Our Town

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And yes, we have also suffered terrible losses inflicted by a foreign enemy before, more than any other place in America. After the British took Manhattan in 1776, a third of the city burned (probably at the hands of overzealous patriots). The British occupied what was left of New York for the rest of the war, and out in the harbor and the East River they anchored 25 decaying old hulls that they used as prison ships. On board, American soldiers, including Ethan Allen, were chained down in the dark holds, deprived of almost any medical care or exercise, and fed, literally, on the garbage from the British navy messes. Before the war was over, 11,000 of them had died of disease and privation, nearly twice the number of Americans who died in combat. When the British finally left, in 1783, New York was a burned-out, impoverished shell, wracked with grief and suffering. It has done a little better since then, and that was how it came to be chosen for the horror that descended out of a clear blue sky.

For it seems now that we have been reduced to a new role, that of stage scenery. The men who committed these despicable, nihilistic acts saw the World Trade Center as a convenient symbol for their propaganda coup, a backdrop that would be instantly recognizable around the globe. In fact, what the skyscrapers at the end of Manhattan represented is an immensely complex and eclectic civilization. New York City is the most cosmopolitan place in the history of the world, which only makes it the most American part of America. This isn’t to claim any special privilege. We have all the faults of human beings everywhere, and then some. Yet over the years, in good part because of the very disasters that have beset us, we have been forced to learn a little tolerance, a little respect for one another. We have learned to be a little less sure of what we believe, to see some of the ambiguities inherent in life—which may be one big reason we are still here and why people still flock from the ends of the earth to join us.

The men who did this deed live only in the arid, mental desert of dogma and destruction. Their whole concept of the twin towers was an infantile one, crashing toy airplanes into building-block skyscrapers. We will clean up their mess and build over it again, with the help of our countrymen—and all those who would be our countrymen, in thought or in deed. For it is we who have learned how to build and to abide.