Notes from the rubble

Wisecracks at airports, psychotherapists working overtime, the collapsing American Empire….New York writer George Blecher on his city after the attacks.

George Blecher

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A few days ago I did a very stupid thing. It was to be my first trip outside New York City since 11 September, and I wanted it to be a nice, relaxing visit to a friend in Boston to clear my head of bad air and anxiety.

After making it through the metal detectors and x-ray machines at JFK airport, I was waiting at the Delta counter to have my ticket rewritten, since the original trip – on 13 September – had been aborted. Bored cops were standing around, alongside soldiers, customs officials, US Marshals in unfamiliar uniforms. But the woman at the ticket counter seemed cheerful enough -she even looked like somebody capable of a little irony.

When she asked me the pro forma question about whether anybody had helped me pack, I blurted out, ‘Nobody but three dark guys with Kalashnikovs’.

Where did that come from?

Before I could tell her I was kidding, I was being grilled by the group of multi-uniformed authorities, now happy to have something to do. They examined my driver’s license, called the number into their databases, hand-searched my luggage, told me I was being kicked off my flight ‘for security reasons’, but might be allowed to take the next one. The head cop dressed me down like a drill sergeant:

‘Do you have any idea what a stupid thing you did? Here we lost all those policemen and firemen in the World Trade Centre, and you think it’s a big joke. Tempers are running incredibly high – I don’t hear you agreeing with me – and you shoot your big mouth off and slow down the whole process. How old are you? Do you have kids? What would you say to your kids if they said the same thing you said?’

‘I’d say what you just said: that it was incredibly stupid.’

He seemed like a nice enough man playing a role that he wasn’t totally comfortable with. It occurred to me that all he wanted was an apology: I’d refused to play the same game that he was playing.

‘I’m sorry’, I said. He seemed to breathe a little easier.

But I couldn’t help seeing in my head a flash of pre-perestroika Soviet Union (think of Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke, where a remark like mine mushrooms into a political nightmare). All I’d really wanted to do was lighten things up a little, but I’d tried to do it in an atmosphere where the ‘authorities’ can’t allow themselves to see the difference between nervousness, sarcasm, and being an enemy of the state.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Everybody seems to remember the weather in New York on 11 September. It was a remarkably gentle day – clear sky, perfect temperature, the kind of day that New Yorkers claim as their reward for the dog days of summer. Maybe that day’s weather has become so fixed in our memory to underline the incongruity of the event, or because in some way it makes indelible the precise moment of the attack. In my lifetime, only the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963 had that kind of effect.

Over a month later, my friends who were closest to the Twin Towers that morning still find it hard, or impossible, to tell what they saw. Many witnessed people jumping from the ninety-second floor, but they only speak of it privately – and even then in no great detail.

A psychologist doing grief counselling for companies headquartered in the World Trade Centre told me of horrors unreported in the media: ‘There were plenty of bodies, dead and alive ones, that people stepped on as they escaped. I talked several times to one guy who can’t get out of his mind the picture of stepping on somebody’s head, and then looking down and realising that the guy was still alive, and looking up at him.’ Another friend who was trapped for several hours in a nearby building said that when he finally made it to the street, he saw ‘things’ that weren’t supposed to be there – and since they were covered with a thick layer of dust, he just tiptoed past.

On the next level – that is, for people who were close enough to see the event but far enough away to miss the horrors – even now there’s a continuing need not only to tell their stories over and over, but to claim the event as their own, as if owning it makes them feel less powerless. A few friends – who do seem to me a little shell-shocked, a little crazed – pull a sort of rank over everybody else: if you were above Fourteenth Street when it happened, they say, or if all you saw were the TV images, then you really didn’t experience it at all.

Maybe they’re right. Certainly the photos and candles all over the city, the makeshift shrines, the flowers and letters scotch-taped to walls in front of fire and police stations do seem inadequate expressions of our sorrow and dread. The fact that a huge number of people volunteered blood, money and time seems to attest to the need to go beyond TV images in order to make the event real.

The first time I tried to see the site was four days after the attack. I couldn’t get closer than several blocks away, and all I could see was the strangely elegant plume of smoke curling out of the wreckage like the departing souls of the dead. (Some artists have proposed as a memorial a huge hologram of the towers, which would probably resemble that ghostly smoke column as much as the buildings.)

The second time, a few weeks ago, I got within three blocks – Broadway at Vesey Street. Though I and the other gawkers had a limited view, we could see enough to get what TV wasn’t equipped to show: the enormous weight of the rubble. Imagine the complete destruction of 100 square blocks of any European city piled up in an area of 10 blocks, and you begin to have some sense of the sheer mass of the wreckage, and the impossibility of survivors. Nobody could have survived. They didn’t have a chance.

Over a month after the event, with weather almost as lovely as 11 September, I managed to get a pass to the site itself. As you might expect, it was a bit of an anti-climax. The wreckage of the building I could get closest to – one of the smaller structures on the north side – had been cleared of all large steel beams, slabs of concrete, twisted metal skeletons, which somehow made it seem less dangerous, but deader, as if the wreckage had been chewed into bite-sized pieces.

