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Sept. 11 And Culture

AUDIE CORNISH, host: From NPR News, this is live, special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I'm Audie Cornish.

When Flight Number 175 hit Tower Two, a moment captured live on television and watched around the world, that was when it became clear this was not an accident. It was a realization shared immediately by millions. And in an essay in this week's New Yorker magazine, editor David Remnick writes that this 10th anniversary of the attacks is a time to commemorate, consider and reconsider.

He joins us from his office in New York. David Remnick, welcome to the program.


CORNISH: In your essay, you actually start your story about the tragic tale of the burning of the General Slocum Ferry, which was a fire on a ferry boat on the Hudson River in 1904. And you write: Like so many catastrophes in history, it faded in the collective memory because the collective memory can bear only so much.

Why were you drawn to this story, and what were the ties you saw to it and the September 11th attacks?

REMNICK: Well, prior to 9/11, this was the worst catastrophe in a single day that New York City had ever faced. These were the - mainly women and children, mainly German immigrants who would, once a year, go on one of these kind of Mark Twain-like paddle steamers up the East River and have a picnic.

And for all kinds of reasons - a fire onboard, a lack of safety regulations- nearly a thousand people died. It was a terrible tragedy, and it shattered countless families, but it didn't alter the course of history in any serious way. It didn't reorder the military and political direction of the entire United States. And along comes 9/11 and many more people are killed on that day, but the ramifications were even larger.

CORNISH: And you also discuss the idea of how this has changed America's collective self-perception.

REMNICK: Nine-eleven is the embodiment of the end of this reality or illusion - or both - of seamless, peaceful prosperity and singularity in the world. I think many other factors have led to the state that we're in now - not to say that this is a country without great spirit and great resolve and extraordinary resilience. But there has been a diminishment of our sense of the American prospect. There's no doubt about that.

CORNISH: With the recent events in the Middle East - the Arab Spring and also, this past spring, the killing of Osama bin Laden by a Navy SEAL team - in what sense do these tie together on the end of this decade for Americans?

REMNICK: Well, history doesn't stop on one day and resume on another. These are trends. Obviously, bin Laden's life is over - and thank God for that. And I hope that it will cause great injury to al-Qaida. But certainly, it hasn't brought al-Qaida itself to a complete stop.

The Arab Spring - we're not going to know the ramifications of it for quite a long time. Famously, Zhou Enlai, the Communist Party leader in China, was once asked about his impressions of the French Revolution. And he said, it's too soon to tell - and that was two centuries after. So to expect stable democracies to occur in that region is ridiculous. But the trends are deeply promising.

CORNISH: And you argue in the article, in some sense, this has made extremism seem if not defeatable, at least that there is some alternative.

REMNICK: Well, I think 10 years ago or nine years ago, eight years ago, we saw radical Islamism as something stronger and perhaps even monolithic than we see it as now. I think we're seeing that region for all its complexity, partly because it has shown itself up politically because of these uprisings, and partly because we've paid attention a lot more closely.

CORNISH: In your article, you talk about this being a time to commemorate, consider and reconsider. And moving forward, what does that mean to you?

REMNICK: Well, I think despite the fact that all anniversaries, all historical anniversaries, are capable of being exploited, I think it is a useful - from where I come from - to have Yom HaShoah to commemorate the Holocaust, the celebration of the independence of the nation. And it's extremely useful to take pause today, on September 11th, and think about these questions, the questions of what we made of this, historically - the people we lost, the price paid. Life is so full of noise and speed that any opportunity we afford ourselves to stop and think about deeply serious things is a gift. And we should take advantage of it.

CORNISH: David Remnick is the editor of the New Yorker and he spoke with us from his office in New York City. David Remnick, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REMNICK: Thank you.

CORNISH: The redevelopment of lower Manhattan will continue well beyond this 10-year anniversary. And the process of rebuilding, of course, includes the grounds where the World Trade Towers stood - is far from finished.

Daniel Libeskind is helping to create that new landscape. He was named master planner for the World Trade Center site after winning a 2002 competition aimed at attracting the world's best architects.

We spoke with Daniel Libeskind this past week. He explained his vision for rebuilding the World Trade Center site.

