First Drafts of History
after the World Trade Center came down, I attended a bankruptcy hearing at 80
Broad St. as attorney for a creditor of yet another dotcom into which millions
had vanished, leaving not a rack behind. I traveled downtown on the Lexington
Ave. IRT line. As the car doors opened at Fulton St., I smelled the burning.
The stench grew stronger as the train rolled through Wall St. without stopping.
impulse, I walked north on Broad St. to Wall. That intersection was momentarily
blocked by a military Humvee, turning south. As I went west toward Broadway,
I saw my first soldier of the day: probably a National Guardsman, wearing a
helmet and shoulder patches for an unfamiliar unit, though he bore no sidearm.
and barricades blocked off the west side of Broadway. Trinity Church’s
clock had stopped at 5:12. Gray dust, reported to be concrete and asbestos,
lay thickly on the church’s roof ornaments and the churchyard’s monument
to the American prisoners of war who died in British prison hulks during the
Revolution. As I went north, I saw One Liberty Plaza, dust-encrusted, a few
shattered windows on the south side with their blinds wind-wedged into the holes.
St. and Broadway, I saw where the south tower had been. Apparently, most news
photographs were taken from this intersection. The tower’s warped fragments
rose about six stories, like twisted fingers of dull silver and primer orange.
Smoke rose from the Pit: I later heard from a reliable secondhand source that
a fire still smoldered on the seventh sublevel. The eastern corners of the buildings
beyond the Pit, still capped with their domes and pyramids, seemed gnawed by
mice, their stonework gashed and some steelwork protruding. At Cortlandt St.,
I again had a clear view west. A huge fragment of the north tower’s facade,
some 90 to 100 feet tall, rose from the middle of Church St.
It was a
lovely late-summer morning, cool and clear blue. I coughed from the dust in
my throat. I turned to look back as I reached City Hall. The anomaly was negative:
the absence of something to which I had been accustomed. That, at any rate,
was what I saw. Others may see more, or more closely.
We are told
this incident was an act of war or terror mounted against the United States
for reasons growing out of the conduct of American foreign policy. I note for
the record that those who make that policy escaped unharmed: even the Secretary
of Defense, who was in the Pentagon when one of the hijacked airliners crashed
into it. Not one seat in Congress, the Cabinet, the National Security Council
or the Joint Chiefs of Staff became vacant that Tuesday. Though I wish ill to
none of their occupants, I cannot help noting that only ordinary people paid
the price for their rulers’ games.
conveyed by the camera throughout the day spoke with such eloquence that the
commentary seemed so much white noise. Later, the images of death, destruction,
survival and sacrifice were replaced by true obscenity: senators and representatives,
most of them monstrously obese, clustered at the Capitol to sing "God Bless
America" for the cameras. Sens. John Warner and John Kerry, when simply
asked whether they knew who had attacked us, non-answered by filling some 90
seconds of airtime with transparently insincere expressions of sympathy. The
horrors of the day had seemed almost redeemed by the valor of those who responded
to them. Only the politicians seemed loathsome beyond belief.
On the first
morning of the Revolution of 1830 in France, Jules Michelet, an historian, was
lecturing at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Suddenly, the flat explosions of
artillery fire and the crackle of musketry interrupted him. The classroom stirred.
Michelet raised his hands for silence.
he said, "they are making history. We shall write it."
once generalized that daily journalism is history’s rough notes. Perhaps
weekly journalism is its first draft. Some poor first drafts were handed in
over the last two weeks.
I threw a copy of The New York Observer to the floor in sheer
exasperation after seeing the subhead "Innocence Lost." A little self-consciously,
I picked it up, only to throw it down again after reading Philip Weiss’
mindless suggestion that we had lost our innocence. Again.
If one takes
the papers seriously, America loses its innocence about every two weeks. Weiss
was so lazy, so disrespectful of his readers, that he could not be bothered
to write something original. If memory serves, Cheech and Chong had a routine
in which one of them pretended to pimp his sister, "the professional virgin."
How many times must the Republic regain its virginity, if only to save our commentators
the strain of thought?
most writers in the Establishment press, offered no unusual observation or analysis.
Rather, he dashed off a recitation of his wholly subjective emotional response
to events as reported by other people, in a succession of sentence fragments.
