The First Two Weeks

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It's amazing that the last political whimper of the late, decade-long era of apparently suicidal American complacency involved the question?inconceivable now?of whether illegal aliens from Mexico should be granted amnesty.

Or, taking it further, whether amnesty ought to be extended blindly to illegal aliens from all the world's municipalities, including presumably Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt. Who cares who they are or what they believe? Long as they'll drive a cab or scrub my tub for three dollars per. Helping enable this debate was the post-American conviction that the United States ought to have no borders at all, since borders retarded the circulation of capital and labor in what the dominant ideologues insisted would be a consumer-driven eternity of peace and prosperity, irradiating outward from the shores of the Republic to gently illumine a fawningly grateful world. (Borders tend also to repel genocidal fanatics?but this is America, after all, and why traffic in exclusion?) History had ended, so there was nothing left to do but to share our good fortune, extending the delusions of the market fundamentalists out into the vast North African and Middle Eastern wastes. Come on in, neighbor. Set yourself down and make yourself right at home. Folks is folks, after all?and most folks is good folks.

Sure. As of two Tuesdays ago, we've been blasted back into history, which we'd all but abdicated during the late era's selfish orgy. I find my imagination returning to the melodramatic image of the empty New York State Thruway at night, and my friends and I screaming northward on it in a gray sedan, heading for the northern hills at warp speed.

My first thought, as I watched the disaster occur from my Brooklyn rooftop?front-row center from the top of Park Slope, the Manhattan skyline etched against that cool, pure blue morning sky?was that a pair of clods had gotten themselves hopped up on coke and steered their his-and-her Cessnas into the Twin Towers. Then I was joined by my neighbor, a tough kid prone to getting arrested. He loped up, shirtless, cradling an infant?whose, I don't know?against his shirtless chest. "Man," he hissed, "we're gonna go out and beat up some Indian people tonight." Say what? "Yeah," he responded. "It's a terrorist attack. It's gonna be a war."

That evening I sat in a stuffed neighborhood bar, the room growing silent as President Bush delivered his Oval Office speech, and found it heartening when, upon his reaching the end of his effort?every single word dead, void of meaning?the room reacted with silence. Park Slope is a famously liberal neighborhood, and under normal circumstances a speech by Bush would be either ignored or derided. That the crowd honored the weight of the occasion was heartening. At a second bar, across the street, you could sit on a stool in the corner and watch as the room filled with sooty firemen from the station house around the corner, somber, holding their drinks, misty-eyed and wiped out, hugging each other as they met, the loud barroom infused with a sad, crucial energy?the resigned energy that comes when the worst has already occurred and there's nothing to do but deal with it. That particular firehouse lost two men and a truck.

Another Park Slope fire squad lost 12 men, or almost half of their force. There's a class dynamic at work here, by the way. In the south part of Park Slope and adjoining Windsor Terrace, particularly, the firemen are part of an old blue-collar Irish core that's been colonized by liberal Manhattan emigres. Over the next few days, the Naderite neighborhood would mobilize in the most spectacular way on behalf of the firemen, the police and the relief crews. You could go out on the main drag of 7th Ave. on, say, that rainy Thursday after the attack, and marvel at the energy, as people bustled, emptying the pharmacies of first-aid supplies. The storefronts fluttered (in Park Slope!) with American flags, and volunteers loaded Subarus and Volvos full of boxes that they carried out from the Community Bookstore, a cozy establishment transformed into a clearinghouse for the distribution of emergency supplies.

It's going to be interesting to see what effect this atrocity has on our debased political vocabulary. Phrases like "our strength is our diversity" or "there shall be open borders" were irritating and meaningless three weeks ago. They were always meant to impugn the possibility of American community, whether they were used by the campus-style left, which considers the idea of American community intrinsically racist, sexist, etc.?or by the corporate, post-American right, which understands that community values militate against the social atomization and passivity required by consumerism. But the strong sense of community that blossomed (even in Park Slope! even in idiot Freddy Ferrer's New York!) was the one fine thing about this nightmare. Now this meaningless language isn't only annoying, but offensive.

One wonders also if there will be rethought the complacent, typically American, idea that 99.9999999 percent of Muslims despise Islamic fanaticism; stand resolutely on the side of truth, justice and the American Way; want nothing more than to see American liberal values triumph in the Middle East; long to join the American military; and so on. (Folks is folks, after all?and most folks is good folks.) Oh, sure. If so, there's been little evidence of it. From what's appeared in the papers, it seems that the chunks of the corpses had barely started to be picked from the rubble before Muslim leaders were crying victimhood. I'd say the odds are about even that within a week a dominant narrative in the more "responsible" media will concern the horrors of "racial profiling"?whatever that means in a situation like this. No, of course?Muslims have nothing to do with any of this. Best to concentrate our energy at the borders and airports on Letts, Swedes, Rhodesians, Scotsmen and Filipinos. Wouldn't want to offend anybody.

I loved the Twin Towers, those beautiful minimalist sculptures, as much as anybody?they were the only Manhattan buildings I could see from my bedroom window, and waking up before dawn I'd watch them in the west against the indigo sky, their red beacon lights blinking at me across the harbor and red-brick Brooklyn and the night. I viscerally miss them on the skyline, the pole around which this watery planet seemed to revolve. (It seemed so to bin Laden, too.) Still, they shouldn't be rebuilt. They're indicative of a way of approaching the world that ought to be modified at this point, that's characterized by a dangerous overconfidence: all those people caught in one easily attacked network, trapped in one obvious target, sure that the world's as comfortable with their expansive American view over a distant, mostly miserable planet as they are themselves. Not even Americans should be capable of such incredible delusions anymore. Build something else.

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