Leonard Cohen, a Jewish-Canadian singer-songwriter, once hailed Canada’s Montreal as the “Jerusalem of the North,” but there is stiff competition for that honor. Notably Montreal’s older Irish twin—New York City. The two cities share the same driving regime (no turning right on red!), many ethnocultural groups, the oddly similar founding dates (1624 for NYC; 1642 for Montreal), a rich history of trade and arts, and of course, the two are massive metropolises built on river islands.
When asked how old you are, the question inevitably comes: ‘Do you remember 9/11? What were you doing when it happened?’
Both cities also have seen unprecedented violence that continues to live in the imagination of their residents. In 1970, citizens of Montreal were witness to tanks on its streets during the infamous October Crisis involving a kidnapping of a British diplomat by Quebec separatists. New York City, of course, bore the deadliest attack on American soil twenty years ago today—an event that threw not just the country, not just the continent, but the whole world into the whirlwind that has changed forever how we communicate, how we travel, how we think about ourselves.
It’s almost a marker of age—when asked how old you are, the question inevitably comes: “Do you remember 9/11? What were you doing when it happened?” Passing through Downtown Ottawa, I remember pointing out the American Embassy to a friend, telling them that “the architect of this building is the same architect who designed the tower that replaced the Twin Towers.”
The attack on the World Trade Center continues to live in the imagination of people all over the world. It transcends the purely political, seeping into everyday culture. This powerful presence must point us to equally powerful realities of what constitutes the image of America, to herself and to the world, and in order to understand that, we need to venture there—to the Hudson’s mighty shores.
TO WHOM SHALL WE GO?
Many things have changed in America and in New York since the early 2000s. At the time of the attack, the state still had a Republican governor; New York City had a Republican mayor. It was around this time, however, that New York was beginning to turn blue. Over the past two decades, the blue constituents have successfully solidified around the Hudson, though Queens, the home of the Cuomo dynasty, manages to still successfully maintain a Republican seat on the NYC City Council. Thus, it has become somewhat fashionable in conservative circles to downright bash urban living in general, and America’s big cities in particular, pointing out the harsh living conditions deteriorated by high crime rates and equally high costs of living, all facilitated by decades of blue regimes.
New York City will always matter to how the world perceives America and to how America perceives herself.
Of course, “cottagecore” is the latest vogue, and there certainly is something quite appealing in a calmer country life when we talk about cultivating a conservative way of thinking. However, this idea of “the Benedict Option,”—of leaving the urban centers entirely to retreat into the country calm in order to rebuild the civilization gradually from the bottom up, leaving America’s cities to rot in the hopes of eventual rebirth—bears a great deal of hopelessness, of surrender, of status quo in its worst iteration. And while the character evoked in this metaphor (Saint Benedict of Nursia) did leave Rome to save his own soul, Rome did not wither away as the civilization crumbled. No, Rome remained as important as it used to be, and its glory shone again, just as magnanimously.
It may be very bold of me to compare New York City to Rome (and Jerusalem), yet the comparison still stands should we consider all three as significant cultural centers of their respective civilizations—civilizations that saw their golden ages as well as their brutal sackings. New York City still matters—and New York City will always matter to how the world perceives America and to how America perceives herself. In fact, that may be one of the reasons why the collective memory of 9/11 remains always vividly present in the world imagination—because of how important the image of New York City was and is for the image of America.
Most people alive today will never get to visit the United States, only ever seeing it on television or the movies. What city are they most likely to see? The great many immigrants and refugees seeking to make America their home will likely never go out of their way to visit Peoria or Appalachia, but they are very likely to seek out places like New York, and will form their opinions and desires based on that. They will be acculturated into American life through big cities. That is what conservatives lose when they give up on New York—the chance to shape the image of what “America” means, both for new Americans, and for the world at large.
For decades, places like New York informed the world’s image of America, in her joys and her sorrows, her failures, but most importantly her successes. It’s no wonder that New York’s municipal elections have been the talk of the whole country. When Andrew Yang, a former DNC presidential candidate, threw his hat into the ring for the municipal Democratic primaries, it was clearly understood that the position of NYC mayor is on par with federal leadership, if not in jurisdiction, then certainly in terms of seriousness. Months ago, Tucker Carlson pronounced himself on the matter, comparing New York City to America’s odd uncle, who may not be the most comfortable character around the dinner table, but about whom everyone cares, nevertheless: “What happens to New York matters to the rest of us.”
LIGHT OF THE WORLD
At this moment in history, conservative Americans are—justifiably—in retreat from America’s urban centers. Over 800 years ago, however, the mendicant preachers, led by a Spanish priest by the name of Dominic de Guzman, revolutionized the intellectual and spiritual life of Europe. They did so not by sticking to the established silent monasteries that Saint Benedict started far away from the agony of city streets, but by doing exactly the opposite: by going there where all hope seemed to have been lost, reaching out to the often isolated and deracinated urban populace whose lives were often entangled in greater sorrow and destitution. Over the centuries, they have given the world Saint Thomas Aquinas, Bartolomé de las Casas and the first conception of human rights, thousands of learning institutions all over the world—in other words, a legacy no one could have imagined for beggars who decided to preach to the urban centers.
At this moment in history, conservative Americans are—justifiably—in retreat from America’s urban centers.
What does their example mean for us, the living, the moderns, faced with cruelty, violence, tragedy and loss? For one, no matter how hard the blows may be, there will always be hope. New York City has manifested that greatly by rebuilding itself from the rubble, giving us hope that, whatever hardships may besiege it today, there is always hope. There is no shame in moving to the countryside to seek real virtue, but there should be no shame in staying in the cities to fight for this virtue when faced with the world’s hostility.
As Simón Bolivar proclaimed to the face of the Old World, “Our homeland is the Americas”, and no matter what hardships come around, America shines still to the world in its cities, and no city has shone as brightly to showcase America’s hope to the world in the face of horror as New York City.
In memory of Matthew Pecorino, a great supporter of Human Events, a great New Yorker, and a great Dominican.
This article is part of a Human Events Opinion Special Collection released September 11th, 2021: “9/11: A Twenty Year Retrospective.”