Thursday 14 November 2019

Ian O'Doherty: Join me as I raise a glass to the capital of the world

Well, where were you when the Towers fell? After all, this was the defining moment in all our lives and, like Kennedy's assassination a generation ago, it will remain indelibly seared into our brain.

I remember it like it was yesterday -- I was sitting at my desk (I worked for the Evening Herald at the time) filing a review of Salman Rushdie's latest piece of pretentious tripe when, on the television in the newsroom, we watched the world change forever.

You see, here's the thing -- New York is the greatest city on earth, with the best people on earth and to see it being ripped apart in such a gruesome fashion was like something from a Dante nightmare.

And by the time the second tower fell, in front of a coffin-silent newsroom, we all knew that a declaration of war had just been issued.

Fast forward to that November and I'm standing at the still smoking wreckage of Ground Zero.

Most of the New Yorkers I know are still openly traumatised, but bound together by a bond that anybody who wasn't in the city that day can never possibly hope to share.

In some, I see a tremendous, sulphuric anger and a deep, overwhelming desire for violent revenge.

Yet in others, in this fiercely Democratic city, there was a real fear that the hated George Bush would go and do something stupid. And we all know how that turned out.

On September 10, Osama bin Laden was just another name in the ether; another one of those interchangeable terrorists who popped up every now and then when he was cited as being behind some terrorist operation before withdrawing once more into obscurity as people moved on with their day.

By the time I got to New York, his name was on everyone's lips -- and even the most dedicated peacenik, of which there were many, admitted that they would happily kill the man with their own bare hands.

But behind even the angriest person I met, and God knows that was pretty much every single person, there was also a numbness -- the psychological trauma of what they had experienced, what they had lost and what they feared lay ahead of them had begun to seep in and if ever there was an entire city suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, this was the one.

Walking through Lower Manhattan, along streets like Fulton and Church, familiar to even those who have never been there thanks to their regular appearance on TV shows, was a surreal experience.

At that stage, the city was like a heavyweight boxer who had been knocked down -- but not knocked out.

The signs of a stubborn recovery were already there, but the closer you got to Ground Zero the more the horror began to sink in. And the stench.

Even then, there was still a stench in the air; and what was weird was that while it was the stench of death, it was the stench of deaths to come.

A good friend of mine was in the area the day of the attack and he, like many others, was genuinely worried that by breathing in the vaporised toxic soup after the Towers fell, he had given himself a death sentence.

Standing at the site, trying to stay as far away as possible from the grieving relatives who had gathered in the hope that the rescue teams might at least find some body part belonging to a loved one, was a scarifying experience.

I have no problem admitting that it was emotionally overwhelming and profoundly moving -- and this is coming from someone who had no connection to the Towers and, while I knew people who had lost people, I felt like some weird and presumptuous impostor; it was like going to a stranger's funeral and sitting in the same row as the grieving family.

And while there are times when you feel like you have to bear witness to an appalling crime, this was not my place.

I had brought a camera to take shots to accompany the piece I was planning to write but I couldn't bring myself to use it. It felt wrong; exploitative and ghoulish, almost as if I was invading the privacy of the people and, strangely, the collapsed buildings themselves, which had been an iconic New York character ever since they had been built.

But not everyone shared that feeling of intruding on something that was private and belonged to the locals -- as myself and my then girlfriend left the area in stunned silence, choking back tears while trying to imagine what the locals were feeling, a bunch of Japanese tourists gathered at the barrier behind us, taking pictures of each other in front of the remaining wreckage and using their camcorders to record it all for posterity.

It was a truly grotesque act of emotional and cultural insensitivity and how an angry New Yorker, not exactly a breed of people known for their reticence, hadn't yanked the cameras out of their hands and used it to beat the people responsible to death I will never know. Maybe they were still just too numb to notice. Or care.

I've been back to that site many times since, and it's great to see the progress, but it still galls me to see -- despite notices along the fence ringing the site asking you not to -- street hawkers selling photo albums of the planes crashing into the Towers, alongside the grieving relatives who have kept a 10-year vigil at the biggest mass grave in the Western World.

So, on Sunday, I'll raise a glass -- no, not to the people who died because that's not my place, but instead to the city itself, which for me, will always be the Capital of the World.

Irish Independent

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