Among the Ashes
I lived through 9/11 and its aftermath in law enforcement, as New Jersey’s Attorney General, and have spent much of the past decade— first with the 9/11 Commission, and then as a private attorney—trying to piece together what happened so that such an attack never happens again. As I reflect on that day and its aftermath, however, I am struck not by facts or arguments but by images.
What was—what is—9/11 to me?
It was lifting off in the National Guard helicopter that night, flattening the grass in Liberty State Park where hundreds of ambulances waited with their lights flashing, it was lifting and flying over the glowing Hudson and banking high over the storeys-high pile of twisted steel and fire and acrid smoke, above the helpless arcs of water from the FDNY trucks, above the silhouettes of desperate men spotlit to look gigantic in the hum of generators as they searched the debris.
It was that night of a thousand unanswered questions. How many were dead? 10,000? 20,000? The makeshift trauma center at Liberty State Park was filled with wounded men and women transported in State Police boats across the Hudson, but there were reports from the State Police of commuter rail parking lots from Princeton to Westfield to Rumson jammed with thousands of unclaimed cars.
It was public order dissolving all around amid mistaken reports of dancing on the rooftops of mosques, vigilantes roaming the streets, Israeli commandos, terrorists with exploding backpacks.
Then came days of perfect planeless skies at the site and the heat and the smell confected of concrete dust and melted steel and glass and paper and wood and flesh, the sunlight glinting from a billion shards of glass, rescue dogs panting in the shadows, a woman’s severed foot in a high heel, the searching and the solemn celebrations of the first responder dead being carried like Jesus through the smoke.
Then weeks later it was a chapel, improvised in a waiting room of the old train station in Liberty State Park, the waiting benches for passengers become pews, long white candles shining on the dark wood, temporary booths hung with white sheets, the Salvation Army there in force to distribute urns of Trade Center earth. I was there representing law enforcement to present the folded American flags. The line of families stretched as far as I could see, at least a few thousand souls, shuffling into the station chapel, crying, silent, looking up and down and into nothing.
It was the elderly woman who approaching alone, graying black hair pulled back above her black dress, tied with a black ribbon, and it was her voice, not loud but searing, her eyes searching without seeing, “Where is my son? Where is my son?”
It was Fresh Kills landfill, close to Christmas, the site fogged in, a white mist falling, gray white seagulls circling as if formed from clouds, the smoke from Ground Zero faint in the air. It was conveyor belts of debris vibrating past the police and federal agents in hazmat suits who scoured for evidence or remains, their faces puffy and sleep-deprived, passing around a burned badge of a Port Authority police officer, recovering a nearly intact bronze of a human torso, a piece of landing gear from the planes, treating every finger or toe or rib or jawbone as a sacred relic, carrying them off to a Quonset hut for preservation as if entering a cathedral.
I can’t but wonder whether I remember these things now the way that I do because the memories come refracted through later events because we killed Bin Laden the way that we did; his death imparts an order to the chaos of those days. The images rest more easily with me because the horror they project feels in some way lessened by his death. Any other outcome would have left those images unanswered in their horror. Any other outcome would have denied the change that 9/11 effected.
For we are different now. There is vengeance in our hearts, and vengeance is the justice that comes before law, the unsustainable justice that law cannot reach and must eventually replace.
Someday it will, when the images rest more quietly within our souls. Someday peace will bring a new, a better, form of justice.
For now, the flaming ruins, the quiet moaning of the families with their urns and their flags, the white dust rising into the mist beneath the seagulls’ cry at Freshkills, find an answer in a shot to the head and a shrouded body scattered to the wide sea. It is justice of a type, a justice sustainable not by law, but by power. But this is our age, an age in which we wake every day knowing that someone means to kill us, in which, as Rimbaud put it, “We know how to give our whole lives every day. Behold the time of the Assassins.”
Like Job’s wife in Archibald Macleish’s J.B, we have lived