The triangular “egg crate” joists between each floor of the Twin Towers were connected to the outer and inner support columns with steel angle clips. The engineers – aware of the potent & destructive strength of winds against sheer surfaces – also designed them to withstand impacts far greater than that of a commercial jet. Structurally, the Towers were a marvel: Each one, weighing in at around 500,000 tons of concrete and steel, was designed with redundancies that would have allowed them to remain standing if one or even two of the support columns were completely lost. Alas, as we watched in horror, when two planes smashed into their indomitable steel skeletons on that fateful September morning in 2001, 90,000 liters of jet fuel instantaneously injected into the infrastructure of just a few floors melted the very steel joists and angle clips that made the building a hallmark of American ingenuity. In the end, it wasn’t the impact alone that brought down the towers, or improper design, but the fact that under fire, despite ingenious structural redundancies, they could not bear their own weight. An apt metaphor for the state of our nation.
Like so many people right now, I’m still trying to process all that has happened within the last week. I know that many of my reflections dance in the shadows of our country’s darker demons, but my goal is never to disparage America; I seek only accountability, and if that comes across as abrasive, then take solace in knowing that the smoothest wood is surfaced first with the roughest sandpaper.
I was trained in editorial writing by the late, great Dr. Richard Hendrickson at John Carroll University, and he always taught me to be precise and poignant with my language. I still remember his comments on my drafts: “Why say ‘We feel that…’ before you make your statement? If you’re writing it, your audience knows that’s how you feel! Just get to the point.” “Why are you saying ‘their own’? You almost never need two consecutive possessives! Sloppy writing. Just say ‘their.’” (I’ve already violated that one in this post alone. Sorry, Dr. H. I’m a work in progress.) Even today, I’m quite sure he would criticize my penchant for metaphors. “What’s all this flowery language for, Brian? Just say what you want to say.” His advice echoes in my mind with every word I write, and I hope that despite my tendency to be a bit long-winded, my unquenchable desire to demand accountability through my writing is making him proud.
When I look at America – through the lenses provided me from a solid history education at North Allegheny High School, a value for American heritage gained in the Boy Scouts, a socially oriented degree in journalism at JCU, years of work in the impoverished margins of Ecuador’s society, and most recently through my Master’s studies in international development at Pitt – I see a nation reflective of the Twin Towers themselves and their eternal legacy.
When the Towers were originally built, they were a magnet of controversy. On one hand, a feat of that proportion had never been attempted – it was proof that no minds were greater than the minds at work in America, that no other country could do what we could do. We quite literally rejected the notion that the sky’s the limit. On the other hand, many local New Yorkers thought that they were an unsightly addition to an otherwise pristine skyline; that they were unnecessary and excessive; that the additional office space would weigh heavily on already congested traffic patterns and commuters. But no matter what people thought, no one could argue that the World Trade Center wasn’t brilliantly engineered – intrepid, bold, strong, and seemingly invincible. The redundant design allowed them to brazenly defy gravity and do what no one thought possible. But as we saw, that alone was not enough to keep them afoot.
And that’s the America that I think we live in, too – a society built by brilliant minds, with the materials and ideas and hypotheses available at the time, reinforced by checks and balances to ensure that if one pillar falls, the others will hold up the structure. An experiment in history to prove the impossible possible. A shining example for the world that government by the people for the people is tangible.
But at the same time, it is not indomitable or invincible, no matter how much it seems so, and while the catalyst for America’s collapse may come from without, the ultimate cause may well come from within. If the joists of our democratic society melt, how can we expect the structure to stand tall without collapsing under its own weight?
I tip my hat to my sister and the millions like her, whose pained desire to see a more equitable America frequently has no outlet other than anger and confusion that such systemic injustice is a value apparently embedded in the very DNA of her country, but still brimming with an indefatigable & passionate optimism that if we are just loud enough, our voices might echo in the chambers of change.
Earlier this week, I stayed up until around 2 a.m. with bated breath, frequently refreshing the NPR story that was tracking the results of the Georgia runoff as the Democrat contenders inched closer and closer to victory, stoked by an empowered community and torchbearers like Stacey Abrams. I awoke the next day to the prospect of a brand new Senate, a brand new government, the very real possibility that the political agenda of the next two years might finally have the social conscience it has so long needed.
But as we rejoiced in the progress looming on the horizon, brainwashed terrorists trained, instigated, and instructed by our corrupt leaders and media were preparing their assault against that very government that for the first time in years I was actually proud of, psyching themselves up to smash into its unshakeable steel skeleton with an impact we never anticipated, unsurprising though it was.
As devastated as I am that this is the narrative unfolding in the land of the free and the home of the brave, I am fueled by the same passionate optimism that I admire in my sister. I know that when the Twin Towers fell, in the wake of the unbelievable destruction and tragedy we witnessed, we did exactly what is now being promised us by the incoming administration: We built back better.
I believe we are a nation with integrity, but integrity does not sustain itself. I believe that the near future could be the brightest chapter in America’s storied history, unlocking the types of policies and actions that previous generations thought were just rainbows and unicorns – dreams, visions, fantasies, but never quite possible in our reality. But as we chase those rainbows and domesticate the unicorns, there will always be a hazardous path of fire and brimstone along the way that we must be wary of, lest we buckle under our own feigned magnanimity. (Sorry, Dr. H, I just really love figurative language!)