I am writing seven or eight hours after the attack, and, through my study window in Brooklyn, I see black plumes still billowing from lower Manhattan. In the morning, from my rooftop, I watched the first flames encircle the twin towers and the black cloud float over the harbor. The smoke seemed oddly speckled with glinting white spots, which I at first thought might have been gulls. But they were papers sucked out of the burning buildings. Some of the specks were also, I later learned, human body parts. A silvery necklace as wide as a building seemed to drop from one of the burning towers. I thought it might have been part of the facade, tearing away. It was not the facade. The smoke cleared for a brief second, and the tower was gone. Below me, on Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, fire engines began to scream, trying to push their way through traffic into Manhattan.
By late morning huge parades of people from Manhattan had begun to make their way on foot across the bridges into Brooklyn and were dragging themselves along Atlantic Avenue, some of them still wearing masks over their mouths and noses, a white soot on their clothes and shoes. I went out into the street. Lower Atlantic Avenue has been a largely Arab district for some 70 years, filled with storefronts adorned with Arabic letters and names. Here and there among the crowd, people were hurling curses at Arabs and at foreigners. A round-faced man declaimed, “Don’t let any more of these foreign Arabs come into this country no more! They hate us!” I stopped at a store where I know a clerk from Morocco. He has told me he admires the moderate and tolerant views of the late king of Morocco and of the new, young king. Now the clerk was standing taciturn behind the counter, his face compressed. Outside, the round-faced man was shouting, “We gotta get rid of all these foreigners!”
At Smith street a woman who said she worked near the World Trade Center stood on the sidewalk, dust on her clothes; she, too, spoke against the Arabs. “This is where all these hateful people live!” she said, gesturing up Atlantic Avenue. I asked her what she had seen. She said she had seen people hurl themselves to the ground from very high floors of the World Trade Center. “Where is Bush?” she said, exploding in anger. “Where was the Army?” She had seen a terrified old man on the Brooklyn Bridge, unable to walk any further because of his panic, clutching a pole.
I walked to the Brooklyn Bridge and tried to cross into Manhattan, but I was turned away by the police. I tried to cross on the Manhattan Bridge, and I got part of the way over the river before I was turned back again. So I joined the endless stream of people going the other way, into Brooklyn--the vast and varied crowd that resembled a crowd in almost no other place on Earth, faces that were African, Asian, Latin, European--the whole of mankind. A Hasid sped by on a roller scooter. Near Long Island University, the sidewalks were filled with students passing out water, as if to the runners in a marathon.
It was a gratifying scene of communal solidarity. But on Fulton Street, as I headed back to my home, I saw that the storekeepers had pulled down their metal shutters and the street was empty. A cop told me that looters had begun to run up and down Fulton Street. In exchange for that information, I told him a rumor I had heard from one of his colleagues on the Manhattan Bridge: that large numbers of cops could not be accounted for and were probably buried under the twin towers. “Don’t tell me that,” he said.
At home I climbed back onto the roof. The view from my roof reaches from lower Manhattan to Prospect Park to the Verrazano Bridge, a vista of rooftops and skyscrapers and church steeples. Sometimes there I have thought of a poem by Baudelaire called “Correspondences,” in which he proposes that man walks through nature as if through a forest of symbols, every new element representing some abstract and absolute idea. It is a notion that comes from the philosopher Plotinus in the third century. But I have often wondered if Baudelaire or Plotinus or anyone else with that idea had or has really been thinking about nature. For nature is not a symbol, though you can tell yourself anything you want.
But when you look out on a vast cityscape, you do see a forest of symbols. From my roof, gazing up Atlantic Avenue, I saw a Belorussian Orthodox Church, then the Reverend Herbert Daughtry’s Pentecostal House of the Lord, then the former Ex-Lax factory, then the ywca, a mosque, and, towering above all, the enormous Williamsburg Bank Tower, a temple to capitalism--a landscape that might have been painted by Saul Steinberg, each element charming and even comic in its idiosyncrasy. In the other direction, very far away, the Statue of Liberty, no bigger than my thumb, held her torch aloft.
Now a new symbol dominates the New York skyline, and the philosopher Plotinus offers the best account of it. According to Plotinus, evil is neither a demon nor Satan nor any kind of being. Evil is an absence. In the skyline now, there is an empty space where the twin towers used to be. I gaze out my study window, where I am used to seeing the towers, and I can hardly believe what I see. I see nothing. Smoke and sky. It is the symbol of absolute evil.
Paul Berman is author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968.
This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.