Notes on a time of crisis
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Saturday, September 15, 2001
Four days ago, my wife and I were in the park near our Brooklyn apartment, taking the dog for his morning run, when we heard a loud, sudden bang. It sounded like a transformer blowing somewhere, or a garbage truck hitting a particularly wicked pothole. We didn't think much of it until we started walking home and noticed the ominous plume of smoke in the sky, which we initially took as evidence of a fire in the neighborhood somewhere--until two workmen standing out in front of an apartment building told us that two planes had just crashed into each of the twin towers. The bang we heard was the second plane hitting (I don't know why we didn't hear the first).
We hurried home and went up to the roof of our building, from which we have an unobstructed view of the skyline. One of our neighbors had been drinking coffee up there when the first plane hit, and had seen the whole thing unfold.
We sat there in shock, trying to comprehend what was happening. The loss of life that was undoubtedly occurring before our eyes, the massive damage to these iconic buildings. A man on the radio insisted that he had seen a military jet crash into the buildings, someone else was talking about reports of hijacked airliners with passengers aboard. We didn't know what to believe.
And then...there was another loud noise and I looked up to see a round puff of smoke coming out of the south tower and there were people screaming and moaning on the rooftops around me and my brain couldn't quite seem to process what we were witnessing: the first of the two towers had just collapsed.
I lived in San Francisco in 1989, and saw much of the earthquake damage firsthand. I have seen the twisted wreckage of the car in which my mother was riding when she was killed. I have seen the aftermath of tornadoes which tossed steel and concrete across the midwestern landscape like a careless child's toys. But I have never, never seen anything so terrible as this.
* * *
An acrid smoke billowed up from the wreckage and soon enveloped our neighborhood. We went inside and closed the windows--not wanting to breath whatever was floating in the air -- and then spent most of the rest of the day staring numbly at the television, like everyone else. We went up to the hospital a couple of times and tried to give blood, but were turned away both times because they had more volunteers than they had resources to deal with them. Now, it appears that little of that blood will be needed, because there just aren't going to be very many survivors from this thing. A friend of ours is a doctor and volunteered at one of the emergency stations set up somewhere, and reports the eeriness of a cavernous room filled with empty , unneeded hospital beds.
* * *
These events have brought out the best in many of us. The rescue workers who headed into the unknown, ready to risk their lives--what can you say? At times like this, they are the only human beings whose jobs matter. Cartoons seem very, very, very low on the scale, I must say. And I am particularly moved by the passengers in the flight over Pennsylvania who apparently understood what was happening and understood they had to do something, knowing that their lives were forfeit in either case. We would all like to believe we have such strength within us, but I guess you never know until that terrible moment arrives.
And as a longtime critic of the Mayor of the City of New York, I want to publicly commend him for the grace and steadfastness with which he has faced this crisis.
These events have brought out the best in people, but I fear they will also soon bring out the worst. Already there are reports of Arab-Americans being targeted--an unruly mob marched on a mosque outside Chicago before police turned them back, and in Suffolk County, N.Y., a man tried to run down a Pakistani woman with his car, shouting that he was "doing this for my country."
I do not doubt that there are more dark days ahead.
* * *
Some of the email I have received has shocked and saddened me, and I fear it foreshadows the divisiveness and polarization which lies before us. Immediately after this happened, a man wrote me to complain about the previous week's cartoon. When I asked him how he could possibly bethinking about a newspaper cartoon he didn't like at a time like this, he replied:
"One reason I was thinking about it is because of the similarities between people like you and the terrorists. Neither of you is interested in the truth. Both of you want people to think a certain way, believe certain things, regardless of what you have to say or do to accomplish that end.
You simply choose different ways to try to convince people. Thankfully your way is peaceful, but it is still destructive."
In other words, this man views those who express political opinions contrary to his own as the moral equivalent of mass murderers.
There are indeed dark days ahead.
* * *
The first cartoon I put out about this horrific tragedy was a simple expression of grief. It was posted on Salon, and shortly thereafter I received this:
"I'm a little surprised at your reaction to the Sept. 11 tragedy. Do you suggest you have some sort of deep affection for the country you constantly berate?"
And there's been more like that. And I fear this is only the beginning.
