Saturday, September 13, 2008

It's All About Point of View

I'm driving into the City on the afternoon of 9/11. It’s something which makes you want to look up, and keep looking, until you see those familiar towers. There are all the docks and shipping areas of Jersey which kind of block the view, but you have this certain feeling that as soon as you clear the big Container cranes, you'll see the familiar tall thin towers looming on the edge of the city, inviting visitors as they have for almost four decades. Yet, they don't appear. I keep waiting, looking, trying to spy between the semi's and the bridges that sight which tells me my five hours from DC is almost over. It is said that the hardest thing to describe is something which isn't there. I agree. It'slike a 20 megaton version of that feeling you get when you realize you left your wallet in the phone booth, or your car keys on the MacDonald's counter. But this one is stronger, deeper, more frightening in its absence.

It's been seven years. Hard to believe we have lived that long without the towers, or even worse, perhaps, seven years of dread waiting for the next bulletin about the 'new' attack. The bad guys are surely trying to plot something, if only to baptize the next President next year. That seems to be how they do things – the first year of the new Regime. In many ways they have caused us to do to ourselves which they, even with their mightily leveraged asymmetrical attacks couldn't have done. They have installed fear as the one constant in American life. It rules everything, every judgment, every public policy, every minor activity that any of us takes part in. Can fear have been so strong in the dark days of 1942, when we had entered a war which we had no certainty of winning, and which was constantly serving up if not defeats, at least extremely costly battles. What did our folks think about the future then? Did they just feel like turning everything over to the Feds? Yes, there was rationing, and yes, there was a certain amount of censorship in a Press corps which did actually believe that winning the war was a good thing. But was the same deep, dark fear of the unknown, the kind of fear which has let Americans completely give up any sense of self worth and self assurance, so pervasive in the early uncertain days of WWII? I just don't know the answer, but what I do know is that in 2008 we are, from every level of government (and I mean every!) down to the man in the street, convinced that the only way to move forward is to move two steps back. Police patrols at the conventions would have been a bad joke if they we're so shameful. Bin Laden sits in his cave, picking his teeth with a hunting knife, no doubt watching on sat TV the overly intrusive so-called Security presence at both conventions, and must say to himself: Gee, I got way more than I bargained for.

We are not Captain James Lawrence - during the War of 1812. We seemingly HAVE given up the ship. We gave it up to fear.

