The 9/11 Century
The Atlantic|September 2021
Twenty years on, how should we think about the worst terrorist attack in American history?
By George Packer

September 11 is buried so deep under layers of subsequent history and interpretation that it’s hard to sort out the true feelings of that day. But I remember one image with indelible clarity. It’s the face of a young woman in a color photograph on a flyer that appeared at the entrance to my subway stop in Brooklyn, around my neighborhood, and then all over the city. we need your help, the flyer said.

Giovanna

‘Gennie’ Gambale

27 years old 5’6”

Brown hair, brown eyes

Last seen on 102nd fl of

World Trade Center …

Call with any information.

The sign was posted right after the attacks and stayed up long after it stopped being an urgent request to locate a missing person who might be wandering through the ashes of Lower Manhattan, and became a tribute to a lost daughter. The early hours and days were like that. The facts were incomprehensible. How many people died, how many survived, did any survive? When would the next attack come? Who had done it, and why?

Through most of September 12 and 13, I waited to give blood with other New Yorkers in a long sidewalk line. “I volunteered so I could be a part of something,” an unemployed video producer named Matthew Timms told me. “I’ve been at no point in my life when I could say something I’ve done has affected mankind. Like, when the news was on, I was thinking, What if there was a draft? Would I go? I think I would.” A teenager named Amalia della Paolera was passing out cookies. “This is the time when we need to be, like, pulling together and doing as much as we can for each other,” she said, not “sitting at home watching it on TV and saying, like, ‘Oh, there’s another bomb.’ ”

Only on the second day did we begin to understand that there would not be any need for our blood, and even then no one left the line until we were told to go home.

THE LIVES SCARRED, DESTROYED, OR PREVENTED FROM EXISTING BY THE MURDER OF 2,977 PEOPLE MUST NUMBER IN THE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS.

The presence of other people—vigils around melted candle wax on the Brooklyn Heights promenade, crowds at barricades on Canal Street offering foil-covered pots of food to rescue workers—was all that made the days bearable. Safe and hyper civilized people in cities like New York are generally embarrassed by expressions of strong feeling— irony comes more naturally. But right after September 11, strangers on the subway would fall into intense conversations for six minutes, embrace, then never see each other again.

I remember Gennie Gambale because of her smile, which was radiant. Its light exposed the enormity of the crime. The hijackers had set out to end her life as she went about her morning in the heart of a great city. If they could have killed 30,000 human beings, or 3 million, they would have done it greedily. She would be 47 years old today. The youngest victim, a toddler on United Flight 175, would be 22. The lives scarred, destroyed, or prevented from ever existing by the murder of 2,977 people must number in the hundreds of thousands. It’s impossible to understand what America got wrong after September 11—the panic, the hubris, the lies, the endless wars, the two decades of national deterioration— without first letting that knowledge jam hard roots into the psyche.

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