DANIEL LIBESKIND: The idea was really a very, I think, profound one, which was how to bring memory of that day, which changed the world and changed all of us, where lives were lost, and how to use it as a foundation, quite literally, for the resurgence of life in New York. It wasn't just a bunch of separate things to be connected by some abstract network, but create a civic space at the center of the site - which has, of course, the footprints, but has the waterfalls, which were important to me in terms of creating intimacy, bringing nature.

But that memorial goes all the way down to bedrock. And that's, I think, the visceral emotional experience when you get close to where people perished. And, of course, I had to provide for 10 million square feet of density for office buildings.

CORNISH: Right. This is such a challenge. I mean, the World Trade Center complex - it's a sacred space, as you said, to families of 9/11 victims, but it's also, you know, the heart of commercial and transport for that area.

LIBESKIND: Exactly. But you know, out of the 16 acres, about eight of the acres are public space. You know, this is no longer a piece of real estate in New York. So really, where the Twin Towers stood is emptiness, but a kind of somber memorial, which has the waterfalls. It has a visitor's pavilion, which will take you down into the underground, to that slurry wall and to the bedrock.

And, of course, surrounding the space stand the five buildings, which will have the figure echo of the torch of liberty because they will rise from Tower Number One, and they will descend to a lower point, to Tower Number Five. So it's a really symbolic composition of the buildings as sort of guarding the memorial at its very center.

CORNISH: You're from New York. Can you tell us what this 16 acres means to you?

Well, it means to me the embodiment of what happened - of New York, of the values of America. This is about people who perished. This is about tragedy, but it's really about how to bring back life. You know, when I thought about it, I thought about my parents, who are working in, you know, the sweatshops of New York. We were immigrants to New York. And I thought, you know, they will never be, in the high-rise buildings. They will be not in the corporate headquarters, but they would be on the streets of New York. They'd be in the subways. We have to make that experience really vivid, interesting, inspiring and, of course, functionally adequate.

CORNISH: Did you ever question the idea of putting a skyscraper back in those blocks?

LIBESKIND: No. I never questioned it. You know, I questioned how high it should be, but at the same time, I never doubted that you couldn't change Lower Manhattan into a village. I was sure that the resurgence of that site needs to have the skyline restored and a new orientation to the memorial and even the shifting of the buildings, really, toward Hudson River, where you can have the air and the light, and it's not a site oppressed by shadows and darkness.

CORNISH: There have been a good number of changes to your original vision and, of course, there are a great many architects brought in at this point to design each of the buildings on the site. And I want to know how comfortable you are with how much it strayed from your original vision.

LIBESKIND: It's very close, almost identical. It's like writing a score for an orchestra. You have to be able to give that score to different interpretations because you have the families of the victims; you have the governor of New York and New Jersey; you have the Port Authority; you have the investors and their own architects; you've got the MTA. And I'm just amazed how, in a democracy where this site is, you know, in the sort of struggle of big forces - has really brought people together and created a consensus, and allowed the site to move forward in exactly the way I proposed.

CORNISH: The site is also still far from finished, especially the buildings that you were describing. The memorial will open to families tomorrow and the museum, the next year.


CORNISH: But what do you hope for the site in the future?

LIBESKIND: Of course, it's a work in progress. We have to achieve many things. But I think bringing back the streets of New York back - that this is no longer, you know, some sort of a podium of abstraction, which was associated with the Twin Towers, but it's a neighborhood connector.

We have that sort of iconic tip of Manhattan, which is coming back to life. And you know, what I'm really thrilled with is that there are twice the number of people living in Lower Manhattan today than were living there before 9/11. So really, the whole neighborhood is changing radically towards something which is very good and very interesting and very urban again.

CORNISH: Daniel Libeskind is the master planner for the World Trade Center site. He spoke to us from our New York bureau. Daniel Libeskind, thank you so much for talking with us.

LIBESKIND: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: Joining me now in the studio is NPR national security correspondent Tom Gjelten. Tom, this has been a day of reflection and remembrance for those lost 10 years ago on 9/11, and we've heard some moving readings and tributes to those who have died.

What are the moments that stood out for you today?

GJELTEN: Well, Audie, I think it was the voices of family members and survivors from 9/11 and the fact that we had months - in fact, years - to prepare for this anniversary meant that it was possible to assemble the people who either lost loved ones or family members or themselves barely survived 9/11. And I just thought, whether it was on our StoryCorps project or the people reading names in New York, I thought hearing the voices of those family members talk about the pain that they're still feeling and hearing the pain in their voices, now 10 years after, that made a big impression on me.

