Innocence, indeed. Go down into the museum — itself part archeological site, part cathedral — and see for yourself. There, the battered remains of a fire truck, and there the mangled antenna mast that once stood on top of the North Tower, all physical reminders of that lost innocence. A little boy’s pyjamas (they had fire engines on them) pulled from the wreckage at the Pentagon. A fireman’s crushed leather helmet. A Sainsbury’s loyalty card. A pleading note for rescue written by people trapped in the North Tower, found days later on the roof of another building many blocks away. Identification cards. Watches. Bicycles chained to a bike rack by messengers who never returned for them.
There are the lonely, sad, frightening voice messages left on answering machines by people trapped in the towers and phoning home to say goodbye. In another part of the museum, pictures of people jumping and falling — one witness recalled seeing a woman in a business suit step into the void, holding down her skirt in last, desperately human gesture. There are twisted girders bent double by the force of the buildings’ collapse - a million-and-half tons of steel and concrete - and crushed fire trucks and ambulances and pictures and videos of panicked citizens fleeing the enveloping cloud of smoke and dust as the buildings came down.
Seventeen years later, everything is still raw. A pair of fire trucks heading down the street outside sound their sirens as they pass by. I think of the firemen photographed raising the stars and stripes on a girder above Ground Zero, an echo of the famous picture of US Marines raising the flag in Iwo Jima in 1945 after weeks of savage combat.
“That was Bush,” says my host later, “he turned the firefighters into war heroes. Yet the city still pays them and policemen badly. The only places they can afford to live are out of Manhattan.” Like on Staten Island.
To get some perspective on how 9/11 hurt America, you have to head uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in particular the American Wing. On the way, you walk through the Sackler Wing whose centrepiece is the magnificent Temple of Dendur, a relic from Ancient Egypt which was saved from the rising waters of the Aswan Dam and brought block by block to New York and reassembled at the Met. The Sackler family — great benefactors of the arts — own Purdue Pharma which makes the painkiller oxycontin, currently at the heart of America’s opioid addiction epidemic.
There are many fine treasures in the American Wing, among them beautiful sculptures and the complete living room from a house in Minnesota designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But it is the paintings that really show that American self-belief — so shattered by 9/11 — that made this country great. These are paintings on an epic scale to match the American landscape which was being remade by settlers are big business and the spread of railroads across the heart of it.