The Ruin

It is a kingly thing…
—from “The Ruin,” c. 700 AD—the first known poem in the English language—an anonymous ode to the ruined, Roman city of Bath, found on two charred leaves of parchment.

For the first two days after the bombing the weather stayed sunny and warm. From where I live, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, there was still no physical evidence of the destruction. Then last Thursday night the wind finally shifted, and an oily, burning smell began to reach us, seeping in through our livingroom windows like an evil sirocco.

Some good friends of ours noticed that their infant daughter’s nose and eyes were running, and they got in their car and drove through the night, afraid that some kind of new, chemical weapon had been unleashed upon us. They called us the next day from the Berkshires, sounding abashed. It turned out that their daughter was only getting a cold, they said apologetically, but we understood.

It was not, after all, as if we were doing anything so valiant and necessary here. The winds brought a new front of cold and rain with them, and it was as if the autumn had arrived overnight, finally catching up to the mood of the city. I went around town, trying to volunteer to give blood, to do anything—hoping simply to be able to haul away some of the seven-story mountain of rubble that remains at the blast site.

(I have always wondered at the pictures of cities from the Second World War, reduced mainly to piles of rubble. Thinking, “How did they ever clean it all up?” Now I know. They do it one bucket at a time.)

Every place I went to was already full up with volunteers and blood donors. Down at the World Trade Center they were still hoping to find people alive, deep in the labyrinth of train tunnels and sub-basements that lay under the towers, and so most of the excavation work was reserved for trained men, for rescue squads and construction workers, and firemen.

The firemen are an especially moving story. The worst, first estimates were true, it seems. We have lost nearly 300, entombed in the rubble, when the towers when they collapsed. Some companies were almost entirely wiped out. Now the survivors work on, in their black and yellow-striped coats, pulling furiously at the wreckage before them. They refuse to be relieved, working on even after their strength must surely be exhausted—after all hope must be lost. Still hoping to find just one man alive.

For better or worse, the firefighters have always been at the heart of democracy in New York. Until 1865, all of the companies were made up of volunteers, which used to roll their engine wagons through the streets by hand. These soon became centers of popular culture and folklore. The companies painted their wagons with Indians, and Founding Fathers, and battles from the Revolution, and Niagara Falls; dubbed them with nicknames like the Mohawk Hose, or Old Honey Bee, or the Black Joke.

They were spirited and bumptious—fighting each other over the fire hydrants, even starting the terrible draft riot of 1863 that almost ruined the city. Yet at the same time, it was around the fire companies that the city’s populist, political organizations formed. New York was the first city in history to be truly run by the people and at times they have made a hash of it, but they have produced the sort of men and women who labor on so doggedly now.

They have also produced our mayor. This is Rudy Giuliani’s finest hour. In the past he has often been a belligerent, even buffoonish figure. Yet from the start of this crisis he has been superb. He has been everywhere, striking the exact right note of muted sorrow, and calm authority. He is obviously burdened by the devastation around him, by all the death—but it never overwhelms him, or turns him from his duty. I am reminded of something Edmund Morris wrote about Teddy Roosevelt: “The slightest rise in the barometer outside, and his turbulence smoothed into a whirl of coordinated activity. Under maximum pressure, Roosevelt was sunny, calm, and unnaturally clear.”

Giuliani’s leadership stands out especially, I’m afraid, in contrast to that offered by our president. We want to rally around George Bush, but his performance has been erratic, to say the least. Darting about the country in Air Force One, suddenly choking up on camera. Reading meaningless, campaign-style speeches off the television monitor. It took him three days just to get to the city, something that angered many New Yorkers.

Worst of all, Bush still seems concerned most of all with his own image. His staff has already put out a wild story about a possible terrorist “mole” in the White House, as a way to justify his early reaction. Meanwhile his rhetoric has become steadily more shrill and unconvincing. He promises to bring in Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” and to “rid the world of evildoers”—as if he were some other comic book superhero.

The reaction from the rest of official Washington has been almost as disheartening. Even supposedly liberal congressmen and senators rush to the microphones to say that we will have to give up some of our civil liberties. They are egged on by the media itself—though no one ever manages to say just which liberties we should give up, or why. The intelligence services—trying to obfuscate their colossal failure—are calling on the president to repeal a 1995 directive that forbade the CIA to hire known murderers and torturers under most circumstances.

One ray of hope from Washington is Colin Powell, the secretary of state, who seems to have kept his head when all around him are losing theirs. I have had the good fortune to meet Gen. Powell in the past, and he seemed to be a singularly level-headed and centered individual, generous and obviously devoted to his wife. So far he has been shunted aside in Washington by leftover cold warriors such as Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice, but the recent disaster might at last force the administration back to the sort of international cooperation that Powell champions, and that we need in this crisis.

