The Sunday Times of India, Sept 16, 2001

United Nations of Commerce

By Salil Tripathi

Hurricane Gloria had lashed New York with all its force in the winter of 1986. I lived in Manhattan then. All around the city, people struggled to walk, trying to push themselves against the strength of ferocious winds. I was somewhere downtown, and on the southern tip of the island, you could see the two towers of the World Trade Center protruding skywards.

The towers shook a little then, for so it seemed. What if they crashed, I thought. Later that night, as we swapped hurricane stories with friends, I was told by one who worked in the vicinity of the towers that the buildings were structurally sound. They’d withstand the hurricane.

They did: they could withstand nature’s fury. They had, in 1993, survived a bomb in the basement. But they crumbled when two planes, with demonic zeal, crashed into them with the single-minded purpose of destroying them. Man’s fury did them in, snuffling out thousands of lives, traumatizing those left behind.

We were there earlier this summer, on a hot day, standing in long queues to reach the top of the tower. The queues moved at an orderly pace, and from the top, as you surveyed the awesome beauty of Manhattan, you also read the history of this great city and how it was built, how its various landmarks came into being. Despite being taller than the Empire State Building or Chrysler Building, the twin towers looked functional; they lacked the art-deco charms of its older cousins midtown. They looked like tall, slim cigarette lighters made to stand next to one another, brimming with confidence.

It will take time to get used to the landscape without the towers. How could something so tall and so solid disappear so quickly? Television images have shown it thousands of times now, and yet, those images aren’t able to vanquish the image deeply embedded in the mind’s eye: of the towers, with the Statue of Liberty nearby, inviting everyone into the harbor.

For remember, this was the World Trade Center; and seafronted cities trade. It was the United Nations of business, an international meeting place of the world. (Consider the diversity of nations whose sons and daughters died on Tuesday). Port cities tend to be open, and people from around the world come to these cities at that unhurried pace of a ship slowing down. Not to invade, but to mingle. Cities by the sea welcome foreign influences. And the towers welcomed trade and commerce, just as the Statue of Liberty opened American arms for those fleeing persecution.

It is that openness, that idea of America, that the extremists sought to destroy, to make the United States frightened, to make it build barricades around the country. Some cities do change after such a powerful assault. The bomb blasts of Bombay in early 1993 changed the city’s character; the process of transforming Bombay into Mumbai had already begun, but it got hastened after that. The can-do spirit of Americans thrives: I met an American businessman I know on the day after, here in London, where I now live. After he heard my condolences, he looked into my eyes, thanked me for my thoughts, and said: “Well, we just have to start all over again and rebuild….”

He left unsaid what he meant by rebuilding: the towers, or the spirit of the people? Even if nobody rebuilds the towers, although feelings are running high in New York that they must be rebuilt, and even if the spot where the towers once stood becomes a memorial for the thousands whose lives were so cruelly and senselessly destroyed on that crisp, cool September morning, it is this spunky spirit, this conviction, that tomorrow will be better than today, that every setback is temporary, that will pull Manhattan, and America, out of its sense of despair.

Writing about the construction of the United Nations Building after the Second World War, in his moving 1949 elegy, “Here is New York”, E.B. White said: “New York is not a capital city … but it is by way of becoming the capital of the world. Once again, the city will absorb, almost without showing any sign of it, a congress of visitors. The race -- between the destroying planes and the struggling parliament of Men -- it sticks in all our heads. The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errands forestalled.”

The UN Building, in which White placed his hopes, didn’t deliver. But the spirit of Manhattan must. It will. As one cartoonist pointed out on Wednesday morning, amid the rubble and dark smoke, the Statue of Liberty had survived. The caption said: She still stands.