You’re looking at a photograph of my son John holding his daughter Emma. They’re on the rooftop of their Manhattan apartment, on the south side of 15th Street, between 7th Avenue and 8th. It’s a pleasant fall evening in 1997, and my wife and I are visiting from St. Louis. Emma is ten months old.
But maybe you aren’t looking at John and Emma. Your eyes probably focus instead on those two gray monoliths in the background. Before it means anything else, the picture may remind you of a disaster. Who would have thought?
Even I can’t look at this family photo with simply a warm memory of the moment, though I am looking at my son and my granddaughter. Those towers in the background can’t be overlooked. Back then, it seemed to me, they stood impervious, dominant, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. In the photo, they stand like innocent bystanders, irrelevant to the purposes of the people in the photo or the person behind the camera. Now they are too relevant.
For a few years I had the picture on a library shelf, nicely framed, prominently displayed. But by January 1, 2002, when I retired, I could no longer look at it without thinking immediately of the World Trade Center. At that time, all my feelings involved rage, sympathy, and uncharacteristic xenophobia. For a long time after 9/11, I watched—again and again—the towers’ inferno, their collapse, the...