Year Zero

Memory. Fear. Hope. Closure

by Jonathan Wallace

Year Zero is a series of essays combining my personal account of September 11 and its aftermath with reflections on ethical, legal, political, religious and other implications. The essays are all collected here. You can also subscribe to the Year Zero mailing list here.

March 25, 2002


A writer, especially an older one, needs an acute memory to furnish the cabinets of wonder of his craft. I had two reminders recently of how poor mine is.

Last week I completed a course to become certified as an emergency medical technician. I made some good friends in the class, and we studied for the practical exams together; I was twenty-one years older than the youngest of them and five years older than the next most senior of them. One day we got to talking about the first day of class, last November, when none of us yet knew one another. I remembered someone stood up in front of us and told us what it was like to be an EMT on September 11. "We came through the Battery Tunnel and there was a human torso in the road and a piece of an airplane engine.... We counted people falling from the towers, one, two....thirty....forty."

"Yes, that was Frank," said one of the study group members. "He is a co-owner of the company which teaches our class. He was here the first day but hasn't come back since." Our regular instructor is named Jonathan, and in my weak memory, I had assigned him this story, but he works as a paramedic upstate. My friends had no more data than I did, but they had stored it more completely.

I had long known how my memory shuffles itself to make room for new information. At first, it is like a computer image with thousands of pixels. Twenty years later, it is as if one represented the same image with 100 pixels. It looks the same from a great distance but lacks any detail up close. Get too close and of course it isn't even an image any more.

In 1978, I spent a year in France, an experience so emotionally overwhelming I stopped keeping my diary. For years after that, I thought about writing an account of that year so I wouldn't lose it. Finally, one day in 1983 or so, a sort of click occurred; my memory had collapsed in upon itself, to fewer pixels, and I knew, painfully, that much of the information was now irretrievably lost.

Every few years, I re-read the things I wrote in earlier times. I am a bit afraid of them, because there is too much bragging and complaining, so they can be a chore to read. But it is very rewarding to re-discover chunks of my life which were lost, or would have been if I hadn't stored them outside of my brain.

Here is an account of something which happened in the summer of 1977, before I left for France, when I was working for a law firm on a high floor of 140 Broadway.

One day, at about two thirty in the afternoon, as I had just turned back from the window to the desk with a sigh, I heard a huge muffled boom, which resounded unreasonably loudly in an office so well insulated against the exterior world. Simultaneously there were exclamations from the library, which was directly across the hall from my office. I went across, and saw that all of the young associates were grouped at the window which faced the East River. Some blocks to the north--one had to look leftwards to see it--a great cloud of black smoke was rising from behind two office buildings.

Just a few months before I had been certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and I thought I might be of some use at the scene, so I took an elevator down to the street and headed towards the source of the smoke.

Hundreds of people were running or trotting downtown, away from the smoke, looking uneasily over their shoulders; but there was nothing of the quality of a mob scene, for they were not colliding, no-one fell to the ground or screamed. A very few people were, like me, walking uptown to see what had happened. Meanwhile, the turgid black smoke, in one clot filling a third of the sky, continued to rise.

What I remembered before reading this: an ice cream truck blew up--it was an accident, not a terrorist act--and 140 people were injured, one killed. I heard the blast from my office, went to the scene, and discovered no-one there who needed CPR. I asked an arriving medic if I could be of help and he shoved me out of his way without a word. I felt helpless.

What I had forgotten, remarkably, was the hundreds of people calmly running away--exactly the scene I again witnessed on September 11. That day, when I came home, I was entitled to say, "I have lived this before, twenty-four years ago," but I didn't, because I had no recollection.

With memory so unreliable that it is possible to lose the impression of hundreds of people running from an explosion, there is a serious question whether the cabinet of wonders is ever to be relied upon. What curios, what dinosaur footprints, are missing because mislaid? What human relic, ostensibly the "Missing Link", is actually an unconcious fraud, a collection of contemporary ape bones and fossils put together with spit and sealing wax, but completely convincing to the proprietor?

I have had anxiety dreams in which I discover that I committed a terrible crime twenty years ago which I do not remember. More often the purveyors of "recovered memory syndrome", invert this and "recover" that they were the victim of such a crime decades before. Experts in the criminal system know how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, how easy it is to prompt the witness to identify someone they have never seen--and then how tenaciously the witness believes in the identification ever after.

