A decade after the 9/11 attacks, the dust from that horrible day has mostly settled, literally if not quite figuratively. Builders are rushing madly to complete construction of the 1,776-foot-tall One World Trade Center, a giant middle finger flipped in the face of Al Qaeda and other wannabe slayers of modernity. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama signed the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, which is designed to provide medical and mental-health treatments to first responders and survivors of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Osama bin Laden, the moneybags and mastermind behind it all, is dead, shot to death in what must be the grimmest-looking million-dollar compound in all of Pakistan. He is now resting comfortably on the floor of the Indian Ocean, the senselessness of his grand scheme plainly evident. How the 9/11 attacks might have led to a minimizing of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world or helped to reestablish a jihadist Caliphate is beyond comprehending. As the anti-authoritarian character of the Arab Spring suggests, Al Qaeda and its brand of Islamism was the weak horse all along; the group’s most successful act of violence merely delayed its trip to the glue factory of history.
In New York the subway again rumbles under the scene of carnage, and up on the street traffic bustles all around the Ground Zero site as if it’s just another construction zone. In the rest of the United States, the warm feelings for the Big Apple long ago cooled back to their chilly pre-9/11 temperature. In Europe and elsewhere around the globe, the memorable phrase of empathy used by the French paper Le Monde—“Nous sommes tous Américains”—is on nobody’s lips after a decade of elective war and equally elective financial crisis, much of it instigated and underwritten by the U.S. government. The “new normal,” a phrase invoked constantly after the attacks to signify a world forever at threat-level orange, is looking more and more like the old normal. The Department of Homeland Security’s Life Savers–inspired risk rainbow has been replaced by a two-flavor advisory system (“elevated” and “imminent”) that commands even less respect and deference than the Department of Agriculture’s recently decommissioned food pyramid.
If we are getting over 9/11 in ways big and small, it’s not because we have worked through the pain and the terror and the anger but simply because we are forgetting it ever happened in the first place. Within another decade at most, we will walk by 9/11 memorials the same way we stroll by the World War I cenotaphs installed in town squares across the country. Catharsis be damned; this is probably the way we always get over trauma. Repression and historical amnesia are among the most powerful tools God or evolution has handed us. “Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,/Shovel them under and let me work—/I am the grass; I cover all,” goes Carl Sandburg’s haunting poem about our inability, our unwillingness to remember. “Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:/What place is this?/Where are we now?”
Yet something still catches in our collective throat like the cloud of concrete ash and human soot that scarred the lungs of policemen and firefighters and school kids and office workers and restaurant help that day in lower Manhattan. There is still a need for memorializing, for processing an event into the familiar, contained, and ultimately comforting forms of art—poetry, music, novels, video, and other media of creative expression—to help us deal with an irrational, cruel world. If we can make art, however dark and sad, from the worst that befalls us, we can withstand anything. This is one of art’s great promises.
But art generated in response to 9/11 has been almost completely unsatisfying so far, despite game efforts by such creative geniuses as Bruce Springsteen and Don DeLillo. Too much of it has sought to replace the scene of violence and loss with superficial if heartfelt emotionalism or the pre-existing obsessions of the artist, a psychic flight to more manageable terrain. The senselessness of this heinous act has exceeded our ability to tame it into shape.
Among the first pieces of 9/11 art were two would-be rock anthems, Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” and Paul McCartney’s “Freedom,” both of which failed to elicit much response from the still-in-shock audiences most likely to be receptive. (Despite being featured during the October 2001 “Concert for New York” and the 2002 Super Bowl halftime show, “Freedom” suffered the dual indignities of failing to chart at all in the U.K. and reaching no higher than No. 61 in Romania.) Like most headline-driven compositions, the songs suffer from a feeling of haste and a lack of reflection. Macca’s “Freedom” is fully representative of the tuneless balladeering he has regrettably perfected during the last 25 or 30 years, and the banal lyrics don’t help the song go down any easier: “You talkin’ about Freedom/We’re talkin’ about Freedom/I will fight, for the right/To live in Freedom.”