Now the rubble looked like any other industrial detritus, though the surrounding buildings definitely looked like victims of a bombing. Perhaps because the whole site was clearly on its way to becoming banal, ordinary, I felt a rush of sadness for the victims. They really would be forgotten, or only just remembered as the first casualties of what may prove to be an endless war.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

To describe as ‘conflicted’ the political feelings of Americans these days is to make an almost comic understatement: everybody thinks everything simultaneously.

I’ve heard 1960s ex-radicals talk about ‘Nazi’ terrorists and vow to reassess their ideas about violence. I’ve heard a mild-mannered, apolitical actress fume about the imperialist arrogance of the USA, its barbaric neglect of the third world, the hypocritical admiration of policemen and firemen (whose reputation in this city has always been leavened with healthy disrespect), the elevation of our mayor – usually seen as a controversial figure who makes no secret of his love of power – into a national hero.

And I’ve even heard my daughter try to express the complexity of the contradictory ideas in her head: ‘Please don’t get me wrong, dad. I feel incredible sympathy for those people who died in the towers. But you have to partly see the attack as representative of the same protest against globalisation and corporatism that people were angry about in Seattle and Genoa. I know you’re going to disagree with this, but even though it was a destructive act and bin Laden is a rich bastard who doesn’t necessarily want to distribute the wealth, I think there’s something inspiring about so few people having an effect on the one superpower in the world.’

Predictably, the US broadcast media has resisted complexity. The newscasters speak in patriotic clichés, and the few call-in voices asking for analysis of US Middle-East policy are generally ignored, not in an authoritarian way but almost as an annoyance, a bothersome attempt to go against the prevailing winds.

Even though there’s plenty of right-wing back-slapping, flag-waving and talk of ‘evil-doers’ and ‘defending liberty and freedom’ – and public figures like writer Susan Sontag and the comedian Bill Maher have been denounced for expressing ‘inappropriate’ opinions – the atmosphere isn’t quite repressive yet, though time will tell. The New York Times, for instance, has done a good job reporting the darker sides of the situation, like the infighting between the CIA and the FBI, the looting of stores and apartments by what must have been rescue workers and firemen, the death of illegal immigrant workers in the towers whose names will never be recorded for fear of their families being discovered and deported.

The fact is that the only honest political response is a layered one, which isn’t easy for the broadcast media to report. But people in general seem to recognise this: those who are swept up in anger can’t help admitting that the USA is also partly to blame. Those critical of the sins of the superpower can’t quite see bin Laden as a hero or dismiss the death of thousands of people who, while serving the interests of world capitalism, didn’t deserve to die.

Maybe the hardest way to look at the event is to take the apocalyptic view. It goes something like this: in the long run, what we may have been witnessing in the attack on the towers, as well as the failure of the Vietnam War, were the first stages of the dissolution of the American ‘empire’. This decline seems to be following a classic formula (‘confusion within the society, over-extended borders without’) that scholars from Gibbon to Toynbee wrote about extensively. In the current actions of the ‘coalition’ gathering forces to attack a non-existent country and an invisible enemy, isn’t it hard not to see Roman legions and platoons of British redcoats marching off to wars they weren’t trained to fight?

The real task of our society may not be to decide whether or not to go to war (given the nature of a superpower, is there realistically any other alternative?), but to study fallen empires like France and England, to see what we can claim as our own when the collapse comes – as the French claimed cooking and fashion, the English their remarkable language.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

For me, the most profound aspect of the past month has been the eruption of unfamiliar emotions that rob New Yorkers of sleep and make them act as eccentrically as I did in the airport.

After the towers fell, I rushed across town to be with my 17-year-old son (his sister was out West, far from harm’s way), and after her kindergarten classes were cut short my ex-wife appeared, and soon after that her boyfriend. It was the typical late-twentieth century decadent ‘family’ – the setting of endless American TV sitcoms, and for fundamentalists over the world the microcosm of all that’s wrong with the USA – but a family nonetheless. We needed each other that day; we needed to touch each other’s warm bodies.

Within hours, the emails started. The ones from farthest away – Moscow, Bengalore – came first, as though it was hardest for those farthest away to believe that almost all of us had survived. Soon we started calling each other in ever-widening circles until everybody was accounted for. Old lovers called; long-lost friends and college classmates called. For a while we transcended our solipsism, our constant drive for success; for some quite wonderful moments – this again echoes the days after the Kennedy assassination – we reclaimed our lives as members of a community.

Now, a month later, that’s mostly gone. If anything, what we’re sharing is a low-level sense of dread. The future that once seemed completely in our control – provided we stopped smoking and went to the gym three times a week – is now darkly uncertain. There are beginning to surface alarming stories of attacks on innocent people, something that New York was largely free of in the first weeks.

But is it possible to see at least a small gift embedded in our fear and dread? As the ‘war against terrorism’ goes from years to decades until we finally forget what ‘peace’ felt like, maybe the sanest of us will rediscover the most cogent philosophy of the past century – existentialism, itself partly a product of war.

Acutely aware of our mortality and of the hubris of thinking that our lives aren’t subject to larger forces like Chance and Tragedy, we may become both humbled and energised, more fully human.

Maybe we’ll even learn to laugh at stupid jokes again.

George Blecher writes about American politics and culture for many different European newspapers and journals. This piece is an edited version of a piece originally written for Kritika & Kontext, a Bratislava journal published in English and Slovakian.

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