Like most things, memory is a double-edged sword. Our ancestors needed memory to catalog dangers and benefits--roots safe to eat and predators to avoid. But it is possible to become trapped in memory, like insects in amber. Vivid recall, the ability to relive every instant of one's life as if it were happening again now, would not be an advantage for a survivor of Auschwitz; Primo Levi was one such, and like several other writer-survivors (Jean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski) he killed himself later. How much better it might be to be like the rabbit, which evades the fox, gives a little kick of its heels, and forgets the near-death experience, remembering only that the fox is dangerous.

Despite everything I have written since September 11, I am afraid I have already lost much, and that more pixels are fading every day. So I wanted to tell you about something I have only described in passing: the palpable fear we felt for some months afterwards, and the sense that one had stepped sideways out of a familiar safe world into a parallel universe of fuel laden 767's, anthrax, stolen Soviet suitcase bombs, gas masks and pervasive horror.


It is embarassing to write about fear. We have a little cult of fearlessness, and are raised believing that heroes feel none. While there may be a few humans who lack the ability to be frightened, the same way certain others are incapable of compassion or love, more often the realistically brave are those who can organize themselves to do the necessary despite it. However, an emotional economy balancing fear and other factors such as duty, desire and denial is always messy and difficult to describe. And there is always a residue of feeling that one would be a a better person to feel no fear at all.

When Israelis said after September 11, "Now you know how we live," I resented it, because Israel has never endured a single act of terrorism as terrible as we did. The total Israeli casualties in the last eighteen months of the renewed intifada come to a bit more than one tenth of the people killed here on one day.

But in fact the life I expected after 9/11 is the one the Israelis are living today: one of constant attacks and suicide bombings, where it is impossible to take a bus or have a coffee in a cafe without expecting the dazed man in the bulky jacket to appear and detonate himself.

For several months after, taking the subway, as I did every morning, required me to steel myself. It occurred to me that an Al Quaeda terrorist, seeking as always the most dramatic of impacts for the least investment, would be likely to blow himself up under the river as we crossed into Manhattan. I wasn't sure what kind of blast would be required to let the river into the tunnel, but I did know from reading the newspaper that if you flood the city's train tunnels anywhere you flood the entire system, including the PATH train to New Jersey. I probably make up in imagination what I lack in memory. So, every morning on the subway, I looked for the Middle Eastern man in the bulky jacket, or carrying a big parcel, and every morning I saw at least one. I imagined the blast and the water rushing in. Then, after a few weeks, I resurrected a trick from childhood: I simply went away. I boarded the train and fell into a reverie so deep I couldn't remember the subject matter after. The next thing I knew, we were in Manhattan and I had crossed under the river once again without thinking about it.

I used the same trick to get past the Park Place station, from which I exited to the street below the twin towers on September 11. The station was closed for a considerable time after (for the first week or so I mistakenly thought it had been destroyed) and as the train surged past I could see the white dust of Ground Zero on the platform. After a few days I found that every morning, my mind wandered long enough to miss Park Place, even if I had previously decided to stare at it through the train window as we traversed it.

In those days, it was easy to find the hooks on which to hang fear. The silver vans of the NYPD bomb squad were a common sight. Soldiers and National Guard were everywhere. Low flying airplanes emerging from Kennedy or LaGuardia, previously mere background noise to be ignored, now caused me to stop and stare at them, and wonder why everyone else was not. It was especially hard to be anywhere around the Empire State Building, now the city's fattest remaining target, without vividly imagining a replay of what the world witnessed a few weeks before: the banking plane speeding up as it hit the tower.

In those weeks the smoke continued to boil up out of Ground Zero and lie down over the city. Just as the World Trade towers had dominated every North-South avenue, now the smoke did. You could see and smell the pall from everywhere. Certain days instead of smoke you could smell decay, but you were never sure if you were smelling the undiscovered corpses in the Pile or uncollected garbage in a dumpster down the street. I remember the scent of decay on three occasions--once on Wall Street in late September, once on a visit to Ground Zero when the smoke wasn't as powerful as usual, and once as far north as Fourteenth Street. For much of the fall I had a cough which was much worse after driving into Ground Zero, even for a half hour visit.

