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Never forgetting what I cannot remember

This Saturday, New York City was vibrant as ever. I reconnected with a middle-school classmate at Columbia midday, met a mutual friend on their Low Library steps, then rode Line 1 to K-town for dinner with another friend from NYU. It’s impossible not to feel alive then, splendidly uplifted, swept into the glamour of a city at night amongst laughing couples, businessmen and fashionistas, mills of friends passing unassuming drug dealers (marijuana smoke hangs heavy where Broadway meets 6th St).

And yet, my heart weighed heavily as well. We are well aware: Saturday marked the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Half of Duke’s current undergraduates are born after September 11, 2001, including myself, only three days later. In two or three more years, not one undergrad would’ve been alive that day.

This generation still grew up deeply affected by the aftermath, living in a world drastically different from the one we could have been born into, merely days earlier. Last week, a professor took my class to City Hall and described how he simply strolled inside three decades ago and explored the offices upstairs. This time, we could only peer from yards away, outside the fence that surrounded even their sidewalk. The old subway entrance right outside the building had also been sealed and relocated.

City Hall’s security is just a small example of how New York, America, and the world have adapted since 9/11. However, I believe that most Duke students, like myself, are unconscious of the immediate impacts of this event. Annually, when The Tribute in Light installation shines through the night, when the city gently inserts red and white roses into names engraved along the reflecting pools, when I see the words “never forget” posted with images of the Twin Towers, the collapse, the smoke, the dust, I wonder: how can I forget this? Emphasis on this.

Simultaneously, I ask: how can I forget this? Certainly, cultural memory persists. But how can I partake in this grief without disrespecting the genuine experiences of those who were eye-witnesses, to those who remember 9/11 firsthand?

In this article, I turn to Professor Marianna Torgovnick, who has been heading the Duke in New York program since, as it so happens, 2001. She graciously agreed to share her experience with me, as native New Yorker herself, and widely educated in the (not-so-distant) history of 9/11. We discussed forgotten events from the weeks following, New York’s development since, the comparisons others have drawn between 9/11 and COVID-19, such as in Spike Lee’s new documentary series “NYC Epicenters 9/11 -> 2021½,” and how my generation today can preserve a sacred memory we ourselves did not make.

First, Professor Torgovnick shared with me her own memories and experience of 9/11.

“I must've been a mile or two away, far enough that the dust didn’t reach me immediately. I was in Washington Square Park, [with] 500 people standing there? A thousand people standing there? We were just watching the towers burn, and suddenly one of them collapsed... It’s normal to feel completely distant from an event like that.

“It is an historical event; twenty years is a long time, and there’s certainly time to see it from some distance.When it happened, there was a strong and almost uniform reaction. Within that uniform reaction — this kind of thing is really hard to get today — there were differences. People like me were concerned about what was going to happen next. Would there be another attack? Within the day, there were soldiers with machine guns in the streets. You don't see that in America very commonly. To cross 14th Street, a soldier with a machine gun would stop you and ask where you were going. So even before all the security apparatus at the airports, there was a lot of [wondering]: is this going to last forever? Is this the way things would be from now on? We just didn’t know.”

Spike Lee’s documentary draws comparisons between the impact of 9/11 and COVID-19 on NYC. Cursorily, these two events seem incomparable, other than the fact I could summarize them with the same word: tragedy. But my summary streamlines the human experience behind the tragedy. I wanted to understand how they could be compared and contrasted.

The strongest similarity between 9/11 and the start of Covid is large populations leaving. For a few months after 9/11, people left New York… When Covid hit in March of 2020, depending on the neighborhood you were in, up to 40% of the population left.

“Second thing true for both is that the downtown area was decimated, not just physically… But economically, it was wiped out. People did not want to go to Chinatown and the Financial District. They also did not want to go to Tribeca. So businesses went out, especially Chinatown, [which] was really hard-hit. When Covid hit, Chinatown was hit again. Whenever you have populations locking down and leaving, restaurants get hurt, and Chinatown depends on its restaurants.

“It came back pretty quickly after 9/11. Robert De Niro established the Tribeca Film Festival as one way of bringing people back downtown, and it’s worked… Now it’s just part of New York life. We don’t know yet how it’s gonna work out this time. A lot of businesses closed in Tribeca; art galleries moved in, so there might be a bit of changes that are interesting; we just don’t know yet. Your class gets to see New York in a very in-between period.”

Our conversation then touched on events following 9/11, both immediate and gradual: the anthrax scare late 2001, and America’s retreat from Afghanistan this summer.

That same fall, a number of people in government, newspaper, and televisions got envelopes with anthrax powder. Most of it was coming to New York and D.C.. Duke actually staged an evacuation one day because someone found some white powder in a corner. Point is, the whole country got quite caught up in that, and a few people did die. One of my students was working in a mailroom at ABC News and didn’t want to open envelopes… You remember how at the beginning of Covid you were sanitizing your packages and mail, well, everybody was opening their packages outside because the powder was less damaging in open air. There was some fear that [9/11 and the letters] were connected. It looked like someone was discontent with the government, right wing, and it had nothing to do with the people who had done 9/11.

“When the US sent troops into Afghanistan to get Al Qaeda there was not much dissent. There were people who did dissent; in the NYU neighborhood people immediately hung out peace signs, and there was a slogan: “not in our name.'' New Yorkers did not want a war in our name. But in general there was not much dissent. There was a sense that we had to make sure, this wouldn't happen again. 

“There was a lot of attention to the role of the Saudis, which is still coming out. Biden is [still] releasing some of the documents now. I think the consequences of going into another country are unpredictable. Would I have predicted twenty years later we’d be in Afghanistan? No. But remember George W. Bush was talking about a ‘war on terror.’ How exactly does a war on terror end?

I am writing this with the Duke community in mind. There is a plaque on Keohane Quad that commemorates six alumni who died in 9/11. Every year, Duke performs a series of commemorations, such as the tolling bells and vigil. Is this enough? How can new generations partake of this remembrance genuinely, and not just run through the actions?

“That’s a hard one, because with the passage of time, practice just becomes more routine. One thing that Spike Lee did do was [to show] the footage of 9/11 and footage of the heart of the Covid surge in New york. It's powerful. There’s something about seeing videos, seeing images, that brings it back in a visceral way.

“You’re talking about defamiliarizing it. It means making you feel it, not just think about it intellectually. So rather than saying ‘9/11,’ feeling 9/11. And if you’re an empathetic person, watching the videos will bring you back.

“Something frequently done is relative testimony. [Last week] a person who [is] the head of the Flight 93 Memorial [and] the brother of a man killed on that plane…was talking about that. It’s powerful to listen to him. When I was talking to the class [our first week] and started crying, where did that come from? That came from the confluence of my memory of 9/11 and my seeing the city now. It’s tough, it’s striving, and it’s working hard to rebuild.”

I, too, am seeing the city now. I see its wide streets, hear its wild voices, feel its wet heartbeat on a Saturday night. May I recognize the hidden and historical heartaches as well. As Professor Torvognick loves to say: New York is an onion. To my generation and myself: continue to peel back the layers. Remember this city’s memories. Learn how to never forget.

Jocelyn Chin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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