“September 11, 2001, in New York I witnessed the epiphany of history”

The first memory is not that of the catastrophe and the end of a world. My earliest memory of September 11, 2001 in Manhattan is one of ephemeral happiness. Ephemeral, not because of History which changed its course on the morning of that day and transformed euphoria into anguish, but because happiness is always temporary. The day promised to be beautiful and there is no need to mention literature or certain shots from Woody Allen’s films to tell the charm of New York in early autumn..

From the window of my small apartment, three hundred meters from Central Park, you could see a blue sky, a mild sun, and a foretaste of the almost ineffable perfume of clear air. The day before I had sent an article to Espresso, written together with my colleague Andrea Visconti, about the sunset of the city that was believed to be the center of the world. Between episodes of worldly news, bad economic data, considerations of local politics (Mayor Rudy Giuliani) and comments on how New York (with its obsolete infrastructures) resembled an aged person, with a glorious past that sometimes manages to deceive those who seek the future and youth. I was happy because I had a beautiful morning without commitments. So I decided to take a long walk in Central Park.

And so, at a quarter to nine I let myself be carried away by the magic and amazement in front of the chromatic range of the autumn leaves on the trees of the Park: from golden yellow, to blood red, to dark brown. At some point I decided to call my colleague. He went to the editorial office very early, since those who write from New York, due to the time difference, are always six hours late compared to Rome. I asked him: Andrea, is there any news? Answer: “Well, a little story, a tourist plane, a Cessna, crashed into one of the twin towers.. It happened at a quarter to nine. ‘ I made a joke about how nothing worked right in New York, not even air traffic controls. I thought I should have included the story of that Cessna in the article sent the day before, confirming our assumptions and words. And so (at the time there were no international calls from mobile phones) I went home to call the newspaper. On the way I saw ladies commenting on what had happened with the doormen of the elegant buildings overlooking the park: “But how is it possible that a small plane …”.

Entering the house, picking up the phone, dialing the number in Rome, turning on the TV channel of local news, I saw a large plane (other than Cessna) entering the North Tower of the Twin Towers. Soon after, another plane crashed into the South Tower. I don’t remember if the image of the second plane was a live video.. I rushed to the avenue that runs alongside the park. In the distance, a gray cloud was rising from the southern tip of Manhattan. I suddenly understood that I was witnessing the epiphany of history, in a place, Manhattan, which seemed to rule the world, but has always been sheltered from the world.

The memory of New York is ambivalent, just as its inhabitants are capable of ambivalence: cynical but inclined to gestures of solidarity. And then, in New York you have a careful look at Europe. On the one hand, there is a strong nostalgia: for the food, for the music and songs of the ancestors who came from the Old Continent. It is as if the inhabitants of the city needed their roots, far away and elsewhere. On the other hand, there is the happiness for not being born overseas and for the feeling of security that America gives. This is especially true for Jews, but not only in this city, the most Jewish in the world, after Tel Aviv. At the time, between the 1990s and early 2000s, we often wondered why America did not bring help to the Jews trapped in Europe during the Second World War. To people born after the war, parents and grandparents repeated: here, things like that cannot happen here. And then: there is no war here. Our soldiers, when they fight, they do it far from our borders. In short, a city, New York, which does not imitate Europe, but whose life has been shaped, largely by the refugees of the catastrophe of the twentieth century.

The son of European Jewish refugees was Michael Kaufman, my guide in the city and in the States. Kaufman, a journalist for the New York Times, was the son of a communist father in pre-war Poland (and for a long time a political prisoner) who went to France and from there, in 1940, managed to get to Lisbon with his wife and son (Michael). to board one of those ships that reached New York with so many other refugees. Michael has traveled the world: he talked about the wars in Angola, Congo, Afghanistan, he was a correspondent in India and also in Warsaw, in the 1980s.

But the thing that gave him the most satisfaction was the column he kept on the local pages of the newspaper and in which he recounted his encounters, on park benches, with ordinary men and women. He looked at New York with the eyes of someone who has seen Kabul. As soon as I arrived in town I called him, he invited me to his house. He served me a gin and tonic, disappeared for three minutes and returned to the living room with a copy of a report on a man from a rural community in the center of the States. He said to me, “This is the portrait of the average American. This is the reality that you must understand before narrating the exploits of politicians ».

For this reason Michael, who passed away in 2010, was a perfect guide: the memory of Europe, the America of the great outdoors and the New York of those who left home to do the shopping. He had a plausible explanation for every question I posed to him: from George W. Bush’s worldview (“he has none”) who had just taken office in the White House, to the ideas of Giuliani, the mayor he couldn’t stand (“authoritarian, macho, grotesque”). September 11th I called him in the afternoon. He praised the spirit of the inhabitants, the volunteers, the firefighters (I’ll be back), but he could not give an explanation of what had happened. “The world has collapsed, that world I grew up in and which was the promised land for my father,” he told me.