Within a week or two after the attacks, I had a mysterious little rash on my arm, and another day I stayed home from work because my wife had a fever. Both things we would usually have ignored. People were starting to come down with subcutaneous anthrax in the city, and then we had the first and only case of inhalation anthrax, a woman in her sixties who lived alone and had no obvious mechanism of exposure. On the one hand, people were overwhelming public resources with reports of white powder--alerts were triggered by spilled packets of nondairy creamer and by the sugar from a jelly donut. I didn't want to be one of the fearful wasting a doctor's time because of a nondescript little rash which would vanish in a day or two, or because my wife had the flu. I thought of Eliot: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." On the other hand, we knew that two postal workers in DC had died because no-one had asked the question whether their symptoms indicated anthrax. In both cases, we decided to wait things out, despite the minute but measurable risk of becoming casualties of embarassment or worse, of obedience to authority.

We reacted to noises as we never had: the droning of planes, unexpected bangs. One night in in October in Amagansett there was an unusual late fall thunderstorm, and my wife was out of bed and at the window in one fluid motion, without really waking. "Something big is happening," she said. For me today, but less than before, every loud plane is a death plane, not the Pennsylvania plane full of heroes, but one of the first three, with resolute joyful killers in the cockpit, and paralyzed passengers turning their faces away for a last look out the window.

One is afraid of being paralyzed by fear, but I learned that most people are far more calm than they give themselves credit for. I learned this from the people I saw in 1977 and again on September 11, carefully removing themselves from danger: no screaming or falling down. When I was held at gunpoint for five minutes in a Paris post office in 1978, everyone squatted and turned sideways to present the smallest possible target. Where did we all learn that? Yes, we were frightened, but it was very different from the panic fear, the loss-of-control terror, which I have seen only in the movies. No-one writhed on the ground screaming "Please don't kill me."

One thing I hadn't really appreciated was the extent to which fear requires a hook. If there is not a continuing series of objective reminders that we need to feel frightened, fear fades. If our minds were different, a single suicide bomber would be enough to terrify all Israel forever. Once you know something terrible is possible, your life is forever changed. Before September 11, I never worried about men flying planes into skyscrapers full of people. Now I think about it every day.

Nonetheless, one day, fear simply wore out. I can't say exactly when; it wasn't a sharp transition. But one day you get up and you think about something else than dying or the war: the Enron scandal or the Lord of the Rings movie or an annoying parking ticket you just got. When a professor of mine said in 1973 that "It would take a lot more than Watergate for the milk not to get delivered to my door," I was very offended. But I have learned that he was right, that four hijacked 767's full of fuel, the destruction of familiar buildings one thought could never come down, and the death of thousands were not enough to stop people from laughing, flirting, arguing, cooking meals, annoying other people or telling jokes, even in the weeks right after September 11.


There are concrete structures in our minds, more tenacious than the World Trade Center was, organizing against fear. The strongest is a type of self deception which may kill us sometimes, but more often helps us to survive, in fact to want to survive, by disregarding the worst about our world. Again, this is the convenient forgetfullness of the rabbit, which comes right after the jubilant kick of the heels. It is a trick memory plays in most people, of not remembering pain or fear, at least not in all their intensity. It is illogical but we stop worrying about things if they have not happened in a while, even if there is no reason they cannot happen again.

Of course, if this forgetfullness does not work of itself, we must overlay reasons why the horror will not return. Last week the government stopped twenty-four hour overflights of New York, though it continued them over Washington DC. The real reason: they were costing too much money. The announced reason: that improvements in airport security and the use of federal air marshalls rendered them unnecessary. But in not one of the numerous instances of unruly passengers being restrained by flight attendants and fellow passengers--including the most dangerous case of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid--has a federal air marshall yet made himself known on any flight, so they cannot be out there in significant numbers (at one point a plan was announced to put them on every domestic flight). And no-one who flies feels much more confident in airport security measures than before. No, in the end, we simply require a few crumbs, a few words as colorful as possible even though meaningless, like my father's statement during Vietnam that "its always the other guy who gets killed."

For some time after 9/11, my own fear was offset by an absurd sense of immortality: that ice cream trucks and terrorist bombs explode, ski-masked men point guns at me, cops beat people bloody a few feet away, my car slides off an icy road or its wheel comes off, but nothing ever happens to me. So therefore it cannot.

