I've arrived home at a time when much of New York is, once again, concerned about terrorism. Last week's attempted bombing of Times Square is a reminder that, though I may feel less vulnerable here than I did on my travels, I am not necessarily any more safe. This is notwithstanding Stephen Colbert's point that New Yorkers will be fine because the bomber targeted Times Square, the one place in the city New Yorkers never go. At any rate, I mention this mostly to bring up something I've been thinking about for a while. I know I'm grossly overgeneralizing here, but New Yorkers, I think, don't think of 9/11 all that much, at least not when thinking of our city. It might pop into your head from time to time walking around, but if you're away and thinking of what you remember about home, it's not going to be one of your first thoughts. During elections, it can often feel like other parts of the country make a much bigger deal of it than we do. The truth, however, is that by being so close to it, I think we often miss just how wide its repercussions were. When I told people in Latin America that I was from New York, I almost always got one of two responses: "Ah, la Gran Manzana" ("the Big Apple"), or "¿Qué tal Las Torres Gimelas?" ("How about the Twin Towers?"). Nearly everyone I met asked me if I was in the city that day (I wasn't--it was freshman year of college) or what I thought about it. The dialogue was often a bit bizarre ("How about the Twin Towers?" "What about them?" "They fell." "Um, yes, I know.").
This line of inquiry, it's worth noting, wasn't limited to the Spanish-speaking locals. It came up in conversation with plenty of English-speakers and travelers as well (though none from the states). And, I suppose, it's just something that made a major impression on the world. So if you're someone who was relatively close to it, they want to know what you thought about it. It makes sense. If I'd met an octogenarian from Pearl Harbor, I'd probably have the same reaction. But it mostly felt kind of weird because, although I felt deeply affected by 9/11 at the time, I don't really have much to say about it now, and certainly don't have much interest in talking about it. As such, I'd usually try to change the subject as quickly as I could. I'd usually just say some basic things that are true: "it was a huge tragedy," "that day was awful, I remember it clearly," or "hey look, a dog!"
On the plus side, once I went through the basic motions, things generally stayed pretty normal. There were, however, a few times people asked my opinion on conspiracy theories. For example, an Irish friend asked me if I thought the Bush administration secretly blew up the World Trade Center and was very surprised that I am certain they did not* I also had a Galapagan hostel owner ask if I knew that Osama Bin Laden used to be the director of the CIA, and that he coordinated 9/11 from a hotel room in D.C. before flying to Iraq to meet with Saddam Hussein. He told me "I watch TV, I know all about the world." The moment shook me a bit--not because of anything to do with the conspiracy theories, but because it was a reminder of the incredible good fortune I experience every day. Here I was blissfully seeing so many things that are so far removed from my experience, and this man has no other window to the enormous world beyond his island's shores than a TV that parrots distorted accounts of information.
As a result, I got very tired of the 9/11 conversations. I understand why people wanted to have them. They had no way of knowing that neither of us would get anything out of it. So I was obliged to go through the motions until something appeared that could distract us.
There's an almost-certainly-apocryphal story in the travel community about American backpackers sewing maple leaf patches to their backpacks in order to pass as Canadian. I didn't have a problem admitting to be from the states, and was always happy to say "soy de Nueva York." But after enough questions about 9/11, I started thinking I might say I was from California. After all, I'm much more interested in discussing economic policy than in discussing terrorism.
I'd been struggling to decide whether to write this post or not. Ultimately I've decided that although it isn't really about the places I've been so much as where I came there from, it's still worth noting. I've tried to make this blog not just about the things I've seen but also my experience in seeing them. And, whether I wanted it or not, this was a consistent part of the experience of this trip.
I'll be back in the next day or two with--I think--my actual final post. For now, a real celebration of New York: matzoh ball soup.
*I told him that the idea that they could pull off something so coordinated and devastating suggests a massively higher level of competence than they demonstrated at every single turn. They did enough major damage to the world with things that were and still are real that we do ourselves a disservice to distract ourselves with fictitious abuses of power.