By mid-morning, the World Trade Center no longer existed. The pile of rubble had the shape of a gigantic prehistoric animal, lying on the ground: a primordial reference to the technique of the third millennium. Primordial also because after all, airplanes, the product of highly sophisticated technologies, have been used as blunt instruments, gigantic axes that cut into two buildings, a symbol of the American dream. But first, there were the scenes we all know from the images: people jumping from windows, firefighters trying to save people trapped in flames and crumbling walls. The porter of the building where the New York editorial office of the L’Espresso Group was located, around nine in the evening, as I was leaving, saying goodbye to him: “I know it’s an inappropriate comparison, but those people jumping out of the windows of burning buildings reminded me of the Warsaw Ghetto. I didn’t think I was seeing things like this here in America. “

The air of the city had become unbreathable, a mixture of smells that tasted of death. Along the avenues, from the south and towards the north, groups of fugitives proceeded. They had left home to go to work dressed in their manager uniforms, travet, finance men and women: designer jackets, white shirts, ties, suits, Italian shoes. Now, with quick but uncertain movements they walked covered in a layer of gray dust. They were dirty and lost, as are the refugees who, when leaving, wear the best clothes on their travels, but then something happens where on TV we see bodies wrapped in thermal blankets. After all, we are all just naked lives.

The TVs gave other news. In addition to the two New York planes, a third crashed into the Pentagon and a fourth, where passengers rebelled against the hijackers, crashed. President Bush and all the institutional leadership of the States were moved “to safe places”, the country’s airspace was closed, Manhattan, cut off from the world, the bridges closed. Bush, at the time, was returning from a long vacation, during which he had his photograph taken chopping wood or walking through the woods or fishing in rivers. After the charismatic (albeit involved in the story of an illicit relationship with an intern) Bill Clinton, the new president seemed little interested in international politics, and even his long absence from the capital had a precise meaning: Washington with its corrupt politicians and sexual maniacs is useless, Americans are a people capable of self-governing with honor and virtue, without the oppressive state power.

On the evening of 11 September he was forced to quickly learn the notions of geography and geopolitics and promised revenge against Afghanistan, the country where the Taliban hosted Osama Bin Laden, the creator of the attack on America. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq would later be added to the list. in the meantime the Americans discovered the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia, and learned that the Saudi allies were not lovers of democracy or secularism and that indeed it is from that country that the creators of the attacks came. There was nothing else on TV, and everyone was surprised to find that the religious dimension was so important in international politics. We were entering a new world, but perhaps that universe had already manifested itself in 1979, when religion was the engine that led to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran (so thought the great reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski), or perhaps the turning point came with the war in Bosnia in the early nineties, where it was understood that the fall of the Berlin Wall was a harbinger of conflicts caused by identity obsession.

New York changed its face. In the wounded city, people helped each other. Blood was donated, money for the wounded and for the families of the victims, funds to equip the firefighters who had risen to the rank of the new heroes. In the subway, people looked each other in the eye, a gesture considered up until the day before, inconvenient and aggressive. New York made itself loved, aroused a feeling of tenderness, and whoever was there then has considered it their city ever since. We passersby smiled at each other, exchanged signs of encouragement on the street. Staying in Manhattan meant resisting. When the bridges reopened, I took the train to Princeton and do an interview. Passing by the crater of Ground Zero, where the twin towers were, there was silence in the wagon: those who looked at the rubble, those who kept their eyes down, many were crying. Leaving the island then gave an unpleasant feeling: of betrayal, of having abandoned a position to be guarded, even if for a few hours, like leaving a sick person hospitalized.


Thus the internal war on US intelligence favored 9/11

In the following days, small flags with stars and stripes appeared in all the windows, sometimes candles in memory of the 2,997 official victims of the attacks. Norman Rockwell’s poster was displayed in some shop windows in which the artist illustrated the “four freedoms” listed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941, as America set out to war to defeat Evil. Roosevelt said that every person should enjoy “Freedom of expression, Freedom of religion, Freedom from want and misery and Freedom from fear”.

Then, everything changed. The symbols of solidarity, of brotherhood changed their sign. There was no longer talk of victim America but of the States that should have brought democracy to the world, at the tip of the bayonets. Exactly twenty years since then, looking at Kabul in the hands of the Taliban and with Westerners on the run, it seems that history has made a 360-degree turn.

Source: L'Espresso – News, inchieste e approfondimenti Espresso by espresso.repubblica.it.

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