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Visions of a Tragedy, 9/11

Manhattan 8:45 a.m.
By Carlos Vasquez

Have I not, because of what I have done or failed to do, contributed to an impoverishment of human reality? – Frantz Fanon

The day was clear and the air a bit warmer than usual. The sound of sirens, helicopters, and fighter jets all were new for us, or rather unusual. Confusion took over quickly and even though there were many signs that something was going to happen, no one believed it could happen to us, in our own country.

September 11, 1973, is forever imprinted in my mind as well as that of every Chilean citizen. That day we had woken up to witness the unthinkable: an act of barbaric proportion for Chilean history. It was a military coup designed to topple the first Marxist president ever elected by the will of the people in the history of the world. Backed and partially financed by the U.S. government, the longest constitutional and legislative government of Latin American was officially and brutally ending that very morning.

We have mourned the dead and the tortured for the last 28 years, trying to rebuild and to never forget the forces of fanaticism and irrational behavior. We remember so that such acts would never be repeated, and to maintain our respect for human life, regardless of geopolitical location or one’s racial origin.

28 years later I woke up on 9/11, also a Tuesday. I was in a different country, space, and time, surrounded by different people. The skies were clear and blue in Hoboken, the air a bit warmer than usual when I left my home on my way to work. I bought the newspaper to see if there were any news or notes about “el once” (the eleventh), as we refer to that day in Chile. I was a bit late so I decided to jump on a bus to get to the PATH train quicker and to avoid being late for work.

All my friends ask me why I was at the World Trade Center when the second plane hit, and I explain that this is where I make my connection to go to Brooklyn Heights, where I work. As soon as I arrived, the doors opened in the lower levels of the Twin Towers, and I smelled something funny. It was not the typical smell of fire. My eyes were itching before I arrived to the concourse level, where we saw some smoke for the first time.

People were still not fully aware, and became confused by the papers on the floor and shoes scattered around the newly polished granite floors. One of the restaurants had its fire alarms going off softly but clearly, as if in doubt or afraid to tell us what had just happened.

The first plane must have just hit the first tower when my train was pulling in the station.

By the time I decided to walk to the N train, some people were clearly in panic and afraid. At the platform it was confirmed by some technicians that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

As we try to come up with theories and possible scenarios, the N train pulls in. It was 8:50 a.m. I figured I would be at work by 9:15 at the latest. I was going to get my coffee and apple tart as I do every day at the Brooklyn Heights Deli and walk to work around the corner on Atlantic Avenue. The train slowly passed in front of us, and right at that moment, that very second when you can almost see the wheels coming to a full stop, it keeps going, leaving a group of us at the platform without knowing what to do next.

After a policeman told everyone to leave the station and walk out to the streets, the lady at the token booth struggled with a bag of subway passes. Some people would not move until they got their pass: “I’m not going anywhere until I get my $1.50,” said one guy among our confused group.

It was close to 9 a.m. when I found myself again at the concourse level trying to figure out which way to go. With the Disney clothing store to my right and Victoria’s Secret to my left, I walked straight to a store window where there was a TV showing the news.

What I saw I could not believe and what I felt from that moment on still resides on the surface of my skin. Dark smoke came out from a big crater on one of the four sides of one of the towers. At that moment I knew I had to leave the building quickly before it got worse. Standing on the sidewalk, as I looked up to the burning totem of the American economy, I became paralyzed as people began to jump out of the building from the top floors. Firemen and policemen rushed in to help with the evacuation of the people trapped inside.

Confused, paralyzed, and scared to the deepest part of my existence, standing next to crowds that seemed equally engulfed in these emotions, a familiar sound takes over the cries and screams of people. As we look up we see a second plane just above us coming straight to the second tower. By now all suspicions were put to rest. The towers were under attack by terrorist acts never witnessed before in our lifetime.

