. But seeing the grief of the victims still so evident six years after this great trauma really helped me understand a bit more clearly the seemingly mythic status 9/11 now has in the minds of ordinary US citizens, and why the raw wound has not yet been completely salved.
Perhaps it will surprise some that I’d have to make an effort at all. Again, I think it’s essentially a cultural issue rather than any lack of general compassion. In the Britain of my childhood, urban bombings by the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) and the UDF (Ulster Defence Force) in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, were just a fact of life. They happened very regularly indeed, and in Glasgow during that period (in terms of sectarianism, think mini-Belfast during The Troubles in some of its worst socio-cultural aspects) we lived with the omnipresent sense of heightened anxiety that comes from a feeling that civil society is under fairly constant threat.
Of course, we didn’t have to contend with a single event on the scale of 9/11, but cumulatively over many years we lived with the threat and actuality of “terrorism” on a weekly basis. By the time it ended, over 3,500 people had lost their lives. I think all of that shaped my root response to the situation America had to face post 9/11. “Keep Calm and Carry On”, as a distillation of how to approach the difficult things of this world, may now have been commercially abused within an inch of its philosophical life; but that stiff-upper-lip cliché still holds true in terms of the British public. The Blitz spirit it represents — nostalgia for the national unity of World War II in general — sets the deeper, possibly illusionary, mythic ground for a noticeably, habitually different British discourse around acts of terror: less emphasis on sustained, specific reactivity in favour of the collective qualities of endurance and resoluteness.
One wouldn’t want to be naive about it — that aspect of national character in Britain is still soaked in the numberless violent and bloody sins of empire; nonetheless, these qualities persist, I think, in typical long-term British reactions to largescale threat, at least as a tonally differentiating factor from the American national response. This is despite the best efforts of Blair, Brown, and Cameron in recent years to hyperbolize and simplify the complexity of “terrorism” as part of their own morally macho discourse in response to the Islamist version of it, simply aping the worst of the ‘official’ American position.
So, in terms of having to make an effort around 9/11, I was just basically puzzled by the aggressively blinkered posturing that the “War on Terror” had already come to exemplify, since it seemed so clearly unlikely to achieve anything constructive. But I felt I needed to understand more about what lay behind it.
The actual site at Ground Zero was largely still undeveloped in 2007. Wranglings over the exact nature of the replacement building had not long been resolved, and work on the new building’s foundations had only begun a year before my visit. The massive gap in the dense Manhattan sprawl was still hoarded around with black boards, every one of which had at least one ‘POST NO BILLS’ poster attached. Visitors moved somewhat claustrophobically through corridors of these boards as if being guided through the devious chicanes of a labyrinth or, for that matter, an endless series of stairwells from which there seemed to be no escape. And every one of the boards had been graffitied by the countless visitors who’d made the same soul journey as me since 2001: the poster letters filled in with well-wishings, touching pleas for understanding and tolerance, insane conspiracy theories, pro-US sentiment, and astonishing representations of the attack itself. These latter, arresting depictions of the events of 9/11, stopped me in my tracks every few seconds. It was as if the naive drawings — often using the taller letters as frames for the towers themselves — could somehow contain the whole of the awful force of the tragedy they sought to depict. In this sense, they seemed like acts of magical thinking, and here they sat alongside famous photographs from the aftermath of the attack, as well as optimistic City Planning Dept. evocations of the future, strangely flanked by images from recent firework shows.
At the end, we all arrived at the visitors’ center, which was really just a glitzier corridor dedicated to advertising high fashion and luxury goods, all advertisements bearing the simple legend: ‘SHOP’. But even that couldn’t detract from such a moving, memorable visit, one I’ve appreciated reliving in working with these images again now. I wish the whole display of improvised art had been preserved as a permanent installation on-site — it represented a remarkable outpouring of collective response to grief that was, in itself, profoundly educational.