A project of Brooklyn Historical Society
Writings from Racial Realities
Photo by OL. Click to enlarge
Carlton Avenue by OL


   Around 9am on September 11th, I swiveled around in the black office chair so that I faced the windows of my third floor Brooklyn apartment, which overlooked 7th Avenue. On days when the weather was clear, the top floors of the World Trade Center were visible. But now, the upper reaches were submerged under a bank of gray smoke. I called a friend whom I had seen the night before at Mooney’s Pub, a neighborhood bar on Flatbush Avenue. She had a better view of the World Trade Center from the roof of her brownstone in Fort Greene. “Come over,” she said. I showered, dressed in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, and set off for Fort Greene just before 10am.

   Under the cloudless sky, the combination of warming sun and dry breeze made Brooklyn feel like spring in northern California. I made my way north along 7th Avenue towards Flatbush. Like any other Tuesday morning, the shops were open and receiving customers. When I reached the corner of Flatbush, I noticed the absence of traffic on the usually busy thoroughfare. As I looked west towards downtown Brooklyn, I saw NYPD cruisers dotting the road and blocking off the street crossings, including the corner where I stood. A police officer warned me against crossing the street. I watched for several minutes as emergency vehicles swung into view from the direction of Grand Army Plaza and careened down Flatbush towards the Manhattan Bridge. The dark smoke from towers that I had seen from my apartment windows was already billowing over Brooklyn, an ominous smudge on the vibrant blue canopy overhead.

   After some persuasion, the officer allowed me to cross to the other side of Flatbush. I made my way towards Fort Greene on Carlton Avenue. After a few blocks, I encountered a half dozen people milling about on the sidewalk. My ears picked up a conversation. In a matter of fact way, an older man said: “America got what it deserved.” The small crowd assented audibly.

   “Yeah man!”

   “Uh huh.”

   “This is payback,” said a younger man. “They shouldn’t fuck with them Arabs.”

   Continuing my journey, I thought about their discussion. I understood why New York City was a prime target for terrorism. I also detested this murderous tactic. I imputed a sense of alienation to the people’s assembly on Carlton Avenue. It was visceral, something rooted in frustrating and threatening interactions with “Them,” the ones who shouldn’t fuck with Arabs. It was the alienation given popular voice in the fiery lyrics of NWA, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine. Now it was being articulated on September 11th in the chickens-coming-home-to-roost moral calculus of the street.

   I too had felt alienated from “Them,” from “America,” but it was more a matter of thought, which I could date back to my first reading of the Communist Manifesto for a high school history course. As an undergraduate at a midwestern university, I was a self-defined radical, a member of a clique of students who gravitated to Cultural Marxism and professors with links to the New Left. We occupied the fourth floor of the main library, marking our territory by piling the books of living and dead European thinkers on its broad tables. Between classes, and deep into the evening hours, we found ourselves at these tables, struggling to translate abstruse texts from the original French or German and arguing over the meaning of every sentence. Our backpacks bore copies of Critique of Dialectical Reason and Dialectic of Enlightenment, whose dog-eared pages were evidence of close readings. We looked to critical philosophy for the blueprint of a better world. I felt most at home among these students and in this world of ideas, the nowhere of scholastic exchange.

   Our discordant relationship to America was foregrounded in the spring of 1980, a few months after Iranian revolutionaries seized hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. On an overcast afternoon, the animal houses on fraternity row emptied in unison. More than one hundred frat boys marched through campus, carrying small American flags and singing “God Bless America” and the National Anthem. I remember watching them amass in the company of Che beards, denim jackets, and peasant dresses. Aside from our college ID cards, we had little in common with the patriotic fraternity brothers, clad in jackets, ties, and topsiders, and the knee-skirted and espadrilled sorority sisters who joined them. We mocked their conviction and political naïveté. They were our classmates, but they were as foreign to us as we were incomprehensible to them. We shared a different tradition, one evoked by the febrile spirit of 1968. Less than a decade removed from the end of the Vietnam War, American nationalism offered nothing to us.