The familiar sound of plane engines became a horrific explosion, right above our heads. The immense ball of fire became smoke, and the smoke became a shower of airplane and building parts falling all around us.

We ran for refuge, trying to guide one another in a collective unspoken language in which survival was the central theme of the new conversation. We stood at the gates of an underground garage open to the skies. We kicked the gates to see if anyone would open them, but at the end the only protection we had was the 12” of the wall of the building above our heads. The debris kept falling as both towers burned and people kept taking their lives by jumping down.

Everything seemed surreal and difficult to digest.

On the phone I tried to tell my brother Claudio that I was okay, as he desperately told me that our family across the city is all well and safe. One of the towers began to collapse and he could see it from his office up on 27th Street. I could hear the noise of the building falling from my friends at the restaurant Delphi on Reade Street and West Broadway. After dropping the phone to the floor I ran outside only to see this gigantic cloud moving at an incredible speed. I headed north, and on the way I grabbed a baby from a carriage only to realize that the mother thought I was stealing the baby from her. The level of confusion and hysteria was uncontrollable and most of all understandable. I put the baby back and kept running.

Close to Moore Street we finally came to a stop, enabling us to breathe and look back at what we thought would never happen. One tower stood next to a vertical cloud of smoke, a ghost of its vanished twin. As people rested, discussion began to flourish and the word “Arab” seemed to be the easiest way to find an answer or a door to a passage that would lead us to understand what we were seeing and what we could not, in fact, understand. These reactions are clearly influenced by the information we are fed by the media in a constant manner, about the evils of the world. I tried to remind people that the last terrorist act was planned and executed by people born and raised in this country, and that one of the first acts of modern terrorism on American soil was actually committed by the new Chilean military junta installed with the help of Kissinger and the U.S. government. In 1973, a car bomb exploded in Washington, D.C., killing Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

The difficulty of digesting these events perhaps stems from the historical fact that after so many wars not one bullet had ever landed on the soil of this country. The fact is that terrorism is not new to the rest of the world, but it is so for the people of this nation. Aside from the images created by Hollywood, this brutal reality is in fact a fictional aspect of life here, an element of mass entertainment, and even when it is “real” it is far away from the two oceans that separate this country from reality—the reality of the majority of the world. At the same time it’s the political isolation that makes it difficult to accept that this could happen here. The notion that we are impermeable to the results of the actions we take towards other places and peoples, and to the planet itself, will be forever questioned. This horrific, inhumane, and barbaric action has made the U.S. truly a member of the global village, a village that is increasingly smaller and more intimate with the lives and realities of others around the planet.

Revolutions begin within us, and in the most personal and intimate manner. And this is how we can bring change to this world. Tomorrow let us say good morning to the token booth clerk, the sanitation worker, and teachers. Let us look at each other in the eyes and recognize our humanity and respect human life, every human life.

Welcome to the real world.


By Williams Cole

I made off-tasting coffee and turned on NY1. Then, in what seemed like a flash, I was on the roof and looking close into the distance, thinking about what would be left. I had come up to see the sky was clarity defined. Like looking into a large crystal blue screen. It was a day with brilliant sun with that slant of white that the early fall brings with it. But I was a picture of blue and black. I thought of the symbol that would be left behind: two charred towers reigning over New York City. What a symbol, the charred skeletons of Capital, of Western Trade towering as a reminder of something gone seriously awry. There were the twinkling orange fires, what looked like seagulls floating all around. Of course it was chaos. The columns of the Williamsburg Bridge almost matched the two towers from our perspective. But the towers burned.

Through some binoculars I thought I saw the backbone of the South Tower. It was burning bright, then it occurred to me: they could fall. The structures might fall. Could the structures fall? Can that happen? Because I don’t want to see that. It is too enormous. It is too much to view with the naked eye. So it went. Something fell, pieces fell, we screamed, it imploded, my stomach went ill, my muscles tensed, a rumble. Huge white dust clouds mixing with black and blue. I couldn’t breathe and we yelled more and we hugged more. It was too visual. The enormity of it, the sudden loss of life. The other went down and it looked like some kind of mushroom cloud for the 21st century. I thought of my father who passed away over a year ago. He loved this city, it was all he knew, and I was glad he was not here to try and understand this.

