9/11 New York: Remembering a pre-political moment

The politics of the mourning has triumphed over the mourning of the political.

Flowers posted in the names of the victims on the edges of the 9/11 Memorial, where Pope Francis will visit later in the day in New York, New York [EPA]
The politics of mourning 9/11 has by now preempted the possibility of the mourning of the political, writes Dabashi [EPA]

Cities have a life of their own. It is as if they don’t belong to the countries where they are geographically located. You fly from New York to London, Paris, Istanbul, Cairo, New Delhi, Mexico City or Tokyo – and the lives of the two cosmopolises your flight connects resonates deeply with each other beyond all political borders.

The significance of these cities have to do with their collective memory of themselves, and the manner in which such memories live in their inhabitants. In every one of its citizens, the city sings that chorus memory. 

Tehran during the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979, Philadelphia during the Bicentennial Celebrations of 1976, and New York during the events of 9/11/2001 mark such enduring urban dramas for me.

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From Tehran to Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Istanbul, Casablanca, London, Paris, New York, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and New Delhi, there are world historic events that connect the lives of cities and their inhabitants to a more global history of nations than their fictive frontiers could care to fathom.

There was a moment on that fateful Tuesday morning of 9/11 that New York went through an enervating collective trauma that has changed its history forever – very much on the same spectrum that people must have experienced in Kabul or Kandahar, Baghdad or Mosul, Damascus or Aleppo, Beirut or Tripoli ever since that fateful day in our contemporary world history. 

A pre-political moment

For those of us who lived through that fateful 9/11 in New York, we remember vividly an intensely emotional moment when the politics of the horror had not come rudely to control and define it with unsurpassed vulgarity.

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It was an existential moment, a moment of prehistoric fear, a traumatic sense of planetary emptiness. We no longer knew where we were. We had lost the map of our universe.

It was an existential moment, a moment of prehistoric fear, a traumatic sense of planetary emptiness. We no longer knew where we were. We had lost the map of our universe.


I remember our students at the Columbia University campus bringing their colourful chalks and childhood crayons and writing memorabilia on our iconic “steps” in front of our Alma Mater statue.

To me, those faded scribblings are infinitely superior in their emotional intelligence, and more enduring in the memories of that fateful day they invoked than any other official “9/11 Memorial”.

Yes, it was a ghastly act by a gang of Muslim criminals followed by even ghastlier and more criminal acts by the wildly unleashed US militarism.

But just before those two successive political moments, there was an entirely different instantiation of thoughts, emotions, acts of mourning that has now been almost completely buried under the ashes of those two magnificent Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The politics of the mourning has triumphed over the mourning of the political. 

A metaphysics of scale

Compared to the scale of death and destruction that the US has unleashed on major cities in Afghanistan and Iraq, and later Bashar al-Assad and his nemesis have visited upon Syria, the destruction of those two towers now appears as entirely negligible, even remembering them perhaps an insult to the memories of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings maimed and murdered and turned into hopeless refugees in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria.


But still, for those of us who lived through that day in New York and can never forget the minutiae details of where we were and what we did as those two towers were crumbling down, there is a precious but entirely lost moment when the tragic event brought New York to the fold of humanity. 

Maybe it took only a few hours, or perhaps even a day or two, before the militarist logic of the US’ wounded pride took over and began beating the drums of war. But during those precious few hours, something extraordinary happened in this city. We were mourning the loss of two sublime poetic uprisings from the heart of our ordinary urbanity. 

The politics of mourning 9/11 have by now completely overcome and preempted the possibility of the mourning of the political. But there was a moment when those two buildings had just fallen down – we saw them on our television screens and walked like zombies towards their mourning sites. 

There was an eerie silence about the city. A ghost of New York had arisen from its ashes and is hovering over its wounded pride. Every major city around the globe was mourning with New York on that day – and on that day, for a fleeting moment, there was a lingering hope that the entirety of the nation that claims New York as its own would recognise that global mourning and learn humility and empathy with similar buildings falling in any other city. 

Alas, that did not happen. US President George W Bush soon appeared on the scene and instantly dragged that moment into a furious jingoistic militarism from which the world is still burning alive. But those who lived that 9/11 day in New York were taught a lasting lesson on what it means when today we see Aleppo, or when we saw Kandahar or Baghdad “shocked and awed” into fearful suspension of hope in our own fragile humanity.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.