Speaker by Various Artists

A visit to Ground Zero

by Tim Watkin

The automated tour guide at the top of the Empire State Building in New York tells the story of a rescue worker at Ground Zero days after the terrorist attacks five years ago. The worker saw in a glance that no-one could have survived the buildings' collapse. Still, he dug and hunted through the rubble. What was he looking for? According to the Empire State audioguide, he realized later he had been looking for his freedom.

It's the kind of sentiment likely to resurface on the fifth anniversary of the attacks that killed close to 3000 people. In the week before the anniversary newspapers have been plucking out every angle they can. The Village Voice critiques former mayor Rudi Giuliani's performance on the day. The commuter paper AM talks to some of the estimated 80,000 New York Muslims aged 6-18 to find out how it's been "coming of age after 9/11". Business pages look at the way the tragedy has been marketed, as increased sales in comfort food, anti-anxiety pills, cosmetic surgery and cozy fireplaces have all been attributed to a new national psyche post-September 11.

Academic and author of The Selling of 9/11: How a national tragedy became a commodity, Dana Heller, is quoted as saying "9/11 became part of our consumer culture, and on one hand I found that difficult and disturbing. On the other hand, I saw it as part of a long tradition in our history, as a genuine process of grieving."

At the White House, President Bush has been making a series of speeches defending his administration's war on terror, trying to stir from the ashes some God Defend Americanism before the November mid-term elections.

One way or another, Americans are again searching for meaning in the horror of that day, loading it with every kind of psychological, social and political sentiment.

It's a search that many tourists to New York make every day. Ground Zero must be one of the most visited sites in the city. Although it's hardly mentioned in the tourist guides - what would you list it under, "sightseeing", "attraction"? - hundreds were gathered there last week when I wandered down. There's a Japanese film crew, an Indian family, Spanish teenagers and many Americans. The crowd is mostly quiet and subdued; the respectful hush of a cemetery. You can see in their eyes that they've come looking for some emotional connection and understanding. They know something important happened here and want to see it with their own eyes.

What they find is a hole in the ground. The only thing to see is what isn't there. There is a sense of something missing ? a space in a city with all too few spaces, an emptiness even. But in truth that emptiness comes from knowledge brought with you, the unforgettable images of planes hitting skyscrapers. If you somehow knew nothing of what happened there, Ground Zero would look like nothing more than a building site, with high wire fences, wheelbarrows and labourers.

That is, except for the photos and a timeline of events on September 11, 2001 lining the fence. The most striking picture is of a crowd on a street corner looking up at the World Trade Centre. There's no caption as to what they're seeing ? perhaps a plane hitting, people jumping, or a tower collapsing. You don't see the towers in the photo, but you know the kind of things they're seeing, because you've seen the footage. Their faces burn. But theyre all different. One is of eye-popping horror, one of denial. One man wears the kind of expression you make when you see someone take a punch.

The other photos recall the day - survivors covered in dust, police officers and firefighters helping injured people, the tears of New Yorkers - and the buildings, with pictures of the World Trade Centre while it still stood. What you don't see is the thing itself. Notably, there's no photo of the planes hitting towers.

The only other "sight" for the crowds to see is the list of the names of those innocents who died in 2001. The list's title labels them "heroes". And that's one of the problems faced by visitors to Ground Zero, and America generally - when you come seeking meaning and find only a hole, it's all too easy fill that hole with myth and sentiment.

Not far away, up on Broadway, Alan Bennett's Tony Award-winning play The History Boys neatly sums up what's going on. One of the teachers, although talking about World War One, observes that the best way to start forgetting something is to start commemorating it.

Forced to look at nothing, the tourists don't know quite how to behave. Some, of course, break down. There?s the old man dressed all in red, white and blue with a kitchen clock hung around his neck and the young conspiracy peddler declaiming loudly that everyone should "learn the facts".

But many revert to tourist mode. They pose for photos in front of the emptiness, grinning. They line up for photographs beside the subway sign - the only sign that still says World Trade Center. The Indian family, three generations full, gathers before the photos on the fence for series of family snaps.

There's more meaning up the road at St Paul's chapel, which became a shrine, drop-in centre and meeting point after the attack. A memorial altar groans beneath pictures of the dead. A series of displays recall the "missing" posters in the days after and the 15,000 teddy bears that arrived from around the world for New York kids, the 1000 massage therapists who donated time to relieve the rescue workers' physical aches and the many church members who helped ease their emotional ones. The church put 15-foot canvasses at their gate for passers-by to write on. In just the first six months 400 were filled.

But the one available to write on last week was dominated by bald "God Bless Americas". Five years on, it seems the questions posed by the attacks are often being answered by nothing more than patriotism.

As I stood at Ground Zero looking for understanding like everyone else, I realized I was looking in the wrong place. That hole in the ground is a result, not a cause. The answers are waiting to be found in Mecca and Gaza, in Washington and Jerusalem, in the beliefs of Muslims - Sunni and Shia, moderate and fundamentalist.