I was still looking at some huge crystal blue screen full of Hollywood special effects. I noticed pigeons circling on roofs nearby. Manhattan looked on fire. We went to TVs and the news flashed a lot. New video kept coming in. The plane approached almost like a phantom in some; the other looked as fast as a huge missile. There were wide-shots, close-ups of the towers going down. The plumes of thick gray and white smoke, people running from clouds of ash as if running from a volcano erupting. The walls and the girders imploding. Then the chatter came from the television, the platitudes about good and evil. The chatter goes on forever until we relive the shock after sleep. And then the chatter continues throughout reliving and understanding the enormity.

I feel we will be pulled apart, though first brought together. I know there will be protracted bombing and slaying. I want to contextualize it, say that there are historical reasons that a superpower is blind to. That much of the world has felt terror on their own land and they are now somberly nodding their heads. That there is some connection to the arrogance of our leaders. But it is right at the doorstep and the magnitude is too emotional, too real. The razor blue sky now looks pallid and ashen.

The Mourning Bell

By Alvaro Figueroa

(Brooklyn, NY, September 14, 2001)

Since 10 a.m., the bell from a nearby church has cried mournfully. Every 10 seconds, without stopping. It is 6 p.m. now, and from the windows in the apartment where I’m staying, I can see the dense columns of smoke moving southeast from the financial district in Manhattan. The twin towers composed a vista that I very much enjoyed from this modest apartment. Their slender architecture and simplicity of form has disappeared forever. NYC is completely paralyzed together, its inhabitants stuck in a state of shock. The survivors covered with dust and ashes walk in a solemn manner caused by their own state of shock. No one knows the number of the dead, but speculations are that it is in the thousands. My friend Diego, his neighbors, and I become instant witnesses to the intense fires of the towers after the unimaginable impact of the planes. After an hour-long silence, in an almost sinister coordination, the towers succumbed to the heat and impact, wrapped in a gigantic cloud of dust, debris and smoke, the South Tower first, and 28 minutes later the North Tower—each falling in a matter of seconds. The most horrifying aspect of this event was the fact that we knew that as each tower fell, it became a collective grave. Pure horror. Not too long after that we would hear the news about a third plane that had crashed into the Pentagon leaving behind yet another site of death and destruction.

The smoke keeps rising from the financial district. I sit by the window and I see how the sunset tries to cut through the smoke on this 11th of September (a day that for us Chileans marks the inauguration of a Chilean horror as well). Everyone glued to the TV. It’s warm inside and in a sort of ritual, we see the constant repetition of several views of the second plane hitting the south tower, as if we need to see it over and over again to be convinced that this is real. In one shot the plane seems to be a knife cutting butter on one side, becoming an enormous ball of fire on the other side. There is no one immediately responsible, only speculations and hypotheses from the American intelligence units that point towards the Taliban, Palestinians, and more specifically towards the Saudi, Osama bin Laden. The TV shows Palestinian children and adults offering candies as a sign of camaraderie to pedestrians, but the images are only a few. Even though media perpetuates the same images, it seems that they are looking to increase the amount of people who appear to be celebrating “these” devastating moments for the passengers of the plane, the WTC office workers, and Pentagon employees, and in this way find an instantaneous culprit.

In a game of images, we see President Bush—who seems small for the role—declaring that these acts of terrorism are acts of war. This technicality removes the responsibility of the insurance companies to pay to the victims and puts the responsibility on the taxpayers. But, who is the U.S. fighting? The enemy is extremely smart to strategically conceal its purpose and origin, but yet the final results reveal a modus operandi closely connected with a political goal. For the perpetrators, the objective was to get to the heart of the economic, military, and urban centers, and show that the Superpower is as vulnerable as any other country in the world.

