Around 9 am on September 11th, Eric swiveled around in the black office chair so that he faced the windows of his third floor Brooklyn apartment. On days when the weather was clear, the top floors of World Trade Center were visible. But now, the upper reaches were submerged under a bank of gray smoke. Eric called a friend whom he had seen the night before at Louie’s Pub, a neighborhood bar on Flatbush Avenue. She had a better view of the World Trade Center from the roof of her brownstone in Fort Greene. “Come over,” she said. Eric showered, dressed in a black t-shirt and blue jeans, and set off for Fort Greene just before 10 am.
Eric made his way north towards Flatbush. Under the cloudless sky, the combination of warming sun and dry breeze made Brooklyn feel like spring in northern California. Like any other Tuesday morning, the shops were open and receiving customers. When he reached the corner of Flatbush, he noticed the absence of traffic on the usually busy thoroughfare. As he looked west towards downtown Brooklyn, he saw NYPD cruisers dotting the road and blocking off the street crossings, including the corner where he stood. A police officer warned Eric against crossing the street. He watched for several minutes as emergency vehicles swung into view from the direction of Grand Army Plaza and careened down Flatbush towards the Manhattan Bridge. The dark smoke from towers he had seen from his apartment windows was already billowing over Brooklyn, an ominous smudge on the vibrant blue canopy overhead.
After some persuasion, the officer allowed Eric to cross to the other side of Flatbush. He made his way towards Fort Greene on Carlton Avenue. After a few blocks, he encountered a half dozen people milling about on the sidewalk. Eric’s ears picked up a conversation. In a matter of fact way, an older man said: “America got what it deserved.” The small crowd assented audibly.
“This is payback,” said a younger man. “They shouldn’t fuck with them Arabs.”
Continuing his journey, Eric thought about their discussion. He understood why New York City was a prime target for terrorism. He also detested this murderous tactic as a weapon of the weak. He imputed a sense of alienation to the people’s assembly on Carlton Avenue. It was visceral, something rooted in frustrating and threatening interactions with “Them,” the ones who shouldn’t fuck with Arabs. It was the alienation given popular voice in the fiery lyrics of NWA, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine. Now it was being articulated on September 11th in the chickens-coming-home-to-roost moral calculus of the street. Eric was a bit surprised by the intensity of the feelings, and the vehemence with which they were expressed
Eric too had felt alienated from “Them,” from “America,” but it was more a matter of thought, which he could date back to his first reading of the Communist Manifesto for a high school history course. As an undergraduate at a midwestern college, Eric was a self-defined radical, a member of a clique of students who gravitated to Cultural Marxism and professors with links to the New Left. They occupied the fourth floor of main library, marking their territory by piling the books of living and dead European thinkers on its broad tables. Between classes, and deep into the evening hours, they found ourselves at these tables, struggling to translate abstruse texts from the original French or German and arguing over the meaning of every sentence. Their backpacks bore copies of Critique of Dialectical Reason and Dialectic of Enlightenment, whose dog-eared pages were evidence of close readings. They looked to critical philosophy for the blueprint of a better world. Eric felt most at home among these students and in this world of ideas, the nowhere of scholastic exchange.
Their discordant relationship to America was foregrounded in the spring of 1980, a few months after Iranian revolutionaries seized hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. On an overcast afternoon, the animal houses on fraternity row emptied in unison. More than one hundred frat boys marched through campus, carrying small American flags and singing “God Bless America” and the National Anthem. Eric remembered watching them amass in the company of Che beards, denim jackets, and peasant dresses. Aside from their college ID cards, Eric and his friends had little in common with the patriotic fraternity brothers, clad in jackets, ties, and topsiders, and the knee-skirted and espadrilled sorority sisters who joined them. They mocked the conviction and political naïveté of the frat boys. They were classmates, but they were foreign; in turn, Eric’s friends were incomprehensible to the Greek society. The young critics shared a different tradition, one evoked by the febrile spirit of 1968. Less than a decade removed from the end of the Vietnam War, American nationalism offered nothing to them.
By the time Eric reached the brownstone on DeKalb Avenue, the two towers had crumbled. He watched the cable news replay of the planes crashing and the buildings imploding with his friend and her housemates. His first thought was that it looked like a film about the end of the world, like Independence Day. No one could find words appropriate to the moment. “Surreal” was the only apt description. On television, Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw struggled to keep pace with the stream of information. The Pentagon had been attacked, so had the State Department; no, not the State Department. Were more hijacked planes in the air? After an hour of silent watching, Eric and his friend decided it would be a good idea to donate blood at a local hospital. Arriving at the hospital, they were surprised to find a line of people waiting to donate blood, stretching around the block. The hospital staff turned them away. They then headed south on DeKalb towards Flatbush, which, by noon, was teeming with disoriented Brooklynites making their escape from lower Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge. Hundreds of people congregated on the sidewalks of Flatbush and spilled into the street on Fulton. After taking in the scene, they walked back to the brownstone. Away from Flatbush, an uncanny silence fell over Fort Greene, an unsettling stillness broken only by forlorn sirens and the occasional roar from the pair of F16s patrolling the skies. Eric returned home around 4 pm. An enormous cloud of smoke stretched over Brooklyn. Acrid fumes wafted down to earth when the wind was right.