Hope is complacency plus spin. I am very ambivalent about hope. On the one hand, it is a persistent little bastard, a marvellous, irrational human force which keeps us slogging past the blood and the body parts. On the other, hope can kill us.

One of the memes that bounced out of the wreckage of the World Trade Center was the "holding hands, going to the light" story. This cropped up in multiple first person accounts of the disaster. The general drift of the story is as follows. The protagonist is at ground level when the first tower collapses. Bewildered, in a white-out of dust, surrounded by jagged debris, on the edge of choking, he feels someone take his hand, and together they begin struggling towards a bright light. Its a nice enough story without any Twilight Zone variations; together they find their way out of the cloud and realize they are not going to die. In the eeriest version, told by a sanitation worker, when he gets out of the worst of dust, he realizes that both the man holding his hand, and the light towards which he was walking, do not exist. At least in any corporeal sense.

I know I should disbelieve this, reject it like several of the other obviously false stories which emerged from the disaster, the things which people tell each other because they badly want them to be true. But my entire life, childhood until now, accounts like this have raised the hair on the back of my neck, and not in a bad way. I too want to believe them. This is the nature of hope.

Hope is good in situations in which passive endurance is required (like the sanitation worker, who needed to continue putting one foot in front of the other) but can be a killer when some more tactical action is required. When I researched Auschwitz, I discovered that hope was a sort of technology which can help or kill. It is hope, said Tadeusz Borowski, cynical Auschwitz survivor and later suicide, "that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill." Primo Levi, that gentle, liberal soul, may have agreed; in The Drowned and the Saved, he tells the paradoxical story of Alberto D., a survivor so long as he reacted to reality with "fright, impotent rage, rebellion, resignation", but who began to let go and die the moment he sought refuge in rumors that the Russians were coming, that selections were about to end, that the selected were being taken not to the gas chamber but to a hospital camp. Then there is the contrapuntal account given by Art Spiegelman of his father's imprisonment in Auschwitz. A priest (who died) told the elder Spiegelman, who was a teenager when committed to the camp, that the number the Nazis tatooed on his arm was a lucky one and that he would certainly survive. "(H)e put another life in me. And whenever it was very bad I looked and said: 'Yes. The priest was right!'"

Hope does kill us sometimes. Among the World Trade Center victims were hundreds of people already working there in 1993, at the time of the car-bombing. People who walked down fifty or a hundred flights then through smoke-filled stairways, emerged blackened with soot, and went right back to work. To live another eight years until killed in the next attempt. Who all found some reason to believe it could not happen again.

Yet hope is very hard to resist. Right after the attacks, I researched Osama bin Laden on the Internet and found several credible accounts--in the international press, in a report from an Indian think tank--stating that he acquired stolen Soviet suitcase nukes. In those initial weeks, when I wasn't thinking about the suicide bomber on the train, I was sometimes thinking about the suitcase nuke in Manhattan, what the blast would look like from Brooklyn (if I was lucky enough to be that far away) and what the effects would be in the days after. I had seen that movie, the choked roads out of the city, every man for himself and God against all.

Then time passed, nothing happened, we found no hidden suitcase bombs in the caves of Tora Bora and I relaxed. That radioactive seed, hope, burned its way through the slag. Last week, I discovered that our government, which has never admitted it, believes bin Laden may have a suitcase nuke. There were two accounts. One, the feds spent a few weeks last fall investigating a credible report that Manhattan was going to be nuked (and remember the interception of Al Quaeda cellphone traffic on several occassions referring to an attack that would dwarf September 11). They discounted it and never even told Mayor Giuliani. Second, there was another article referring to a federal nuclear response team, which has been deployed a number of times since last fall, on several (undescribed) false alarms.

I can't explain it, but reading this failed to put me back in the nightmare. Perhaps, once hope takes root, it needs more than words to hack it out again.

Memory again

The other day I found a slip of paper I had stashed away in my briefcase which has some printed fields and some handwritten information. The fields are labelled "Ticket #", "Date", "Pick Up Location", and so forth. The handwritten information is the date, 10/30, the pick up time, 2 a.m., and the location, "Respite 1 and 3". In the Notes field is written "Laundry".