Without knowing the enemy you cannot fight the war. Nor can we say with certainty that “the best country in the world” (according to the government propaganda) will come out of this new challenge stronger and victorious. This is an attack at the very base of American entertainment culture: Catastrophes, violence, and weapons, psychopaths and cowboys, lonely heroes that will defeat the enemy in the most entertaining Holly scene. The difference is that now Hollywood has become real. Its suicidal enemies have discovered how to turn harmless airplanes into flying bombs with the same power of von Braum’s V2 bombs, dropped by German forces over London. It’s very difficult to find and fight an enemy that is not obvious at all, armed with a knife, willing to end his own life and the lives of thousands.

September 11, 2001 marks the beginning of a new kind of terrorism. More psychotic than its predecessor—the power of big government and its own psychotic institution, the military. A military that serves as an instrument to maintain politics “by other means.” The enemy has an unfocused Muslim face that is willing to die to show its present political and social conditions. And this new violence has many people, especially in New York, thinking about the form of support to Israel and the “peace process” in Palestine, if it is at all well-managed. The endless violence of the streets of Palestine and Israel has come to the streets of Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and no one knows when and where it will end. Given the American foreign policies and the interests it defends, the major preoccupation now is to conclude who will pay for the acts committed, and to settle once and for all who is the almighty. And this is the root of the national sense of international superiority, “the big guy hit the little one.” Violence begets violence, and the drums of war get louder and unstoppable. Bush’s government has already called for an international crusade against terrorists and those who protect them. This act seems also terroristic in its nature, allowing only the possibility of a long and prolonged war in the shadows, where the enemy has already shown a high level of efficiency. And when it is not clear whether the end of bin Laden or even Afghanistan will mean the end of terrorism, isn’t it time to wonder whether there aren’t other ways to do politics?

One day after the attacks, September 12, the open space of Union Square has become a sort of public space for debate in the strongest sense of the Greek public forum. The audience argues strongly about the events. Some of them read the long pieces written the night before. In a kind of ceremony, anonymous mourners left flowers, pictures, and candles. Some dare to kneel and write their own thoughts. Most of the pleas on the papers are about peace and tolerance, but there are also aggressive and nationalistic comments—a condensation of sadness, compassion, horror, anger, and thirst for revenge. In a moment of heated discussion someone gets punched by one of the participants. The new victim runs away with a bloody face. There are video cameras and photo cameras all around. Many people attempt to record the moment. At sunset in Washington Square Park, I find myself in a spontaneous vigil to pay respect to the victims, full of people, candles, and ’60s music. People in many places want to join together in this manner that hearkens back to the basic meaning of the word religion. Two days later, Friday the 14th, Union Square has become an urban sanctuary full of thousands of pictures and flowers for the missing people of the WTC. For me, this was a reminder of the constant struggle to remember the disappeared from the dictatorships of Latin America from the ’70s and ’80s. The crowds grow larger and so does the sense of duelo accompanied by a patriotism that borders on chauvinism. The flags all over the city, on buildings, cars, and bandanas, speak to that.

The bell in Brooklyn stopped tolling, but I can still see the smoke rising from the hole left by the skyscrapers, but this time moving north. The fires keep burning and more buildings threaten to collapse around the fallen towers. To make matters worse, we see the face of another enemy: xenophobia. Threats against families, businesses, and institutions that are (or just appear to be) Muslim are becoming more and more common. Physically violent acts are disseminating through the United States. The calls to tolerance and respect from the mayor—famous for zero tolerance—seem not to work. The bells of Brooklyn no longer make their sound, but as with many of us, I can still feel their resonance in the deepest part of my heart.