My own experience on 9/11 in 2001 was somewhat removed, but not without irony. I had flown the day before from Istanbul to Belgrade, where the newly crowned basketball champions of Europe, the Yugoslavs (i.e. the Serbs) were celebrating their win, and given what had taken place in the previous couple of years, civil strife in all the former Yugoslav republics, this was the first time the people of Belgrade had been able to enjoy a victory of some kind. At the town hall, hundreds of happy and screaming Yugoslav fans waited in the rain for the basketball champs to arrive. The fact that so many Yugoslavs were playing professional basketball, and many in the NBA, I'd gone to Europe to do a story for ESPN on the new, potential stars of the NBA, the young teenagers who were honing their skills, waiting to be called to Houston, LA, or Chicago. The night of the 10th, the writer, Ric Bucher, and I made arrangements to leave the next morning for a ski resort in on the Kosovo border where one of the main Belgrade pro basketball teams was holding pre season training camp. The word was, they had a 15 year old, 7 footer who could shoot. We wanted to see what was up with him, and if Ric thought he might have real NBA potential. So, on the morning of 9/11/01 we hopped in a taxi, gave the driver the name of the resort, and off we went. A few hours later we arrived at a mountainous, rustic area, filled with Lincoln-log style buildings, and a couple of ski lifts. It was only September, no snow yet, but a definate chill was in the air. We had lunch, and then met with the coach, who spoke very little English, about 3:30 in the afternoon. He started to tell us about his program, how he recruits younger players who show talent, and what the team does, in this case, to look after a 15 year old who was playing with 'the big boys.' Around 4:00, his mobile phone started to ring. He spoke for a quick minute, then hung up and looked at us. “I think a big market building has had accident.” His English was limiting, and it would be a while till we understood “Market building” really meant “...Trade Center..” Then the phone rang a second, third, and even fourth time in the next half hour. He remained unable to tell us what the true story was at 'home', but it did put him in a different dynamic. Finally, after the fourth call, he asked me if I wanted to use his mobile phone to call home and see what was happening. Iris answered the phone: “There is no more World Trade Center...” she said, almost matter of factly. It's hard to grasp what that means if you haven't seen the video tape of the towers collapsing. You can try and describe it, but words fall short. It was a quick call, she assured me she was OK, but had no idea about anything more than a block away. It was the day our contractors were breaking through the wall of Jordan's bedroom to open up two rooms to make a suite. That morning's air crashes had, I'm sure, been something no one could be imagining. I wandered through the resort building while Ric continued to speak with the Coach. There was a tv with rabbit ears, but all it could pick up was a soccer game somewhere in Europe.
I met the 15 year old, we did some pictures, and spent a couple of hours trying to do pictures of the team in the gym. When we made ready to head back to Belgrade, we spoke again with the coach. As it happened, he lived there, across the street from the Yugoslav Television building. The same one which had been, just a couple of years before, attacked by American Cruise missiles during the Balkan unrest of the late 1990s. The missiles, which destroyed the TV center, created we was monotonically referred to as “collateral damage.” Part of that damage was to the apartment of the coach who was telling me about the World Trade Center. He was not exactly gloating, in fact he was being, under the circumstances, quite understanding. But the irony wasn't lost that the messenger to us about the New York attacks, was a man who'd lived under the arrival of American bombs. Yet, I think even he felt a certain sympathy for us, and though it would be several hours of driving until I saw on the hotel TV exactly what had happened, there was a feeling of dread which accompanied the recounting of the story to that point.
Looking back these seven years, and how a combination of government ineptitude and willful misleading we are looking at a very different country from that morning. We've sold off the government to the highest, or at least the nearest bidders, in dozens of places; unqualified people have been appointed to look after and shepherd public trust. Looting? Yeah, in many cases it sounds like looting, though in this case it's been sanctioned. We're in a couple of wars which have to be seen as the least likely way to have conquered this new kind of enemy. We celebrate the Generals who led our amazing forces across Iraq, and found, basically, no resistance. Then, with the populace acting like villagers in Viet Nam, we have had to deal with an insurrection which all the genius planners said could never happen. I have to say, all the geniuses who have been in charge seem to be a lot less genius that they seemed (at least to themselves) five years ago. And what are we left with? We live in a country in which “every changed at 9/11.” That means there is no end to police powers. No end to intrusive security. And no end to actually finding the source of what put us where we are today. On 9/12 we had the greatest outpouring of sympathy and friendship this country has ever seen. And all that good will was fiddled away over the last six years on wars which have, in their own way, become 'bridges to nowhere.'

I often think back to that afternoon in Yugoslavia, and wonder what our host, the coach, must think of the US today. Is there any sense of good will left, or have we just let it all die in a gigantic fit of bluster and hubris. I worry for our kids, and the world we leave to them. In 1946, with the war ended, and the beginning of the rebuilding of Europe and Japan at hand, I was born. That world was one of promise and hope, and of course Red Scares and Nuclear worry. But the dark days of fear and the unknown in 1942 had been vanquished, and the country was the one place where people everywhere wanted to be, live, enjoy. Now, as a parent in the post 9/11 world, I wish we'd done a better job of trying to set up the world we have control over for the next generation. Some days I think.. with Clinton born in August, '46, Bush born in July of '46, that I, as a child of September '46 ought to be the next President. One Dem, one Republican, one Independent. Would I be considered “qualified?” Maybe I'm too naïve when it comes to the level of self serving which politicians can be accused of. But beyond that, I have worked in 80 countries, have a working knowledge (eat, navigate, complain) in a couple of languages. I know that Russia is close to Alaska, but I know it because I've been in Russia. I suppose I could still be drafted, and if drafted I might serve. Maybe that could be the one thing that “everything changed at 9/11” would give back to the country which wouldn't be another step in toward the world of Fear. We're just sayin'....David

The World Trade Center, 1974
as always, click on an image to see it full size


James said...

In response to the question of whether the threats borne by WWII inculcated the same character of response as we now see in, for example, Guantanamo, I'd like to share a quote.

"To place a man in prison without charge, and without the judgment of his peers in a fair trial, is in the highest degree odious and the foundation of all totalitarian governments, whether Nazi or communist."

--Noam Chomsky quoting Winston Churchill, who was speaking on proposed efforts to institute preventive detention in Britain. The year was 1943, two years after The Blitz left 43,000 British civilians dead--a time when Britain's survival was, in Chomsky's words, "not obvious."

Walter Briggs said...

I forever regret having never gone atop the WTC on the two trips to NYC some years past. Didn't even shoot a picture of it..

I guess that makes some sort of a statement when you see something..shrug your shoulders, and take it for granted until you realize it's no longer there.

I know exactly what you mean.

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