“Let’s Roll” was immediately (and unfavorably) compared to Young’s 1970 protest song “Ohio,” written after the shooting of students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard. The earlier song captured the anger and commitment to change not simply of the younger generation but of everyone tired of street violence perpetrated by protesters and police alike: “What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground/How can you run when you know?” “Let’s Roll,” which took its inspiration from the rallying cry of one of the passengers who wrestled with hijackers on United Flight 93, trades in moral absolutes over a slow, grinding guitar that never really finds its groove musically. “No time for indecision/We’ve got to make a move,” declares the song’s protagonist. “You’ve got to turn on evil,/When it’s coming after you,/You’ve gotta face it down,/And when it tries to hide,/You’ve gotta go in after it.” As the song was being released, Young voiced his enthusiasm for a total war against Islam and for the PATRIOT Act, telling the audience at a liberal People for the American Way banquet honoring him with a “Spirit of Liberty” award that “to protect our freedoms it seems we’re going to have to relinquish some of our freedoms for a short period of time.”
However heartfelt those sentiments, within a few years Young had reversed course and become an outspoken if clichéd critic of the new security state, even calling for the removal of President George W. Bush. His 2006 album Living With War features tracks with titles such as “Let’s Impeach the President” and obligatory anti-capitalist tunes such as “The Restless Consumer.” There is no reason to doubt Young’s conviction in either his pro–PATRIOT Act or anti-Bush phases, but his facility in jumping from one position to the other underscores the shallowness of the emotionalism expressed in “Let’s Roll.” (Young’s truly memorable performance after 9/11 was of John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the September 21, 2001, “Tribute to Heroes” benefit concert, where his nasal, cracking, almost child-like falsetto paired movingly with that song’s lyrics about a world beyond politics.)
Other 9/11 pieces suffered from a lack of emotional, analytical, or artistic distinction, but few managed the feat as thoroughly as Amiri Baraka’s 2002 poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” most remembered for its anti-Israel truther lines: “Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion. And cracking they sides at the notion/…Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”
Baraka, a self-described “poet warrior,” was named poet laureate of New Jersey around the time that he debuted what he called his “provocatively poetic inquiry (in a few lines of the poem) about who knew beforehand about the New York City World Trade Center bombings in 2001.” (Then-Gov. Jim McGreevy, not otherwise known for good judgment, eliminated the laureate position altogether in 2003.) But the rest of the poem by Baraka, once fêted by critics at The Village Voice, The New York Times, and elsewhere for Obie-winning protest plays such as Dutchman (1964), is beyond awful. “Who do Tom Ass Clarence Work for,” runs one stanza. “Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth/Who know what kind of Skeeza is a Condoleeza.” In a manner reminiscent of Ward Churchill’s notorious reference to the people slain in the towers as “Little Eichmanns,” Baraka wrote, “Who live on Wall Street/The first plantation”? Like all truthers, Baraka is just asking questions—questions that have one set of answers from those tethered to reality and a very different set from those living in a fantasyland of conspiracist fear mongering.
At least two major artists took their best swings at 9/11-themed works. In the summer of 2002, Bruce Springsteen released The Rising, a concept album that garnered critical praise and fast early sales, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album’s tracks, some of which were written before 9/11, stand in sharp contrast to Springsteen’s legendary, indelible work in the 1970s and ’80s. While his reputation-making songs were filled with memorable characters out of a rock ’n’ roll version of Damon Runyon—Crazy Janey, Jimmy the Saint, Rosalita, Mary Queen of Arkansas—The Rising is filled with abstract songs about generic loss.
Springsteen made his bones in Asbury Park, a New Jersey beach town only about 60 miles down the waterline from lower Manhattan, and his main residence remains in nearby Rumson, New Jersey, an upscale enclave whose wealth is intimately tied to the business that used to be conducted in the World Trade Center. But his 9/11 effort might as well have been scripted a million miles away. While promoting the record, Springsteen made much of the fact that he had done “reporting” for it, that he had spoken on the phone with the spouses of some of the 9/11 dead. As reason’s Brian Doherty observed in 2002, “That was a sweet and touching gesture. But as ‘reporting’ it didn’t add much to the new album, unless [Springsteen] required corroboration to know that normal people’s homes have coffee cups on the counter, shirts in the closet, and pictures on the nightstand. That’s the closest this record gets to specific details.”