If you found this slip on the street it wouldn't mean anything to you, but it is pregnant with memory for me: it is a trip ticket from the months I volunteered as a Red Cross courier. What it says to me is that on October 30, 2001, seven weeks after the attacks, I drove a cargo van to Ground Zero, to the two respite centers, to pick up the dirty laundry in the small hours of the morning.

Behind me as I write, sitting on a guest bed, are the hardhat I wore and the goggles I was required to take with me every time I visited Ground Zero. This weekend I will take them out to my home in Amagansett and create a little private museum--a cabinet of wonder--of my Red Cross experience: the hardhat, the goggles, my picture I.D., and the trip ticket, which I will frame.

I stopped driving for the Red Cross in late February or early March. The courier operation, which when I started was a twenty-four hour affair, had shrunk to a single 9 to 5 shift in which we mainly delivered the internal mail. Both respite centers had closed at the end of 2001 as the perimeter of Ground Zero shrank to exclude them. National volunteers had been brought in; in the early days the couriers were exclusively local New York volunteers. The last few times I went in, I did not even drive a vehicle, but rode shot-gun instead. When I realized that it had now become a role in which I could do volunteer work and sleep simultaneously, without offending anyone, I stopped. Most of the other local volunteers I knew had already bailed. Instead, I applied to the Disaster Action Team, which goes out to every fire in New York City, and have been accepted. I will start working there sometime in the next month or so, after receiving training.

My experience recapitulates that of most New Yorkers, for whom the events of last September are more a matter of memory than of the now. As the fear dissipated, I found myself living again the life I had before, glorious and miserable as it was. It wasn't exact, but a close replica, with the insertion of one huge break. Like an ocean voyage which was completely uneventful, a mixture of beauty and ennui, until a rageful and terrifying storm blew up, terrified us for a night, and then passed.


Despite the candy-sweet operations of hope, I do not believe that there has been any "closure" or can ever be. Closure is a psychological fraud, a phony and poisonous by-product of hope, an artifact of a culture in which the most dangerous crisis must be resolved by the end of the television hour (or no later than the end of the television season). It is the concept, which has little to do with human reality, that stories have an ending.

Human history has a seriously random element, like the repetitive flight of a sparrow from a branch to the lawn and back again. It isn't much of a story in the first place; we try to impose a structure of human progress, but in reality, shit happens, people respond to it usually by killing one another, and then more shit happens. So the stories aren't really very structured; and they also never end. The wave of consequences started by the first European who brought an African slave to America rolls on today, hundreds of years later.

It is possible to view September 11 and the aftermath either as an opera or a random walk. The opera version: a heroic passenger about to die on flight 93 sings an inspiring aria; there is a duet between a woman about to jump from the 105th floor, and a firefighter who will perish shortly when Tower Two collapses; in the lobby of Tower One, Father Judge sings a haunting piece about beauty and mystery and the necessity of putting one foot in front of the other, then expires like a swan; then a resolute chorus of U.S. special forces, climbing down from C-130 aircraft while emoting of duty and determination; at the penultimate moment, bin Laden sings an aria of rage, defiance, and despair, and dies alone in a cave, cursing the God who has forsaken him; then the final chorus, in which Father Judge, the jumper, the firefighter and all the doomed passengers return, singing of dawn and hope.

In the random walk version, a group of deluded people launch an audacious attack killing thousands. The attacked nation responds with a semi-successful military campaign which nonetheless results in the death of a number of innocent Afghan civilians roughly equalling the number of Americans killed on 9/11. The government, unable to track the main culprit, starts pretending that he is not so important after all. Eventually, people start thinking about other things, but at the end of the day, the bereaved are still missing their loved ones, the nation is still vulnerable to terrible violence, no-one has solved the problem of Islamic fundamentalism and history just muddles along as usual.

Closure is in particular a fraud on the bereaved, as it preaches that there will--there should--come a moment when grief is over. In reality, though we may go on with our lives, remarry, bear new children, and laugh at silly jokes again, there is no reason ever to stop mourning or to forget what we have lost. Grief may recede; instead of being the ocean we swim in, it may be a vial of ocean water in the cabinet of wonder, but it is always there. Balance, yes; closure, never.