my reads: ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ by Art Spiegelman

It’s been nine years since terrorists crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center. It simultaneously feels like that was a million years ago and like it was yesterday. That day changed my city and my country, not for the better, and — it now seems — irrevoccably. Sham security theater now subjects citizens who are supposed to enjoy the presumption of innocence to regular violations of our privacy and our civil liberties, without doing a damn thing to prevent those actually intent on harm from doing evil. New York City feels like an armed camp, with National Guardsman armed with rifles patrolling some areas; on Friday, I saw two men wearing bulletproof vests with “HSA POLICE” emblazoned across their chests walking a beat around Grand Central Station. I thought: What the fuck is this? Yet another police force? Ground Zero remains a construction site, which is an absolute disgrace nearly a decade on. Yet those who would like to reinvigorate the neighborhood — which remains riddled with unoccupied buildings — are hounded by self-righteous bigots: the bullshit “Ground Zero mosque” “controversy” embarasses and appalls me as a New Yorker. This city has certainly had its share of problems in the past, but we didn’t used to be such narrowminded, insular jerks.

Meanwhile, a crackpot who threatens to burn copies of the Koran is treated by the mainstream media — and even by the President of the United States! — as if he’s actually worth the breath to talk about.
Oh, yes, and that President, the one who promised us hope and change? He’s done nothing but perpetuate the horrors he inherited.

New York City and the United States of America have become colder, more unpleasant places than they used to be, and Americans even more blinkered than we were as a nation before. I don’t like it — not one bit — and there is no sign of the situation improving. If anything, it continues to get worse.

I figured this weekend would be a good time to finally read Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Because it is indeed ironic and infuriating that something that no longer exists as a physical thing can continue to cast such long, solid, dark shadows. I knew the book was Spiegelman’s coming to terms with the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and I wondered what his rage and pain would feel like another six years on; No Towers was published in 2004.

If Spiegelman was this enraged and this full of despair in 2004, I can’t imagine what kind of anguish he’s suffering now. Because No Towers isn’t just about his trying to cope with the haunting images he saw on that day in 2001, though he handles that superbly here. His own personal iconography of 9/11 includes something we’ve never seen any photographs of: “the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized,” as he says in the introduction. That image appears over and over again in these oversized pages, each spread devoted to one giant graphic that apes the broadsheet comics of a century ago. (Spiegelman lives in lower Manhattan, and his teenaged daughter was attending high school at Ground Zero, to which he ran that morning. So he was himself literally in the shadow of the towers that morning.) The book is also about his fury at how 9/11 was hijacked by the Bush administration to launch its colonial oil war in the Middle East. He posits that the U.S. is really two countries — the one that doesn’t accept evolution and voted for Bush, and the rest of us. He wonders how it can be that he feels like New York doesn’t fit in with the rest of the country.

I wonder if he feels today as if New York is an alien place now, too.

Perhaps one of the most chilling moments, in retrospect, is when Spiegelman reflects that he finally understands those Jews who didn’t flee Germany after Kristallnacht, because the horrors of 9/11 made him feel rooted to a city that he’d previously said he felt homeless in. But No Towers was created and published before Bush was reelected. Before Obama refused to close Guantanamo Bay. I wonder if he now feels that New York is a place to be escaped from. It’s horrifying that the anger and the bitterness Spiegelman was seething with six years ago feels today like it’s not angry and bitter enough.

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Sun, Sep 12, 2010 4:05pm

i’ve been reading two books this week, both of which talk about the changing society of germany just prior to the annexation of austria and the gradual reduction of the liberties and expression of the jews in germany and i keep getting a horrible sick feeling that it all sounds so familiar. distressingly familiar. the collapse of the economy, the war that cost so much, the alienation of one section of society… and i keep wondering, if i wanted to get out, where would i go? and if the idea of getting out is a form of cowardice or realism, and could everything have changed so much on just one day? i’m waiting for the camps, a la the japanese internments… maybe there weren’t any ovens, but there were few protests either. it’s all a nightmare… there are a few voices crying in the wilderness, but as usual, none of the ones in power.

Sun, Sep 12, 2010 4:23pm

OK – this post pushed me over – I just subscribed. Hope you continue writing about other art-forms Maryann I very much value your perspective!

Mon, Sep 13, 2010 1:33am

Beautifully written (and chilling) reflections, MaryAnn.

I’d like to echo canuck and say that I love your writing about other art forms [aside film and TV].

And of course there are two Americas. All of Obama’s early speeches about “there is no blue America and red America, there is the UNITED STATES of America” were disingenuous bullshit.

Personally, as an educated liberal from Washington, D.C., I do not want to be lumped in with someone who thinks dinosaurs roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago and who thought our two wars were great ideas. Call it snobbery if you like. There is nothing that will make me vote for a Republican, ever.

Tonio Kruger
Mon, Sep 13, 2010 4:25am

And of course there are two Americas. All of Obama’s early speeches about “there is no blue America and red America, there is the UNITED STATES of America” were disingenuous bullshit.

I suspect the various “Americas” described in Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America might be more to the point.