The most reassuring thing about the twin towers of the World Trade Center was that they were always there. I saw them every morning from my apartment in Brooklyn across the East River from where the pale white towers rose in Lower Manhattan. Even on stormy days, they would be visible through the rain or snow or mist, always startling in their tall strength. And in the evenings, their myriad lighted windows never failed to project magic.
The magic flowed from the symbolism. The wtc represented American economic might—a three-trillion-dollar economy, the strongest currency in the world—in a way that was unmatched by any other structure in the US. The towers stood like sentinels in the city's financial district, seemingly guarding the Wall Street. They were a repository of economic activity, too. More than 50,000 people worked in the complex and another 150,000 would come daily as visitors, many taking a dizzying elevator ride up to the topmost 110th floors. On a clear day, you could see forever from the top—a wondrous sight, one that drew tourists from all over the world. Almost 23 years ago, my late brother-in-law, Ajai Lal, brought his new bride, Indu Sahni, to NY on their honeymoon. Their first touristic stop was the World Trade Center. I know others who would gasp at the cavernous concourses, the high columns, the interconnected walkways. There were subway platforms below street level, and vast plazas dotted with shops of all kinds.
It was, really, a city unto itself.
That city is gone now, wiped out by terrorists who boarded civilian aircraft and plunged them into each of the two towers on September 11. No one knows how many people perished at the wtc—the rubble from the collapsed towers is almost six storeys high, and so dense that we may never find some of the bodies. Television channels are offering non-stop coverage of the rescue operations carried out by hardy men and women from the city's police and fire departments, and by thousands of volunteers from the tri-state metropolitan area, consisting of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. As of Thursday morning, local hospitals reported admitting about 2,500 people from the site of the tragedy, including a dozen or so who were pulled out alive from under the debris. About 100 bodies have also been recovered. But the rest of those who worked at the wtc? Mayor Rudolph Giuliani says he's asked for at least 6,000 "body bags".
When those bodybags start filling up, there is going to be more trauma in this city, and across this still disbelieving nation. The psychological damage is bound to be extensive. Despite an earlier attack on the wtc in 1993—when a bomb planted by Muslim radicals went off, causing some casualties and physical damage—most New Yorkers believed that their city was unlikely to be assaulted in a massive manner. In truth, scarcely anyone here gives much thought to terrorism. This isn't that kind of place—Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, or even London, given the ira bombings. But New York?
Now New York knows first-hand what brutal terrorism means. And I'm afraid that however resilient the city's spirit, the recovery is going to be difficult. It will take weeks, perhaps even months, to clear up the mess in the downtown area. While there are already talks of rebuilding the World Trade Center, no one seriously believes it is going to happen any time soon—the original structures, which were fully completed in 1973, cost some $1.3 billion. Today, the reconstruction would need at least four times that amount.
Neither the city nor the state of New York has that kind of money. Moreover, the architectural trends in America no longer favour such tremendously tall buildings. Maybe they will build a modest memorial on the spot where the twin towers stood for nearly three decades until last Tuesday.
If they do that, surely the names of many South Asian men and women are bound to be recorded on the plaque. The World Trade Center housed dozens of financial firms, stock brokerages and investment banks—the sort of businesses where South Asians have done well in recent years. The TV channels have shown relatives of some of these missing South Asians, who hoped that rescue workers will somehow spot them and bring them up alive from the rubble. But that's all it is now, hope. A grimmer reality awaits us all.
For South Asians and Arab-Americans, there may well be another aspect of a grimmer future to consider. That is because among those suspected of being behind the terrorism are Osama bin Laden—the Saudi renegade reported to be living in Afghanistan—and some associates allegedly linked to elements in Pakistan. Already, there are reports from around the country of random attacks on their communities. Some South Asians, although not necessarily in NY, have been subjected to taunts and harassment. President George W. Bush and other officials like governor George Pataki of New York have urged Americans not to rush to judgement against Arabs or South Asians.
But this is a bewildered nation. While ethnic tolerance and harmony are basic credos here, Americans have never seen carnage of such huge proportions at home. Who knows what strong emotions are going to be unleashed?
(Pranay Gupte lives in New York, and is editor-in-chief of Conference News Daily and The Earth Times.)
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