Fifteen years and two months ago, New Yorkers woke to a nightmare. Neither I nor anyone else who was in the city on 9/11 will ever forget the surreal horror of that day: the towers falling, crumpling like sandcastles kicked by a child’s careless foot; the acrid smells of burning jet fuel, molten steel, and incinerated flesh and bone; the people staggering down the streets toward home by the thousands; the strident, incessant howling of sirens, and the even more terrifying silence that followed.
But what I remember most keenly about that day and its immediate aftermath is the expression of stunned, uncomprehending grief on nearly every face I saw. Thousands of our own had been taken from us in the most heinous way, but those 2,996 innocents weren’t all we mourned. We had lost something else, something precious and irretrievable that was greater than ourselves or our individual lives, and its demise was devastating. How, we wondered, could this happen here?
Walking around my Brooklyn neighborhood the day Donald Trump became the president-elect, I saw that same expression on a great many faces. New York is a city of immigrants, a messy soup of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, and economic brackets; a city of fighters and strivers who, despite our differences, somehow manage to live and work in very close quarters in (relative) harmony. New Yorkers really are all in this together, and I suspect that’s why most of us are liberals. At some point, we did the math and realized that if we wanted our rights, we had to give them to our different-thinking, different-colored neighbors with their funny accents and odd ways, too.
On election day, New Yorkers went to sleep believing we lived in one kind of world, and we woke up in another; at least, the 79% of us who voted for Hillary Clinton did. As in September of 2001, we felt the bewilderment of children who’d been told we were safe in their beds, that God was watching over us, that good triumphed over evil. Here, in the greatest city on earth, in the mightiest democracy the world has ever known, mass terrorist attacks were not supposed to happen; nor were we supposed to elevate an ignorant, sexist, racist bully with no respect for the United States Constitution to the seat of Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Such catastrophes happened in other countries, not in ours. America, and Americans, were exceptional—or so we imagined.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of American exceptionalism that we hold so dear. It’s a conceit that has long been resented and mocked by other nations, even as their people have yearned to believe in it and have come here by the millions to be a part of it, stuffing their few belongings into one suitcase, walking away from farms, jobs, family, and friends, boarding boats or swimming rivers or paying all they had to unscrupulous coyotes who stuffed them in sweltering trucks from which they might never emerge alive: all for the opportunity to live here, in a country that promised equality for all. That we didn’t always deliver it was beside the point; we tried, and our history was one of moving closer to the ideals expressed by our founders. The abolition of slavery, suffrage for black men and—though it took another fifty years—for women. Desegregation, the Civil Rights Acts, reproductive rights, gay rights, transgender rights. At times we’ve lost our way, but for every reactionary step backward, we’ve taken two steps forward; for every Joseph McCarthy or Richard Nixon, we’ve produced a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Barack Obama. Until now. Now, we’ve elected a president who has gleefully rejected fairness, tolerance, decency, truthfulness, personal responsibility, and every other supposed American value. Turns out we’re no better than any other nation, and we’re about to be considerably worse than many.
After 9/11, it seemed to us here in New York that the whole country and indeed, the whole world, gasped and grieved with us. People sent sympathy cards from Tucson, El Paso, Stockholm, and Nairobi; held candlelight vigils in Kansas City, Huntsville, and Moscow; prayed for us and our dead to Jesus and Allah, Buddha and Brahma in every time zone on the planet. A French friend wrote to me in a letter, “Quelle horreur, c’est inimaginable”—“What a terrible thing, it’s inconceivable.” She used almost the identical wording in the email she sent me the morning after the election, and I received similar condolences from friends all over the world: “Good God, how could this happen?” “You must be devastated.” “My heart is with you.” Like 9/11, the tragedy of this election didn’t just happen to New Yorkers. It happened to all Americans and, because of the power our nation wields, to the entire world.
11/9 was not 9/11. There were no planes crashing into buildings, no senseless deaths. But to many of us in New York and elsewhere, the aftermath feels much the same. The ideals we hold as Americans and that we thought were inviolable have been savagely, successfully attacked, with the help of a partisan Supreme Court and FBI, a political system perverted by money, a craven, profit-driven news media, a Republican Party feeding its constituents on hate and fear, and a Russian government intent on destabilizing America, among other actors.
Instead of choosing the candidate with the qualifications, experience, and maturity to hold the highest office in the land, we elected the most small-minded, vicious, corrupt president in our history, a man endorsed by the KKK who has bragged about groping women, denigrated POWs and the families of slain soldiers, mocked disabled people, spread false conspiracy theories about the current president, and incited violence and hate speech against those who oppose him. How, we wonder, could this happen here?
As on 9/11, something precious and irretrievable has been lost. But this time, 60 million Americans are cheering.