The sky was a striking blue. The air was hot, but not unusual for late August in Lower Manhattan. I rode into the city via train on a bit of a whim, finally paying a long-ago self-sworn trip of reverence to the sixteen-acre site that was the resting place of my uncle Stephen. Not wanting to bear the somewhat uncomfortable air of making the trip alone, I texted a few friends. All responded that they were busy with this or that. One of my closer friends was already at her boyfriend’s apartment in Midtown — of course she’d join me, she wrote.
I’ve been to Ground Zero before. In late November of 2001 I’d gazed at (but utterly failed to take in) the twisted, smoking horror of what was then somewhat cynically dubbed “the pile.” In September of 2002, I stood in the gaping square crater while President Bush awkwardly attempted his best consolation at the first anniversary of the exceptional war crime. I’ve walked past it a dozen times since then, poking my head around the tangle of chain-link fences for a good angle to see just how the local bureaucrats were slowly rearranging the site from an open downtown laceration into a tender scar.
Spending most months of the year in Michigan, and some in Europe, left little time for home and family, a sacrifice I unthinkingly dove into three years ago in pursuit of a top-notch education. I’d been occasionally checking the construction progress of One World Trade Center from afar via the Internet, and on the day the welding of an I-beam transformed it into the tallest building in New York, I tweeted a tidbit with a trace of hometown nostalgia and contentment.
Seeing it in real life, however, delivered a sensation poles apart. Though it was incomplete, it hit me as too clean. The tower’s surface was an eerily flawless mirror; its stature dwarfed my senses. It seemed out of reach. Beautiful, though, I told myself as my friend and I cruised past the gaggling hordes of overweight tourists (family members and friends of victims had a separate, expedited entrance process. It was something I felt I didn’t deserve, but was nonetheless thankful for).
We passed through security and entered a pristine park. Young trees rose from fresh-looking woodchip mulch. Perfectly folded and organized pamphlets in probably a dozen languages offered a guided tour of the memorial, the essence of which was experienced in two cavernous square fountains in the footprints of the former towers. Dark and sparkling, these massive holes in the ground were each outlined by a counter-like bronze ledge bearing the names of the 2,977 victims plus the six from the 1993 bombing.
But the somewhat off-putting sterility was not complete — I noticed the dark enamel had been slightly rubbed away in the south-west corner of the south fountain. It looked almost trashy in comparison with the fresh-from-the-package feel of the other surroundings. Why there, and nowhere else? I glanced over my shoulder at the pattern of entering tourists and understood. This area of the memorial was closest to the entrance. It was the most convenient spot for heavy-legged sightseers.
This corner was flooded with kids, teens and baby-boomers of every American stripe. A handful of visitors nonchalantly sat on the bronze ledge, planting their asses on the textual remnants of the deceased. Bored moms and dads with receding hairlines snapped photos of grinning kids pointing to the gleaming tower. A Hispanic-looking young woman dipped her hands in the fountain’s water and splashed it across her forearms, nasally complaining of the heat. Powder blue signs reminded visitors that throwing trash in the fountains was prohibited.
I approached Steve’s name with the help of the brochure, but — “Excuse me” was all I said, and quite politely. The girl straightened up and removed her repose from my uncle’s name. She was probably only 12 or 13, but her abashed look suggested she understood the coarseness of her leisure. I couldn’t be mad at her; she had been a baby when the attacks occurred. It was the behavior of the adults that nauseated me.
I consoled my disenchantment by telling myself that they were mostly from out-of-state or abroad. At the risk of sounding conceited, I admit having thought that New Yorkers would’ve been more reverent. I’ve noticed over the years that the further one travels from the epicenters of 9/11, less of the population holds that inner solemnity for the event. A friend here at the University once admitted the attacks never really touched her emotionally. Several Germans I’ve met proudly boast America indirectly brought the attacks on itself. A 2011 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that in Egypt, 75 percent of Muslims do not believe Arabs were responsible for 9/11. 92 percent of Afghan men polled in 2010 have never heard of 9/11.
That widespread detachment doesn’t bother me much. There are still quite a few of us who will indisputably “never forget.” But for the rest, I think fleetingly, maybe the city should have left the site just a crudely gutted hole in the ground.
Jared Szuba is an LSA senior.