I don’t know if it’s some childhood image left over from Victory at Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft carriers. It’s not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be telling me that the iconic images aren’t the whole story, that serenity and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of the day-to-day reality of the war.
It’s for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses to 9/11, comic monologist Reno’s Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to me so. They provide relief from the media’s iconic packaging, which has been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the (rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.
With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981, relates what it was like in lower Manhattan “that gorgeous day.” She recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency Defense System. (“Maybe this wasn’t enough of an emergency.”) She tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.
But mostly it’s the human reactions to catastrophe that are so wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people rushing home to have their televisions validate what they’d just seen with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the “hierarchical bragging rights of pain and knowledge”–New Yorkers one-upping each other over what they knew and what they’d suffered.
Reno’s warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn’t seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, “where all the other fascists are.”
She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his son kindly because even they knew “he was a hapless kid.”
After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own paranoia (although as I learned the last time–when Watergate lanced the Nixonian pustule–paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality). Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At 342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn’t written in the days after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the “Communist of this Administration.”