Letters at 3AM
Last September ... driving east, skirting Oklahoma City, driving hard with no intention of stopping, intending to sleep in Tulsa ... then, a highway sign that went something like: OKLAHOMA CITY MEMORIAL NEXT EXIT. Without a thought I followed the sign.
There's never much reason to go to Oklahoma City. Hard to believe that half a million souls live there, especially when you drive in after dark. I saw no pedestrians. None. And hardly any traffic. One deserted street after another at eight o'clock in the evening. On my way out of town I saw two men sharing a bottle, laughing. And that was all. Darkness is thicker in some places, and the density of Oklahoma City's night had thickened since last I visited, years before the explosion. I'd never thought of Oklahoma City as spooky, but it's gone spooky.
Beside the memorial was a wire-mesh fence protecting I-don't-remember-what perhaps a construction site. Visitors had left odds and ends fastened to the fence: photos, crosses, plastic flowers, sympathetic notes, and many small stuffed animals tied to the wire with string and strands of ribbon. On the memorial's outer wall, in large letters, this inscription: "May All Who Leave Here Know the Impact of Violence. May This Memorial Offer Comfort, Strength, Peace, Hope, and Serenity." Those large words, and the stares of the button-eyes of the stuffed animals.
There were only me and two cops. They were tall and glum and well-armed, troopers on the night shift, protecting the dead.
Walking up the ramp, through the entrance at the base of the wall, you enter the memorial and face a reflecting pond. On the far end of the pond is another wall with large numbers: "9:01." On the right is a lawn; on the lawn are chairs. One chair for each person killed that day. Large chairs for the adults, small chairs for the children. Each chair bears the name of a casualty. The base of each is translucent and glows from within. We're meant to imagine them sitting there, watching us watch them as though we, the living, are on view. I walked the length of the lawn, reading the names, repeating them under my breath. When I turned to face where I had been, I saw that on the wall through which I'd entered there were other large numbers: "9:03." In just two minutes all these people had died. And it was as though they sat, watching, awaiting my reaction, our reaction. "It's gotten even crazier," was all I could say, "and there doesn't seem to be anything we can do to stop it. It promises to get crazier and crazier. We all feel like raindrops in a storm, hurtling down, waiting to hit the ground."
For a moment I had an intense feeling of gratitude that Timothy McVeigh was dead. And in the next moment a grief for his stained soul. I felt no sympathy for him, just this thought: what a terrible thing to enter the gates of death with all these lives to answer for. And then I felt a strange sharing in his guilt. Because we are all human beings. There is a darkness inherent in our species, and we all have a part in it. It comes out through one or another of us, but it belongs to every last one of us. Which is not to excuse villainy. Murder is vile, no matter on what scale, and no matter to whom. Murderers must be held to account. Murder is vile but not inhuman if history teaches anything it teaches that. To deny that the murderer's face resembles our own is to deny not only the murderer's humanity but our own. He denied the humanity of others and so took from them their lives. I won't repeat his mistake and deny his humanity. He was one of us one of us as an American and, more importantly, one of us as a human being. That's what makes him so terrible. He was one of us. He did this to his own. And was too twisted to know it. And now his own, our own, sit in those chairs staring at each passerby, saying, "You are one of us. Live as we could not. A madness cut short our lives. Live for us. Go well."
Why do we create memorials? They are mere sentiment unless we recognize that the dead are calling upon us to live. The victims of insanity beg the living to live sanely. Well, we're not doing a very good job of that, are we? I leave Oklahoma City feeling my failure. "I can't even give you a stuffed animal," I whisper to the dark. "I welcome you to haunt me. Tonight that's the best I can do."
And I headed for a motel room in Tulsa, a brief stop on my way to Staten Island and the bedside of my ailing brother. I hadn't been to New York in a long time; it was late September, every bit of the song "Autumn in New York" shimmered on the streets, and I heard more than one New Yorker say, casually, almost cheerfully, without irony: "9/11 weather."
9/11 weather. A crisp bright day. Not too hot, not too cool. Just right.
Late one night, as I'd known I must, I made my way to Ground Zero.
Medieval Muslims gave us the concept of "zero." Without it, modern science and mathematics would not be possible, Newton and Einstein would have been helpless, and the laptop on which I write would not exist. Zero: It is less a number than a vortex. On the one hand, it sucks in all other numbers; on the other, it gives them dimension. I remembered what I thought as over and over those jets struck the towers that day on TV: "They're killing us with our own stuff! We invented jets; we even invented box cutters!" When, later, we learned of the importance of computers in the murderers' work ... well, history's become a hall of mirrors, their oil, their zeros, our planes, our computers, and the dead crying silently to everyone on all sides, "But don't you see you are one of us?" (Though did the dead believe that when alive?) In any case, the place is well-named. Zero, yes, a vortex, sucking in all concepts, all theories, and at the same time enhancing everything with new dimensions.
It wasn't the enormity of the crime. More die of hunger every day than died in the collapse of the towers. It was the enormity of the spectacle. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. An incredible billowing of dust and ash, coating the streets, coating the clothes and flesh of the survivors. Somewhere in that ash, the dust of the perpetrators. Mingled with all the others. Indistinguishable from them. Timothy McVeigh, Mohammed Atta. Brothers in arms. Too obsessed, too shallow, too twisted, too wrong to realize they were murdering their own. And we turn from their faces in horror, precisely because they look just like us. Really it's too horrible, too horrible to contemplate. But we feel drawn drawn to Ground Zero. It's a deep pit.
And it glows. Strong floodlights illuminate and throw deep shadows. Around the parameters of the pit people walk, mostly couples and little gaggles of folk, making small talk, holding hands, taking pictures. It was nearly midnight, but there were plenty of folks. From a hole at the east end of the pit, a subway with lit windows slithered across the floor of the pit into a well-lit station with transparent walls. I had known of its existence but it's different to see it: a train station right smack in the bottom of the pit, people quite wee from my vantage walking to and fro in the age of the Zero. Other cultures would fear to be on this ground of the dead, or would walk in silence, heads bowed. New Yorkers seem to go on as though nothing's happened. And there's something to that. It has the virtue of proclaiming: Life is strong! Life doesn't stop! See that three-quarter moon? It's shining here as it does everywhere. Nothing can stop those two lovers, holding hands, looking at the moon, on the edge of the pit.
Well. Whatever I expected from Ground Zero, it wasn't normalcy. It wasn't people going about their business, in the pit, as though the pit didn't exist. Taking Ground Zero for granted. I ask myself: Is that strength or weakness? A bit of both? And I thought of those who jumped from the burning towers holding hands, and of those who jumped alone, and then it seemed right and proper and brave that lovers come here when the moon is high to walk holding hands, since at this moment in history every one of us is jumping into an immense zero that no one can define or predict.
Holding hands is a good way to go.
Months later I received an e-mail from the West Coast, the mother of a fourth-grader. Picking up her kid from afterschool playtime, she watched the tykes play, as mothers will watched as they built two towers of blocks, then they threw stuff at the towers to knock them down, laughing. "Watch, Mama," her kid called out, "we're playing 9/11!"
Children play the world they expect to live in.