   By the time I reached the brownstone on DeKalb Avenue, the two towers had crumbled. I watched the cable news replay of the planes crashing and the buildings imploding with my friend and her housemates. My first thought was that it looked like a film about the end of the world, like Independence Day. No one could find words appropriate to the moment. “Surreal” was the only apt description. On television, Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw struggled to keep pace with the stream of information. The Pentagon had been attacked, so had the State Department; no, not the State Department. Were more hijacked planes in the air? After an hour of silent watching, my friend and I decided it would be a good idea to donate blood at a local hospital. Arriving at the hospital, we were surprised to find a line of people waiting to donate blood, stretching around the block. The hospital staff turned us away. We then headed south on DeKalb towards Flatbush, which, by noon, was teeming with disoriented Brooklynites making their escape from lower Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge. Hundreds of people congregated on the sidewalks of Flatbush and spilled into the street on Fulton. After taking in the scene, we walked back to the brownstone. Away from Flatbush, an uncanny silence fell over Fort Greene, an unsettling stillness broken only by forlorn sirens and the occasional roar from the pair of F16s patrolling the skies. I returned home around 4 p.m. An enormous cloud of smoke stretched over Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens, Prospect Heights, and Park Slope. Acrid fumes wafted down to earth when the wind was right.

   In the coming days, the shutdown of the MTA made travel to Manhattan difficult. Because the school where I worked was located below 14th Street, the security quarantine of the area caused the postponement of classes for a week. When I returned to work September 18th, I emerged from Union Square station and was confronted by hundreds of photocopied pictures of missing persons plastered on every available lamppost and kiosk, with desperate pleas from loved ones seeking information.

   “Have you seen my husband?”

   “Have you seen my sister?”

   “Please contact me.”

   The wreckage at Ground Zero still smoldered when, nine days after the attack, philosopher Michael Walzer, an expert on the theory of “just war,” headlined a panel at the New School. While he carefully considered whether September 11th was an act of war,[1] another professor, whose SoHo residence had been without electricity for a week, stood up and stated forcefully that “if it looks like war, smells like war, and feels like war, it is a war.” Applause rippled through the audience. A few months later, at an NYU conference on terrorism and Islam, scholars from the generation of the New Left used “We” when discussing America’s relationship to “the Jihadists.” Tenured radicals and the interests of the American State were aligned in the third person plural.

   Before September 11th, I had never questioned my Americanness. I had a passport to prove it, signed by the Secretary of State. I had a body to prove it, marked by the miscegenation that only matters in the New World. But the passport and my body were accidents, the result of historical contingency. My sense of an American identity had been passive. It was a mere necessity or brute fact. I never used “We” to speak of America. I was born in America, but I was not of America. America was a metaphor, an abstraction, a covering concept for a place, a government, a history, a weight within and upon the world. America was something I observed, studied, critiqued, and bemoaned, not something towards which I felt an emotional or patriotic attachment. But America was at the center of the developing narrative of September 11th.

   “Our nation is at war,” said the President.[2]

   Public opinion fell in line.

   The plot that congealed around this event, the destruction of buildings and thousands of people, was unsatisfying. What happened on September 11th was a crime, a criminal act. It was mass murder. I’d seen the faces of the victims. I’d witnessed their loved ones crying. Was I deluded or in denial about the nature of the event? I cannot produce a simple answer, even twelve years later. From the beginning, I felt a strong inner resistance to the Americanization of September 11th. It signified a dislocation of memory, the loss of the sense of place of the event. Failure to place the commemoration of innocent civilians at the forefront of public discussion allowed the experience of New York City to be subsumed by the metonym of the “war against terrorism.” What happened in New York became a way station along the road towards inevitable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

   My discomfort derives from a clash of two forms of memory, between the memory of the nation and memory of the individual. The memory of the American nation is expressed through the metaphor of war, the memory of the individual is expressed through rituals of mourning. The memory of nation aligns September 11th with its form of political intelligibility: the perpetual violence between States, construed as war. In contrast, the individual memory of September 11th takes the form of commemoration of the victims and of the personal heroism of those who tried to save them. It recalls the confusion of the day, the street corner moral philosophy, the photos of the disappeared on kiosks, the looping video of falling buildings. The solemn ceremonies that take place each year at Ground Zero, the reading of the name of each victim by relatives and friends, the tribute in light, the two beams standing in for the missing towers – these rituals revive a sense of loss, which is redeemed through acts of remembrance. These two forms of memory are incommensurable.

[1] Michael Walzer, “First, Define the Battlefield,” New York Times, September 21, 2001.

[2] George W. Bush, State of the Union Speech, January 2002.