In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, politicians and pundits alike have fixed on two contradictory messages: That the United States will never again be the same and that we must all get back to our normal lives immediately. To be diverted from our daily routines for more than the briefest moment, goes this line of thinking, is to let the terrorists win.
The exhortation to return to business as usual is, in many ways, a grim and uncomfortable response, almost uncaring and unreflective--the equivalent of the boss asking you to come into the office the day of a family member's funeral. It is also a quintessentially American one, rooted in a pragmatic tradition that steadfastly focuses on the future rather than the past.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher, wrote in a phrase that is regularly used to indict the infamously poor grasp of history most Americans hold (a recent survey of high school students found that 25 percent couldn't name the sides in the Civil War). Yet our national experiment, at least in its higher aspirations, is precisely an attempt to slip the bonds of history--of blood lines, of class, of national origin--and to reinvent oneself on new terms.
Arguably, no American city embodies that impulse more than New York. From its conception, New York has been the preeminent destination for migrants, both foreign and domestic, to remake themselves and enlarge their possibilities. Though a colonial city, New York has, through what one historian has called a nonstop cycle of "creative destruction"--of razing and rebuilding--effaced virtually all traces of its early origins; Manhattan in particular virtually recreates itself every half-century or less. The vitality and centrality of New York over the course of American history--especially compared to one-time rivals such as Philadelphia and Boston--is testament to the city's willingness to make history rather than become its conserver.
It is no accident that the World Trade Center, an oversized symbol of relentless capitalist innovation, tumult, and reinvention, was sited there--or that virtually no New Yorker could tell you what the complex, only three decades old, replaced. The center's buildings, populated by as many as 50,000 workers and 80,000 tourists daily, was a city within a city, the symbolic heart of a town synonymous with personal and economic ambition. "The World Trade Center should...become a living representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his belief in the cooperation of men, and through this cooperation his ability to find greatness," wrote Minoru Yamasaki, the Seattle-born architect who designed the center and himself moved to New York during the Great Depression, seeking better fortunes.
With the destruction of the World Trade Center and much of its surroundings in lower Manhattan, there are serious questions about what to do next, with some suggesting that a memorial park be built on the site of the single greatest act of terror and destruction in U.S. history. Such thoughts are eminently understandable and certainly it will be a long time before the physical debris is removed, much less the psychic scars healed.
But it would be a far greater tribute to the American character and to those who died on September 11 to rebuild on the site of the World Trade Center not a replica of what was, but a newer, larger, forward-looking complex--one that would hallow that bloody ground by providing the next generation with even greater possibilities for the future.