* * *
By the way, has anyone seen Dick Cheney since this whole thing started? Isn't it a little strange that he's always "off at Camp David for security reasons" -- even as the rest of the Administration and several ex-presidents to boot are able to gather under one roof? Are we to believe that if terrorists had targeted the National Cathedral, Dick Cheney would now be running the government single handedly from some unspecified bunker? He's like the sitcom actress who gets pregnant and the writers scramble to try to explain her absence from the show.
* * *
We went to a candlelight vigil last night, in which hundreds of people gathered on the streets of our Brooklyn neighborhood while fighter jets circled overhead, as they did all day during the President's visit to lower Manhattan. The crowd gathered to pay tribute to the twelve men from our local fire department lost in the tragedy, and it was both moving and disturbing. Some in the crowd sang "Give Peace a Chance," while others chanted "U.S.A! U.S.A!" as if they were at a football rally.
I walked away feeling that this was the cusp, the moment at which the mood turns from grief to vengeance.
* * *
The Administration has wasted no time in using this event to consolidate their power and advance their goals. As Norman Solomon reports: On Friday, the Senate voted 98-0 for a war resolution. It says: "The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons."
This resolution, written as a blank check, is payable with vast quantities of human corpses.
* * *
The obvious lesson that missile defense is useless against an enemy who can wreak such devastation armed only with box cutters and a willingness to die seems to have been lost on our political leaders. The New York Times reports:
"Representative David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said that even though the attacks showed that the biggest threat to the nation was from terrorism, Congressional reluctance to oppose the president at this time seemed likely to overwhelm that circumstance.
"One Democratic senator after another, while stopping short of Mr. Obey's blunt prediction, said they felt that this was no time for partisanship - and the ballistic missile issue is inevitably partisan.
"Moreover, the money issue has all but disappeared, swept away by Congress's sudden post-attack willingness to tap the Social Security surplus for all forms of defense. That has weakened the argument that the president's request for $8.3 billion for an antimissile system would divert needed money from more pressing dangers like terrorism, critics of the plan concede."
I have also heard a second-hand report that the administration intends to use this tragedy as an excuse to repeal environmental regulations--because we can't have anything hobbling business in what is being described as a wartime economy.
* * *
Conservative columnist Ann Coulter has written that "we know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
And David Corn reports another helpful response to the tragedy:
"One of the most extreme reactions to the horrific assault came -- not too surprisingly -- from Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. "The ACLU's got to take a lot of blame for this," Falwell said when he appeared on Robertson's television show. How so? Because, Falwell explained, the civil libertarians have opposed prayer in school. Robertson agreed. "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," Falwell remarked. (Talk about blaming America first.)
"Furthermore, Falwell noted that "the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad." September 11 apparently was God's revenge. If so, the United States should forget about beefing up the CIA, increasing the Pentagon budget, building Star Wars, or even improving airline security. Surely, a nation cannot defend against an act of God. But Falwell failed to explain why God has not similarly punished other nations where abortion occurs. Or why God, if he/she/it were truly angry, didn't merely smite those who piss him/her/it off?
"But the Reverend was on a tear: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" Robertson chimed in: "I totally concur." Here was one set of fundamentalists crassly taking political advantage of the murderous acts of another set of fundamentalists.
"These are not days of understanding or reflection. They are days of horror, tremendous sadness, and, unfortunately, exploitation. "
I would only amend David Corn's report with the obvious subtext of Falwell's remarks, the one thing to which he was clearly alluding, even though it was too much for even him to come right out and say: God was mad, so he struck at all those sinners and infidels in that modern day Sodom...New York City.
* * *
There is a surreal quality to life in Brooklyn right now. It rained yesterday, but apart from that, the days have been obscenely beautiful, as cool crisp fall weather finally overtakes the oppressive humidity of summer. There are frequently fighter jets in the air above us, and as the airports reopen, every airplane in the sky now inspires a jolt of adrenalin and dread. And weighing heavily over it all, the knowledge that across the river, rescue workers and construction crews are grappling with horrors which are certainly, as Mayor Giuliani put it, "more than we can bear." And yet life goes on. Everyone I know seems a little shell shocked, but people still go about their daily lives. Work resumes, children play, the dog must be walked.
But I haven't been to the park once since this thing happened without seeing someone being comforted by a friend or lover as they break down in tears.