The View from Midtown

By Emily DeVoti

Office buildings are quiet, removed, the environment is uniform—subtle shades of taupe and gray, cream and fawn, molded plastic, and matted metals. The air is clean and cool, steady despite the change in seasons or slant of sun. The city spreads out, glareless at all hours, an image dislocated from sound. Look out into the flat distance, and all you hear is the steady hiss of the ventilation system whispering through the vents. Everything is created to keep the environment out, and the mind focused in.

When the airplanes ripped through the walls of the Twin Towers, this shield was permeated and revealed for what it is and has always been: an illusion. An illusion of safety, an illusion of power, an illusion that insular thinking, that American thinking, that office building thinking, is okay.

I was working in a tall skyscraper in midtown. There was no shift in air pressure when the towers fell, and we watched the event on television, mediated for us just as it was for the rest of America, even though we couldn’t have been much more than a mile away.

Most of what I heard that day—and it was all, every conversation of thousands, about the event—was filtered through the “I”; “If I was five minutes later…” “See, I was running slow this morning…,” people trying to make sense of what the event meant to their own individual lives before news of lost loved ones and friends of friends began to trickle in. Since that day, the American mind has begun to open up, in concentric circles, from oneself, to the victims, to the economy, and finally to the international situation. Muslim names are forming on many American lips for the first time. And many Americas are finally seeing the sticky web of U.S. imperialism, with its economic sanctions and arms favoritism, with its not-so-indirect ties to corporate America, and yes, even to our individual, innocent selves.

Our American lives have become so individualized, our jobs so specialized, that somehow we have grown to believe that thinking about politics (outside of how they influence our take-home pay) is something that we don’t have time for, that other people must be paid to think about for us. The events of the 11th have showed us that someone is not doing their job. And maybe that someone is not some distant specialist at all.

Now we are being prompted to a return to normalcy. But what is this normalcy? People herd back to their glass towers around the city, they return their phone calls and e-mails, they sit on the steps of Mies-inspired office plazas every day at lunchtime and soak in a little bit of daylight before sinking back into their fluorescent lives. Normalcy. People grieve their loved ones. Normalcy. People grieve their loved ones. Normalcy. They watch the footage of the explosions over and over again. Normalcy. People are too caught up in local grief to glimpse the consequences of myopic revenge setting off World War Three in the age of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Normalcy. What does this mean?

Unholy Wars

By Michael Bubb

I am so afraid right now. I watched the towers crumble outside my window. My apartment is on the Hudson River facing the WTC at a distance of less than a mile. KyoungSu had not gone to work yet; I had an appointment at 10:30 on Exchange Place, a few blocks from the WTC. We spent the first few hours going between the balcony and CNN.

Of course I’m afraid of terrorism and such horrible acts. But I’m more afraid of something else. I can’t really articulate it, but it is internal. I am already afraid to say what I think and feel. I really don’t want my country to bomb civilians and wage a war. I want my country to live up to its basic promise—but I wake out of the daydream and realize I’m talking about Ginsberg’s “America,” not Bush’s.

What are we to do? How are we to think about this? How do we act?

An icon on my desk, a gift from Spain. A Moorish Christ. Dark, sorrowful, severe face—yet also quite inviting. And the face, I realize after watching hour upon hour of CNN, of Osama bin Laden.

With this association came back the half-remembered passages from Catholic school:

-Every human is made in the image and likeness of God.
-Whatsoever you do to the least among you, you do to Me.

-Love your enemies, do good to them without expecting anything back.

-Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.

-Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

It is quite clear what we are called upon to do here. But how? What does it mean to love this enemy? Does the U.S. have the ability to turn the other cheek—not in weakness—but in the greater strength of love? How is bin Laden the image and likeness of God? And does he really have a splinter in his eye while I have a plank?


Emily DeVoti

Carlos Vásquez

Vásquez is founder and director of La Salsa de Hoy Dance Studio in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Álvaro Figueroa

Michael Bubb


The Brooklyn Rail


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