ANOTHER perfect day, not a cloud in the September sky, as if to elide time and compress 18 years into a moment.

The prow of Manhattan extends below me. The Statue of Liberty and the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge lure my gaze over land and water to the horizon.

That is what they saw before the planes hit, as powerful an image of American possibility as exists -the gateway to a new land, a place, to quote Fitzgerald, ''where man must have held his breath'' at the sight of a place ''commensurate to his capacity for wonder.''

At the anniversary of 9/11 last week, I found myself on the 50th floor of One World Trade Center, in the 1776-foot Freedom Tower, which rises at the sight where the Twin Tower stood.

''Leaping from Here,'' says Lu Maheda, the acting deputy assistant secretary of media operations for the Department of Homeland Security. ''Think about That.''

Think about that, the choice of people caught, on a clear New York morning, in the early promise of the 21st century, between inferno and vortex.

Try as you might, you cannot quite place yourself in that death trap. It is beyond our imaginations, as the attack itself was.

I look down. The sunlight glints on the Memorial Pools. The eddying shapes of people gathered in grief are like the shadows of a clouds on a plain.

I recall with a shudder Richard Drew's photograph of the ''falling Man'' and other images of people who jumped. But the vertigo I feel is not from this or the void beneath me.

It stems from the enormity of what the moment wrought - America's forever wars, the creeping encroachment of fear, the fracture between those who fought and those who shopped, the loss of life and of treasure, the disorientation of a-

A nation no longer a sanctuary, the collapse of middle ground, the frustration and anger and dislocation that would, in time, produce a president who rages, in his evident smallness, about the restoration of American greatness.

''And when a man feels small, he's gonna do things to make himself feel big,'' Dill observes in Aaron Sorkin's adaption of ''To Kill a Mocking Bird.''

Another perfect day, not a cloud in the sky, it was my youngest child's fourth birthday, Sept 11, 2001.

Beside me on perhaps the last subway that ran from Clark Street, in Brooklyn, to Times Square was a woman in tears. She believed her brother was in the towers.

I arrived at my desk - a new desk, in that I had been named acting foreign editor the previous day - in time to see the South tower collapse.

Late that night, Times Square was empty, as if New York's heart had stopped beating.

This great writing from Roger Cohen, probably amongst his very best, continues.


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