NEW YORK — A peddler named Max was working the Liberty Street side of the World Trade Center site on a recent afternoon, hawking glossy commemorative books for $10 as he has since just after Sept. 11, 2001.
“Everybody is like it happened yesterday,” said Max, a Russian emigre who gave only his first name. “People can’t believe it. They are still trying to get answers.”
Two years after terrorist planes leveled the Twin Towers, crowds continue streaming to lower Manhattan. What visitors see isn’t much — a 16-acre pit that looks as if it has been steam-cleaned and blow-dried.
Treachery happened here, but its smell and smoke and rubble are long gone.
The place has power, though, and urgency — enough to trump the ho-hum view, and click of disposable cameras, and seedy sidewalk capitalism. “Check it out,” barked a vendor behind a table jammed with souvenirs and six laptops showing the towers in flame. “Take a look.”
As Max says, people come as pilgrims — searching.
America is likewise in pursuit.
In audacious attacks on that brilliant September morning, terrorists killed more than 3,000 people. Nearly 2,800 died in New York. At the Pentagon, 184 lives were lost. The crash of a hijacked plane in Shanksville, Pa., accounted for 40 more.
Transcripts of conversations in the doomed trade center towers released in August served as fresh reminders of the suffering.
“Right now the . . . the smoke is getting real heavy in here and it is starting to burn my eyes,” says a woman. “We still have tremoring up here.”
With touching insouciance, a man says: “Just calm down.”
Lee Ielpi, whose firefighter son, Jonathan, 29, died in the south tower, recites harrowing Trade Center statistics from memory — 19,938 body parts retrieved, only 292 bodies found intact, one of them his son’s.
“I don’t know if anybody can comprehend that,” said Ielpi, a retired firefighter who serves as vice president of the 9-11 Widows and Victims’ Families Association, and who is campaigning to preserve the tower “footprints” — all the way to bedrock. He fears commercial interests will prevail, though, and that retail outlets will open on what he considers hallowed ground. “You want to have hamburgers or buy ... shoes where people died?” he asked, incredulous.
An event of such dimension and heartbreak — and passion — undermines the comfy logic of everyday life.
It makes people think “terrorism” when a power failure douses the lights in New York, Detroit, Cleveland and other places. It makes them edgy in airports and fretful about personal liberties and restless about Iraq where — after a controversial war — violence hardly seems in retreat.
It makes them wonder about themselves.
“I find more and more people taking a long, hard look at their careers, priorities, values in life,” said the Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches.
Perhaps that is the way to understand where the nation is on this melancholy anniversary: Still aching from the attack against their homeland, Americans are looking for answers to everything.
“It was a cataclysmic event — a defining event in United States history,” said Marc Morial, president and chief executive of the National Urban League. “It created a period of reassessment.”
For some, the questions are daunting. How to balance security and civil rights? How to pursue the war on terrorism and attend to needs at home? How to understand America’s place in a world where so much seems dangerous and uncertain?
But, said Lee Edwards, distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., Americans also are showing admirable resolve and readiness to engage the future — whatever its perils.
“It seems to me that the American people are basically a common sense people and they can see that terrorism is still with us — whether we look to the Middle East, Iraq or closer,” he said. “Americans understand it is really one world today. Isolation is no longer an option.”
Remaining vigilant and, at the same time, true to the essence of America — that is the trick, said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People For the American Way, a liberal public interest group.
“It is an occasion for double vigilance,” he said — for the country to guard againt the dangers of terrorism and threats to cherished freedoms. “No question, 9/11 was a wake-up call,” he said,
But, many say, the awful events of two years ago brought Americans together in a way that — though sometimes romanticized — could have lasting effects on the nation’s sense of selfhood.
“I think there is much more solidarity — a much stronger sense of patriotism,” said Donald Kraybill, a specialist in Amish studies who co-edited the 2002 book “Where Was God on Sept. 11?” “It’s made a structural difference in our social organization.”
Reminding the nation of that bond — of America’s oneness and resilience — is important work.
Sanda Aronson, a victim since 1981 of chronic fatigue syndrome who lives on the Upper West Side and founded the Disabled Artists Network, has done a number of photo montages with themes relating to the terrorist attack.
Each includes an image of an ascending phoenix imposed on a black ribbon cloaking the Manhattan skyline. The emblem announces the obvious, Aronson said — that New York endures. “We’re still here,” she said.
Her message is the one that should rally Americans everywhere. Memory persists, Aronson’s artwork says. So does hope.