It seemed absolutely perfect that as my hometown felt the brunt of years of international political struggle on a late summer day, I was upstate enjoying the beginning of my sophomore year in college.
That Tuesday morning began like most of my mornings at St. Bonaventure University: a shower and a trip to the dining hall for breakfast. I had to print out a paper I had written so I went to the school library to take care of that.
Before heading to class, I realized I had forgotten my pens, so I rushed back to my room to grab a few for the day. That’s when my dorm phone rang. It was my friend Michelle, who lived in another dorm, telling me to turn on the television.
“What channel?” I asked.
“Any channel,” she said.
Usually when someone tells you to turn on the television, then tell you turn to any channel, it’s not good.
Thus began the journey that many Americans experienced on that day as they turned to various news channels to hear Aaron Brown (CNN), Peter Jennings (ABC), Tom Brokaw (NBC) and Dan Rather (CBS) provide commentary and present images that were mind-boggling to many. The sadness, despair and anger felt that day was mutual across the board, but that’s where New York’s connection to the rest of the country on Sept. 11 ends.
Many progressives got mad at country singer Toby Keith for his “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” song, but he was just representing a point of view that was already there. He expressed it in a way that Middle America (i.e., just plain old America) understood.
Keith, like many politicians and public figures with no connection to the five boroughs, used New York as a prop to express feelings that the majority of New Yorkers didn’t agree with. Xenophobia, proud and upfront racism, “nation-building” and an addiction to war jumped to the forefront and smashed the notion that the early 21st century would be an extension of the 1990s.
Call it perfect timing, but Michael Bloomberg took over Rudolph Giuliani’s position as mayor of New York City, and due to his background in business (and amassing a fortune participating in the endeavor), he turned the city itself into a business, right down to the constant issues with working-class citizens that the AmNews chronicles.
One might be hesitant to call it “perfect synergy,” but this particular mayor after this particular event in history was the perfect match for turning the city into what it is now: a shell of its former self and a reflection of America, rather than a reflection of the individuality that made it great.
Writing in New York magazine recently, Frank Rich said that while on a book tour during the days after 9/11, “I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut. When I described the scent of burning flesh wafting through Manhattan…I was greeted with polite yet unmistakable expressions of disbelief.”
He could’ve easily been describing my experience, give or take a few hundred miles. When I told some of my peers in college that I was from New York, I got the same look I used to get in high school (Bronx High School of Science) when I told classmates I was actually from the Bronx. It was a look of pity. It was a look of sorrow. It was the look of one big group hug waiting to happen.
Some of my conservative friends would try and play into my city pride in attempts to persuade me that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made sense. Folks who went out of their way to tell me they couldn’t stand New York City when they met me were now suddenly happy to have a city like mine represent America.
Then President George W. Bush told the country to keep shopping, as if that were the best way to deal with tragedy. But folks listened. The rise of the Internet as an accessible platform for almost every American produced dozens of conspiracy theories and Photoshopped images that now surface during any big story or tragedy. In 2011, the platform was YouTube. Ten years ago, it was a GeoCities page.
But the conspiracy theories online, along with the new wave of increasingly partisan politics (helped along by the rise of FOX News), made Sept. 11 seem like another in a long list of tragedies to those who didn’t really have ties to said tragedy.
One of my close college friends once told me that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington didn’t scare him, but the shootings at Columbine did. Why? He was a suburban kid who went to suburban schools and could relate to the conditions that fostered that tragedy. To this day, it’s one of the most honest things a person has ever told me. Sept. 11 just brought to light attitudes, beliefs and opinions that were already there for the rest of the country.
In other words, it was a prop.