Remembering 9/11: The Eternal Fallout Shelter, How Art Failed Us, & The Day Everything Continued to Change


Throughout this week, we've been posting old and new Reason material related to the 9/11 attacks. This is the final entry in the series.

To see previous entries, go here.

Reason's August-September 2011 issue featured a number of stories related to 9/11, includiing Greg Beato's history of a relic of Cold War anxieties that still inform how we think about things: the bomb shelter.

Armageddon still threatens to drift in on any breeze. The Soviet Union is gone, but in its place we've got leaky reactors, kooky dictators, Islamic dead-enders, shaky tectonic plates, solar tsunamis, the shrinking thermosphere, pole shifts, and whatever's causing thousands of dead birds to drop from the skies en masse. Is it any surprise that new home sales hit record lows in February? Who wants to lock himself into a 30-year mortgage when the Mayan apocalypse is just around the corner?

While traditional real estate sales are slumping, end times mean boom times for other sectors of the market. In March, CNNMoney.com reported that "U.S. companies selling doomsday bunkers are seeing sales skyrocket anywhere from 20 percent to 1,000 percent." In 2011 home sweet home is a $100,000 turnkey fiberglass pod for eight from Radius Engineering. Or a $25,000 co-ownership share in the Vivos Group's four-level, 137,000-square-foot communal luxury bunker outside Omaha, which boasts, amongst other amenities, a fully stocked wine cellar, an urgent care hospital, a hair salon, pet kennels, and the ability to withstand a 50-megaton nuclear blast within 10 miles….

Things aren't quite as apocalyptic as the early 1960s, when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R-N.Y.) seriously tried to mandate a fallout shelter for every existing structure in the Empire State, but governmentally decreed disasters are on the rise since 9/11, writes Beato:

From 1953 through 1970, for example, the government declared an average of only 15.5 official "federal disasters" per year, and spent comparatively little cleaning up after Mother Nature's excesses. From 2001 through the first half of 2011, it declared an average of 55 federal disasters per year.

No wonder we feel so twitchy all the time. Read the whole article.

In "Why Art Failed Us After 9/11," I argued that much of the expression in the wake of the horrific attacks at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on United Flight 93 either "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." Between works such as Neil Young's would-be anthem "Let's Roll" and Don DeLillo's novel Falling Man, "the senselessness of this heinous act…exceeded our ability to tame it into shape."

Which isn't to say powerful acts of commemoration haven't been created. The documentary Man on Wire, I write, speaks to the trauma of 9/11 by retelling the incredible story of aerialist Philippe Petit's illegal and mesmerizing 1974 tightrope-walk between the Twin Towers:

The brilliance of the movie is that it allows us to visit the World Trade Center and linger there for as long as we wish, while never pretending to forget the gaping hole that will always be there no matter what physically replaces the destroyed buildings. The film is no exercise in feel-good nostalgia; it doesn't allow us to escape the utter destruction of 9/11 so as much as it compels us to face a moment in time that can never be revised. It is what it is, to quote a phrase that became ubiquitous after 9/11. Throughout Man on Wire, all the people involved in Petit's plot—an immensely complicated and lucky conspiracy of joie de vivre that almost perfectly mirrors the dark-hearted death plot of 9/11—break down in tears as they recall the precise moment when the tightrope walker stepped out into the void between the North and South Towers. Decades later, they are rendered mute by memory, overwhelmed by the recollection of a moment when the unthinkable became reality, if only briefly.

It is in those unstoppable, unabsorbable tears that art honors the dead of 9/11, because it allows us to remember a day we all wish to forget. Here art offers not a refuge from reality but an entry back into it. "Two years, ten years," writes Sandburg, "and the passengers ask the conductor, What place is this? Where are we now? I am the grass. Let me work." The most powerful art of 9/11 refuses to let that happen by refusing to insist that we must make sense out of a senseless act.

Whole essay here.

At the close of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's narrator ruminates on America's supposed inability to grasp "the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us." No, says Nick Carraway, in one of the central works of our national literature, "We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Matt Welch's editor's note in the August-September issue is a powerful—and fully convincing—rejoinder to such a sentiment. Reflecting on the decade since the attacks, Welch writes:

The business of America isn't necessarily business. It's change. Constant, creative, destructive, entertaining change. As we look back over the last 10 years since that awful, still-indigestible morning of September 11, 2001, it's tempting to make the counterintuitive claim that we're the same country as ever, gossiping about the sex lives of politicians, enforcing no-fly zones against Middle East dictators, tuning in to The Simpsons. Much of that is true. But on a daily basis we vastly underestimate how dynamic America is, particularly in comparison to the aims of the Islamic medievalists who turned commercial aircraft into flying death machines 10 years ago….

When the planes hit the towers, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia was all of nine months old. Facebook (launched in 2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006) were still no more than gleams in their founders' eyes. In 2001, according to Forbes, the then-feared AOL-Time Warner was the ninth biggest company in America by market valuation, and the telecommunications giant WorldCom was the 25th most profitable. In 2002 AOL-Time Warner lost $99 billion, and by 2003 WorldCom was bankrupt.

The churn of change isn't limited to the technology sector (although it's also true that technology is no longer sealed within a "sector"). American life 10 years ago was filled with phenomena and controversies that look bizarre in retrospect. Two weeks before 9/11 a federal District Court judge upheld a Florida law barring homosexual couples from adopting children, a law that the state's social conservatives said was necessary because "scientific evidence" proved gay-raised kids were more likely to be sexually abused. In late 2010, Florida's mostly Republican establishment didn't bother challenging a state appeals court decision overturning this last-of-its-kind ban….

There's no question, says Welch, where the future comes from.

Looking back at the few bright moments during those first days and weeks after the attacks, I can think of hardly any that emanated from a politician or figure of influence. George W. Bush threw a ceremonial strike over home plate at Yankee Stadium. David Letterman got back to work. Previously semi-known anchors on cable news programs—Aaron Brown, Ashleigh Banfield, Lester Holt—performed with uncommon grace and intelligence in impossible circumstances.

But the best of what I remember came far away from positions of authority. The ad hoc shrine left at the crash site of Flight 93 (itself a testimony to the bravery of citizens acting spontaneously). My local Sufi temple in Los Angeles throwing its doors open to answer any and all questions from passers-by. An explosion of citizen weblogs, providing more intellectual nourishment and resonance than a thousand flat-footed newspaper opinion sections. Bestseller lists crammed with evidence of ordinary Americans suddenly boning up on the history of the Muslim world.

The strength of America on display 10 years ago did not result from centralizing new bureaucracies in Washington, unionizing new sets of federal employees, or devising easier ways for the government to snoop on and even kill its own citizens. It came from individual human beings, accustomed to living in freedom, acting in a decentralized manner to make an atrocious event slightly less painful. There's an important lesson there, waiting to be learned.

Read the full piece here. And read the full August-September issue here.

To see previous "Remembering 9/11" entries, including excerpts from articles we wrote as the attacks were still unfolding, go here.