Monday, September 12, 2011

World Trade Center photojournalism essay

9/11: how the twin towers were built

I was going to skip writing anything about the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The attacks that day had a tremendous negative impact on my life, despite being an ocean away at the time. In many ways, the fallout from that Tuesday is still too raw, even after a decade.

Then I came across a beautifully put together BBC photo essay on the construction of the original World Trade Center towers and their Post-9/11 replacements. Examining how things are made, or their history, sometimes serves as a restrained emotional point of entry into difficult topics. It's an approach that encourages a philosophical view towards the implications of events, rather than a recall of immediate emotions and first impressions.

Emotions and reactions are of course messy things, and often hard to capture in words.

Because of my circumstances on that tragic day in September, I don't really have a definitive moment in which I learned of the towers' destruction. Instead there were a series of clues that something had gone disastrously wrong.

My then girl friend and I had spent the day at the modern art museum Louisiana, roughly an hour north of Copenhagen in Denmark. I had left the military thirteen months earlier, after three fantastic years spent living in Germany and short stint in the Balkans. At the time I was looking forward to spending much of the rest of my life in Sweden with someone I loved.

Sadly, it wasn't to be after that day.

The awareness that something had happened first set in while walking across downtown Copenhagen in late afternoon, on our way back to Malmö, Sweden. The day was beautiful, and earlier we had taken advantage of the sunshine to lie outdoors on the grass at the museum and enjoy the view of the shimmering blue Öresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden. I can't recall the content of the conversation we had on the lawn, but I most certainly remember the tone: We were both young and very much in love and happy to be drawing near the full summer of adulthood in our late twenties.

As we walked across bustling downtown Copenhagen, bubbles of English floated up on the surface of the sea of nasal twangs and partially swallowed vowels that is spoken Danish. The most common phrase, complete with distinctive, flat American r's was "World Trade Center."

At first I thought it was one of those pattern recognition things. A friend mentions the word blue, and after that you notice blue things for the rest of the day as your brain hons in on them amid the chaos of your surroundings. Then two American teenagers walked past in the opposite directions, one of them saying "well if you build something like that, then it's only a matter of time until someone hits it." The words were delivered with all the certitude available at that stage in life, when we believe ourselves to be experts on all things.

My first thought was that something like the 1993 February truck bombing had taken place, which had damaged one of the towers' parking structures and killed a handful of people. Just over a month earlier, while on my way to Sweden, I had sat in a Lufthansa jetliner on the tarmac at Newark, looked at the twin towers across the Hudson River, and felt grateful that neither structure had toppled six years before.

It wasn't until we arrived back in Sweden from Denmark that I had my first hint of just how bad things were on the far side of the Atlantic. In place of the normal handful of customs officers for the entire train station there were six or seven lined up outside our train, watching all of us who disembarked with fear on their faces.

On a city bus, my girlfriend listened to the news on the radio and explained that it sounded like something major had happened in New York. We arrived back at our tiny 1930s brick flat in one of the city's predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, and the first image on our gigantic 1970s television was that of the first tower's collapse.

My initial thought was the horrified realization that someone might be nuked in retaliation for this. At the height of the workday those towers held around 50,000 souls.

Fortunately the attacks had taken place before most of the workers had arrived, and even ravaged by fire, the wounded skyscrapers stood long enough for everyone to evacuate the levels below the impact sites. Whatever their aesthetic shortcomings, the twin towers were marvels of engineering, and worth every penny of their construction costs. If the death toll had been in the tens of thousands--comparable to an attack with a weapon of mass destruction--the long-term consequences could have been far worse for everyone involved. Perhaps one of the most important act of leadership during those days afterward was Mayor Giuliani's refusal to speculate about the final casualty count.

For about two weeks after September 11th there was a great deal of sympathy in Sweden. Many friends and even acquaintances reached out. It felt good to know that in the face of inhuman evil that decent people would seek to make a very human connection. Then, after two weeks it was like someone flipped a switch and plunged us all into darkness.

When going out with friends, I started to hear them describe in frighteningly gleeful tones how many Afghan civilians had been reported killed by American bombs. This rendered the United States every bit as criminal as the Taliban or al-Qaeda in their eyes. The bombings, according to my hosts, were driving the Afghans closer to Bin Laden, and anyways the US was only there to drill for oil or to build that still famously absent pipeline across Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean.

It was a quick descent into what I normally describe to friends in the States as the acid bath of petty hatred, an environment which characterized much of the next three years I spent in Sweden. It took me almost a year to realize what I had stumbled into. Below the the innocent and friendly surface of 1990s Europe lurked a cultural reservoir of Vietnam-era memes. A perspective that many Western Europeans born after World War II use to define the US as the opposite of their own societies in all things.

Needless to say, it was not a healthy environment for young love.

Ten years on now, and it feels like a lot of history has flowed by under the bridge that is life. One of the wars that came about in 9/11's aftermath is quickly winding down, the other looks like to do so as well, though if it's for good or for ill it's far too early to say. Personally, I have deep worries about leaving Afghanistan during this stage of the conflict.

Here at home, the prospects for the immediate future look bleak given the damage done to our economy and the number of unwise structural changes that we made to it over the past twelve years. Still, it does feel like the chapter of life most directly influenced by the events of September 11th is drawing to a close, as other historic forces take center stage. We are no longer dealing with the event that ended the Post-Cold War period, but rather cascading secondary effects that have taken on lives of their own. And there is the continuation of other forces, like the emergence of China as a global power.

Part of what gives me this sense of closing up one stage and even a feeling of hope for the next are the photos of the new World Trade Center buildings going up in New York. They look gorgeous, the business plan behind them seems practical, and the memorial for the fallen is the kind of tranquil public space for remembrance that memorials should be.

All of this, this design that integrates so many elements, came out of a process that was divisive and contentious.

While the past decade split the country and produced divisions on a scale we haven't seen since the late 1800s, there is still hope that we may be able to similarly salvage some good from it. I've spent much of the past past few weeks working on a project about the American Declaration of Independence for a client. It's involved a lot of reading about Continental Congress where that Declaration was written, as well as the constitutional convention that followed over a decade later. Both provoked fierce arguments and left wounded feelings at the time, but both undertakings also produced documents that despite their flaws have provided us with a wealth of good over a span measured in centuries.

So here's hoping the new towers are similarly successful, and that in the coming decade we can reclaim unity from division and reinvention from destruction.


Mike said...

Well Done!

Alex Black said...

Glad you liked it.