CORNISH: And if you weren't sure, sort of, how long this 10 years has really been, it was very easy to see on stage when a young person would get up, a teenager, a pre-teen, talking about their father or mother who they lost on that day.

GJELTEN: I remember the young man named Peter who talked about what his father had taught him and how he was trying to pass some of those things on now to his younger brother, who was only two years old when their father died.

CORNISH: Another interesting thing is, in New York, they didn't have clergy at the event but also you saw people doing scripture readings. The president read from the Bible. Spirituality was very much a part of the day.

GJELTEN: It very much was. And I think this is a point that you've made before, that there were no speeches, except for what was said at the Pentagon. In New York, which is, of course, where the much greater tragedy was, it was a very somber occasion and there was no speechifying.

And, you know, something else that I was thinking of just a minute ago, Audie, we didn't hear from any members of Congress. We heard mayors, we heard governors, we heard presidents. We didn't hear anyone who is a politician. There were no Republican presidential candidates; there's Barack Obama, who of course will be a candidate. And, as I say, no members of Congress, so it really was a day when politics was just completely absent.

CORNISH: And I want to turn to your area of expertise, national security. What is remarkable is that it's been 10 years without another successful attack on the United States. Obviously, that's not for lack of trying.

GJELTEN: It's not for lack of trying. There have been a number of attacks that were thwarted, caught in the early stages of preparation. We're still sort of on pins and needles even today because there's been intelligence of a possible plan to carry out some kind of attack today.

You're right. There hasn't been any big attack. One thing we should keep in mind, though, Audie, and that is even though the United States has not suffered an attack, other countries have. There was a terrible attack in London. There was a terrible attack in...

CORNISH: Right. In Madrid.

GJELTEN: Madrid. There have been terrible attacks in Pakistan, so it's not as though there haven't been terrible incidents of terrorism over these last 10 years. It's just that, fortunately, the United States has escaped another major attack.

CORNISH: Anniversaries, they seem arbitrary in terms of moments to stop and reflect, sometimes. But is there any way to look at this moment and look beyond 9/11, maybe in the area of security?

GJELTEN: Well, I think that, you know, one of the things that we've mentioned and we've heard a lot about in the last week, in particular, is that al-Qaida, this organization that brought such terror into our lives 10 years ago is, I think it's fair to say, a shadow of its former self now.

Most of the top leaders, with the exception of one man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was Osama bin Laden's deputy - most of the top leaders have actually been killed. The organization is short of finances. It is not able to carry out big, complex attacks like 9/11 anymore, as far as we know.

So I think that we have to recognize that progress has been made in this war on terrorism and perhaps this will allow us to tackle some other pressing items on our nation's agenda.

CORNISH: NPR's national security correspondent, Tom Gjelten, thank you so much.

GJELTEN: You bet, Audie.

CORNISH: Tenth anniversary commemorations of the attacks of September 11th, 2001 continue around the country throughout the day. The last official event will be "A Concert for Hope" at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, where President Obama will speak.

The president helped launch the day's activities at ground zero this morning. Here now are moments from today at all three sites: New York, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where planes went down on 9/11.


President BARACK OBAMA: Therefore, we will not fear, even though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling, there is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I pray that our heavenly father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom.


MICHAEL MULLEN: No music can assuage. No tongue can express. No prayer alone may dampen the yearning that must fire yet inside you.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) I once was lost, but now I'm found.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: My lovely mother.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1: My beautiful sister, CeeCee Ross Lyles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: CeeCee Ross Lyles.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #2: My mother, Hilda Marcin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Waleska Martinez Rivera.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #3: Nicole Carol Miller.

GEORGE PATAKI: Names wheeled in the dim warehouse of memory. So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

RUDOLPH GIULIANI: To every thing, there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #4: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Tom, I can only say that my heart is so thankful to have had you in my life. You were not only my brother. You were the best and bravest man and my best friend.

PETER NEGRON: I hope that I can make my father proud of the young men that my brother and I have become. I miss you so much, Dad.


CORNISH: You'll find more reflections on today's anniversary and the images and music and through blogging today's events at our website, You are listening to live special coverage of the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. I'm Audie Cornish.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come, 'tis Grace that brought...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.