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Three years after 9/11, a personal reflection about memories and ghosts

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-09-12

NEW YORK - It's hard to believe that three years have passed since that terrible morning when two hijacked jets destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, changing forever the way we all live and the way we see ourselves and one another.

From the windows of my apartment, those towers were always the symbol of New York for me, rising into the skies in testimony to the might of American capitalism and to the marvels of modern architecture. I remember that sunny morning well, how one tower burst into flames first, and then, quickly, the second one. I could scarcely comprehend what was happening, but it turned out that Islamic terrorists were indeed attacking America that morning in a series of well-coordinated hijackings of aircraft in Boston and Washington.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. Wasn't America impregnable? True, New York was always a city of street muggings and the occasional murder; true, every politician running for office here would make public safety a prime issue; and true, that we'd all heard of plots and schemes hatched far away to bring the United States to its knees in a unipolar world where American power was often perceived as hegemonic.

Still, New Yorkers are a hardy lot; perhaps reckless, too, in their belief that their city would always be inviolate when it came to foreign intrigue. After all, this is a city of immigrants, and neighbourhood after neighbourhood resonates with a thousand languages and accents.

But hijacked planes careening into the World Trade Centre? If a scriptwriter had submitted such a screenplay to a Hollywood producer, surely it would have been rejected as being unworthy of the box-office.

I am now back in New York after a very long spell abroad, back in a city where I spent much of my professional life, back in a city that nurtured me and matured me as a journalist and author. I am back to a different city, however, one whose exuberance has yet to be restored fully. I am back to a city where once strangers smiled at one another, they simply look away now - or worse, they stare in implicit suspicion. Not far from my apartment is an area densely populated with Arabs. These days, it's even more packed with plainclothes policemen.

It wasn't always this way. Back in the early 1970s, when I was a very young reporter for the New York Times, I well remember all the fuss over the raising of the World Trade Centre. It was deemed by many as a white elephant, and many predicted - correctly, as it turned out - that the complex would be a white elephant without enough tenants to pay for its upkeep. My friend, Mr Theodore W. Kheel, the veteran labour mediator, even launched a public protest against the project. But there was too much money to be made by construction companies and their political patrons, and the drilling of construction crews soon smothered Mr Kheel's voice.

He is 90 years old now, still in vigorous health, still active in the city's public life. Mr Kheel has become what they call an eminence grise, a wise old man whom contemporary leaders sometimes turn to for sage political advice. On this visit, I wanted to ask him how he felt about the third anniversary of the destruction of the project he'd opposed, but I desisted.

I did so because Ted Kheel had given what many of New York's luminaries remember as the last great party of the last era, the age of the World Trade Centre. It was the night before the catastrophe, on September 10, a stormy night when rain inundated the city. Mr Kheel and I were part of a group that honoured Prof. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum. The United Nations Secretary General, Mr Kofi A. Annan of Ghana, came for the occasion, as did numerous celebrities from New York's "A" List.

Professor Schwab was being honoured for his unstinting efforts at spreading understanding of globalisation and of amity between cultures. In his brief speech - after he accepted a silver candle from Secretary General Annan - Professor Schwab spoke about how important it was that, as the world shrank because of technology and travel, cultures needed to understand one another better. "We may have different customs and different religions," he said, "but in the end we are all part of the human race. We need to learn to love one another, to be tolerant, to show greater acceptance of the fact that people will always be different in different societies."

And Mr Annan said, "We need to light more candles of light so that we can all see better through the darkness of misunderstandings."

Mr Kheel, quoting the late US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, said: "It's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."

The very next morning, a few minutes before nine o'clock, although the rain had ceased and the skies were sparkling, a darkness descended on New York - and on the world as we knew it - when the World Trade Centre's towers came crashing down.

As I look out of my apartment on this third anniversary of 9/11, I see those towers still gleaming. I see their twin structures reflecting the early morning sunlight, and I also see the towers splashed with the special pink hues that New York sunsets bring.

I look again, but there's nothing out there now. The towers are only ghosts, gone forever in an inferno of hate. One day soon, the doyens of New York will replace the World Trade Centre with something dramatic, something architecturally bold. There will surely be a memorial to the 3,000 innocent men and women from 125 countries that perished that morning.

But in my mind, at least, the ghosts of those old twin towers will always remain, more or less the same.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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