I hope so. The evidence seems to point clearly to bin Laden’s organization now, and of course it must be dismantled. But I hope that our response will be as careful and deliberate as possible. I have always hated the habit of lobbing a missile or a few bombs in the general direction of suspected terrorists, and after the events of the last Tuesday I am more conscious than ever of how immoral it is to inflict such punishment on innocent and defenseless people.

Of course, there will likely be some “collateral damage” (that wonderful military term!) in any war. And there is always a trade-off. The less we bomb the more we risk the lives of the young men and women who defend us. There are no good choices here, but we must not act simply out of blind vengeance.

Across the nation, there have been accounts of people harassing and, in a couple instances, even killing Arab-Americans, and other Asians. But there have been few such incidents here; this sort of hysteria seems worse the farther one actually gets from New York.

We tend to be less demonstrative here in the city, in every way. One of our senators called on everyone to fly an American flag from their window, but few people actually have. There are more flags out, but most of them are displayed by merchants or cab drivers—many of them Arabic and Asian immigrants, eager to show their patriotism.

Last Friday night there was an attempt to organize candlelight vigils around city. I went out to one that was held across the street, in front of a church. Most of my neighbors and I stood there rather sheepishly, holding our candles while a few people tried to lead us in singing hymns and patriotic songs, and I was instantly reminded of why I hate most group activities. These were the sort of people, of course, who always feel everything much more deeply than anyone else, and they even resorted to calling out the next line before we sang it. When they got to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” I quietly blew out my candle and went home.

There was a better, more spontaneous gathering at the Firemen’s Memorial, in Riverside Park, and afterwards everyone walked over to the local fire station, just to show the men there how much we appreciated their efforts. They put up a hand-printed sign, on cardboard, thanking us in turn, and it was a much more genuine, and heartfelt moment.

I think the image I will remember most from the hours right after the bombing was a clip, shown over and over again, of a small group of New Yorkers lining up to get in a bus a couple blocks from the blast site. All of them were covered in ash—as was the bus—and one or two were even bleeding, but they all stood patiently in line, awaiting their turn. It was one of those small, countless moments of urban accommodation, that go all but unnoticed most of the time.

It strikes me that this is the sort of civilization that the Twin Towers represented. Bin Laden, in contrast, saw them in an almost cartoonish, childish sort of way—building-block skyscrapers, to be knocked over by crashing toy planes into them. No doubt he got the video images he craved, and many commentators will remark about the irony of his using the West’s technology against itself.

Yet it seems to me that for all of his devotion to Islam, for all of his efforts to destroy us, bin Laden’s problem is an essentially Western, secular one: Too much money, and too little purpose. His solution has been to cleave to the easiest, most simplistic answer available.

This is not to say that Western society does not have its own, considerable faults—or that we are not prone to our own simplifications. Many Americans were sickened this week, for instance, when a pair of far-right, fundamentalist televangelists, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, went on TV and agreed that the bombing could only have happened because the transgressions of gays and lesbians, abortionists, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other terrible people caused God to lift “His protective curtain” from us.

Yet most of us who live in an urban society have learned better. No doubt it took great physical courage for bin Laden’s holy warriors to fly themselves into buildings. But we in the city can claim an even greater courage just because we are free of such terrible certainties. We face our enemies with no promise of Paradise, no assurance that we are doing God’s will—but with all the inevitable, humanizing ambiguity of modern life.

Today I went back down to the financial district for the first time—a week after the crash, almost to the hour. Much of it is still blocked off from the public, but to see it all in person—to see the space where they used to be; the crumpled, trellis-like facades that are the only remnants still left standing—is much more shocking than it is on TV.

The nearby buildings were still covered with thick layers of ash. There were National Guard troops and police everywhere, many of them wearing surgical or even gas masks. The acrid, oily stench I smelled through my window is stronger than ever—so strong that I don’t know how people are able to work in the vicinity.

Yet there are plenty of them on the streets. They move about quietly, unobtrusively. There are tourists as well, snapping pictures of the devastation, but a somber, funereal aspect seems to have settled over everyone.

No one knows just what will happen. The New York Stock Exchange plunged on Monday, and there is even talk that this will spell the end of the financial district. Already, two major firms, American Express and Lehman Brothers, are reported to have signed long-term leases to move their offices out to New Jersey. Many other businesses are supposedly eager to follow—afraid now that New York will become a permanent target.

Well, let them go then, if they are so afraid. It will hurt us for awhile, but the city was around long before its stock exchanges, and it will be around long after they have left. Our friends have returned from Massachusetts, and we have heard from so many friends—not least from Germany—making sure we are all right. It is much appreciated. Mark the “x” upon my forehead, and drop whatever is to come next right there. I’m not leaving.

© Copyright The Frankfurter Rundschau 2001