The First Drafts of History
The First Drafts of History
Eight days 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.
Later, on 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.
Police lines 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.
At Cedar 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.
The images 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.
"Gentlemen," he said, "they are making history. We shall write it."
Someone 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.
For example, 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?
Weiss, like 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 purpose."
Most of 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.
His contemptuous 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.
On Sunday, 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."
Fragility 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.
Daphne Merkin 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."
Some people cannot see life save through the prism of the unrestrained self.
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