Cultural Icons Reflect on September 11th


Where were you on the morning of September 11, 2001? What errands were you running, what classes were you taking, and what job were you arriving to on that fateful day? As the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks approaches, we’ve decided to run a group of quotes by writers and public intellectuals (as well as a graphic designer and comedian) who had something to say about the state of the city and the country in the days and years to follow. As David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker, “we pay tribute to the resilience of ordinary people in the face of appalling destruction.” But we also pay tribute to those who had the courage to discuss real issues when there was so much political showboating happening. So read on, dear readers, and let us know what words got you through this incredible shock to the system.

Milton Glaser, the creator of I ♥ NY

“I woke up one day, a few days after 9/11. I thought, you know, ‘I love New York’ isn’t the story anymore. Something happened. And I realized that what had happened was an injury, like when a friend of yours, somebody you love, gets terribly sick. You suddenly become conscious of how much you care for them. That’s the inevitable consequence of somebody you have affection for. And I realized that my feeling about the city had deepened.”

Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker

“For those in the immediate vicinity, the horror was of course immediate and unmistakable; it occurred in what we have learned to call real time, and in real space. For those farther away — whether a few dozen blocks or halfway around the world — who were made witnesses by the long lens of television, the events were seen as through a glass, brightly. Their reality was visible but not palpable. It took hours to begin to comprehend their magnitude; it is taking days for the defensive numbness they induced to wear off; it will take months — or years — to measure their impact and meaning.”

Gary Shytengart about writing Absurdistan before and after the attacks

Photo credit: Robert Birnbaum

“I can’t live very long without writing. It’s the only thing I’m good at. I took a month and went back to writing. But I worried at the time that in the novel I have a lot of violence and buildings being set on fire. And in the parts I’d already written, there were references to the World Trade Center. It had always fascinated me. It reminded me of some kind of a gigantic socialist building. It had this strange quality of some buildings you see maybe in Moscow. Gigantic. Incredibly impersonal.”

Jean Baudrillard in The Spirit of Terrorism

“The fact that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it – because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree – is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience. Yet it is a fact, and one which can indeed be measured by the emotive violence of all that has been said and written in the effort to dispel it.”

Vivian Gornick

“On September 11th, at 9:30 in the morning, I stood across the street from my apartment house in Greenwich Village, in a silent crowd, watching the tallest buildings in Manhattan burn and then fall. No one spoke, no one cried out. I think everyone in that crowd knew, then and there, that our world had changed and that New York would never be the same. In the months since that horrifying day, an atmosphere difficult to define – somewhat stunned, somewhat disoriented, strangely thoughtful – has enveloped the city and not yet abated. The town often feels vacant, confused, unrooted. And everything oddly muffled: the traffic, the noise, the crowd; restaurants, theaters, museums, sometimes half empty, sometimes even deserted.”

Amy Poehler on the return of Saturday Night Live in New York

“Looking back, the tricky part was in the months to follow. It was hard to do political satire; it was hard to make fun of the president. People were just too sad. All of a sudden you had these new bad guys like Osama bin Laden. And these were bad guys. These weren’t, like, jokey Nixon bad guys. So figuring out the comedy in all that was a struggle.”

Slavoj Zizek in the Guardian

Photo credit: Kate Milford

“As President Bush said after September 11, America is in a state of war. But the problem is that the US is not in a state of war. For the large majority, daily life goes on and war remains the business of state agencies. The distinction between the state of war and peace is blurred. We are entering a time in which a state of peace itself can be at the same time a state of emergency.”

Susan Sontag in the New Yorker

“Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy – which entails disagreement, which promotes candor – has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. ‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”

Judith Butler on the decision to bomb Iraq

“The quick move to action is a way of foreclosing grief, refusing it, and even as it anesthetizes one’s own pain and sense of loss, it comes, in time, to anesthetize us to the losses that we inflict upon others. I think that an entirely different politics would emerge if a community could learn to abide with its losses and its vulnerability.”

Toni Morrison

“To speak to you, the dead of September 11, I must not claim

false intimacy or summon an overheated heart glazed

just in time for a camera. I must be steady and I must be clear,

knowing all the time that I have nothing to say – no words

stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture

older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you

have become.

“And I have nothing to give either – except this gesture,

this thread thrown between your humanity and mine:

I want to hold you in my arms and as your soul got shot of its box of flesh to understand, as you have done, the wit

of eternity: its gift of unhinged release tearing through

the darkness of its knell.”

Pico Iyer in Granta

“I can’t really mourn too much that airports, since 9/11, have become places where everyone may be taken to be guilty until proven innocent. The world is all mixed up these days, and America can no longer claim immunity. On 12 September 2001, Le Monde ran its now famous headline: WE ARE ALL AMERICANS. On 12 September 2011, it might more usefully announce: WE ARE ALL INDIANS.”

Joyce Carol Oates

“The great narrative of our planet isn’t human history but the history of evolving life. Environments alter, and only those species and individuals that alter with them can survive.

“‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’ may be a cliché, but it is also a profound insight. Perhaps unfairly, the future doesn’t belong to those who only mourn, but to those who celebrate.

“The future is ever-young, ever forgetting the gravest truths of the past.”