"[T]here was something slightly thrilling about it, the sense of community,
the sense of purpose. That my generation was at last going to be inflamed by
us find enough purpose in going about our lives. Being told by someone that
we need even more of it is nearly an act of dictation. Moreover, like most writers
in the Establishment press, Weiss left the flaming purpose undefined. This kind
of lazy navel-gazing probably reflects the Observer’s intellectual
framework, such as it is. The lead story ended thus: "‘You cannot
underestimate the damage this will do to all our psyches,’ said Mark Ackermann,
senior vice president of St. Vincent’s Medical Center."
As one might
expect, The New York Times managed to draw upon the worn-out,
cynical, unintelligent and superficial of several generations and suggest that
they, perhaps they alone, spoke for the city. Frank Rich, on the Saturday op-ed
page, barely concealed gleeful anticipation of future sacrifices to be borne
by Americans other than Frank Rich or the members of his class. His column seemed
superficial, referring to little beyond popular entertainment and the mass media,
and written in a kind of Democratic Party cant.
ridicule of sensational journalism, particularly such "summer ephemera
such as Gary Condit…and Lizzie Grubman," carefully avoided anything that
might risk the obvious truth: tabloid news and its culture raise, however obscurely,
the forbidden issues of privilege, power, wealth and class the mainstream media
prefers to avoid. Consistently and obsessively, Rich called upon the President
to prepare the American people for "sacrifice" without defining what
sacrifices he means, even as Weiss could not define the flaming purpose he sought.
Rich closed with a rhetorical flourish borrowed from Hamlet: that we "have
no choice…but…to ‘wipe away all trivial fond records’ from the
table of memory." I found most disheartening his swollen disdain for the
simple aspirations of real people who live real lives: for security, privacy
and personal freedom, all things he will gladly offer up on the pyre of "sacrifice."
Frank Rich looks forward to our pain.
after a week when we often saw reaffirmed the capacity of the ordinary man and
woman for courage and resilience, the Times published "meditations
from 16 New York writers" on "The Fragile City."
seemed a misnomer. Most spoke with a mindless enthusiasm, born of a misplaced
religious faith: instead of God, they apparently worshipped their self-importance.
They presumed to speak for their generations when only speaking for themselves.
Several wrote with a narcissism that sees all life in the mirror of the self,
producing only the journalism that nobody reads.
To be sure,
Mike Wallace, the co-author of Gotham, capably recapitulated our past
disasters. Yet Jill Eisenstadt’s essay, which viewed all the tragedy through
her recollections of family weddings, had the scrupulous neatness of a bright
high school senior’s. Robert Jay Lifton and Charles B. Strozier presented
their words as if carved on stone brought down from Sinai, though their point,
that after these events "we will never be the same," was anticipated
by Herodotus some time before the birth of Christ. Frank McCourt wrote like
a faux-Breslin, the kind of heart-on-sleeve mock Mickery that Pete Hamill has
also long held in profitable franchise.
lovingly nurtured a moral equivalence between the conduct of the mindlessly
rich and leisured throughout the day, the ladies who lunched and had their hair
done despite the disaster off to the south, with giving blood, even while dropping
the name of her friend Woody Allen so we might know how important she is. Barbara
Garson wrote as if the horror had been staged for her entertainment. The obnoxious
Anne Roiphe, whose narcissism glows with the passion and fire that once stirred
saints to martyrdom, managed a remarkably offensive essay recapitulating a variation
on a standard theme: New Yorkers were somehow more American than others because
they supposedly rejected the results of "the farce of a Presidential election";
but now the rest of the country had to accept us because we were a city under
siege. She recapitulated a 70-block walk home, past Zabar’s, Fairway and
Citarella’s, as if she had been on the Long March. She felt the President
of the United States had said the words "‘New York’ without appearing
to hold it far from his nose like a baby’s diaper." All this
while rubbing her cat’s ears and watching the pigeons on the nearby fire
escapes. She even equated Tuesday’s events with Hitler’s Blitz of
London during the summer and fall of 1940, writing that "we are not going
to give an inch and will go on living our mad, overbooked, overburdened, dizzy,
neurotic New York lives to the fullest."
cannot see life save through the prism of the unrestrained self.