Over the seventeen years since the 9/11 attacks, I’ve grown to acknowledge the anniversary less and less, even failing to mention it at times. This isn’t because my memory has faded. It’s because I can’t find a way to express my grief anymore. For that, no one is more responsible than Rudy Giuliani.
I lived in the New York City media market for almost the entirety of Giuliani’s two terms as mayor, and I watched as the city became cleaner, less crime-riddled, more prosperous and much less gritty (in both the good and bad senses). Particularly during Giuliani’s second term, the national economy was booming and Wall Street was prospering, so it will always be difficult to judge how much credit Giuliani deserves for the city’s massive rebound from the dark days of the 1970’s and 1980’s. He will always be criticized for some of his decisions, especially around policing and racial relations, and his personal life and overall style eventually exhausted the people of New York. On the morning of 9/11, the city was voting to elect a Democratic mayor to replace him. That election was delayed and Michael Bloomberg took that opening and ran with it.
Whatever else you might say about him, 9/11 was Giuliani’s finest hour. The leadership he demonstrated that day and in the days following was nearly flawless, and contrasted very favorably with the unsteady performance from the White House. For a brief time, political differences and past grievances ceased to matter, and it was comforting that the whole nation seemed to embrace New York City for once and to honor the character of its people.
If Giuliani had left it at that, he would remain a personal hero for me. But he didn’t:
On Dec. 7, 2001, nearly three months after the terrorist attack that had made him a national hero and a little over three weeks before he would leave office, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took the first official step toward making himself rich.
The letter he dispatched to the city Conflicts of Interest Board that day asked permission to begin forming a consulting firm with three members of his outgoing administration. The company, Giuliani said, would provide “management consulting service to governments and business” and would seek out partners for a “wide-range of possible business, management and financial services” projects.
Over the next five years, Giuliani Partners earned more than $100 million, according to a knowledgeable source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the firm’s financial information is private. And that success helped transform the Republican considered the front-runner for his party’s 2008 presidential nomination from a moderately well-off public servant into a globe-trotting consultant whose net worth is estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
Giuliani’s business ventures are less well understood than his ubiquitous presence on television in the years after the 9/11 attacks. By 2007, his performance had become so well known that everyone understood and laughed when Joe Biden said “there’s only three things he [needs] to make…a sentence: a noun and a verb and 9/11.” It was as if Reggie Jackson had followed up his heroic three-home run performance in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series by spending the next decade doing nothing but congratulating himself on television. What had been a performance all New Yorkers could celebrate and cherish curdled badly in the face of Giuliani’s relentless self-promotion.
Giuliani isn’t the only one to spoil the memory of 9/11, if such a sentence can make sense at all in light of the scope of that tragedy. Karl Rove decided to politicize the attacks in the run-up to the 2002 midterms, with devastating effectiveness. The decision to invade Iraq was the thing that broke our temporary national unity, and when New Yorkers took to the streets in historic numbers to protest the coming invasion it showed that a split had opened up that was wider than anything that had preceded the attacks.
I never felt comfortable sharing the tragedy of 9/11 with the whole world. A co-worker lost his brother in the Cantor Fitzgerald offices of the World Trade Center. My secretary lost a close friend. We lost a member of my parent’s church. One of the heroes of Flight 93 left his widow and children to cope in the town next to mine. A high school friend narrowly survived the falling debris when he emerged from the PATH subway station at the wrong time. My mail sorting center was closed because of anthrax contamination for over a year, and, based on the advice of authorities, I spent a few weeks airing my mail out in the front-yard before daring bring it in the house. The events of that September were never abstract for me but felt like a personal attack on my city and my people. What did some flag-waving pro-war Kansan have to say to me about patriotism or revenge?
As the years wore on, I coped with this by pushing all these emotions down. I rarely allow myself to revisit them. I do remember that afternoon. I remember sitting alone on my couch having been released early from work. I remember watching them replay the tower collapses over and over again, and the dust-covered New Yorkers fleeing uptown. And I remember the total feeling of dread for how we would respond and what it would do to our national character.
When I think of 9/11 each year on the anniversary, I always go back to those quiet hours I spent alone on the couch waiting for my wife to arrive home safely from New Brunswick. I wish that foreboding feeling hadn’t been so damned accurate. In a way, that’s when I started mourning not just for the dead but for the America I knew and loved. And I haven’t had much cause to stop mourning ever since.
That I am now subjected to Rudy Giuliani defending a President Donald Trump feels like such a dagger that I feel less inclined to talk about 9/11 than ever before.
I prefer to commemorate those we lost and celebrate the courage of the first responders privately, in my head, where no one can befoul my memories.