Letter From Ground Zero: September 27, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: September 27, 2001

Letter From Ground Zero: September 27, 2001

I was somehow unprepared by television for what I saw when I arrived at Ground Zero.


This article is the first of a series of entries in a sort of reflective public diary that will chronicle and comment upon the crisis set in motion by the attacks on the United States on September 11. It will address the issues that are flying in profusion out of this new Pandora's box while seeking to preserve as much as possible the continuity of a single unfolding story.

Of course there can be no such thing as a literal letter from ground zero—neither from the ground zeros of September 11 nor from the potential nuclear ground zero that is the origin of the expression. There are no letters from the beyond. (By now, "zero" has the double meaning of zero distance from the bombardier's assigned coordinates and the nothingness that's left when his work is done.) As it happens, though, I live six blocks from the ruins of the north tower of the World Trade Center, which is about as close as you can be to ground zero without having been silenced. My specific neighborhood was violated, mutilated. As I write these words, the acrid, dank, rancid stink—it is the smell of death—of the still-smoking site is in my nostrils. Not that these things confer any great distinction—they are merely the local embodiment of the circumstance, felt more or less keenly by everyone in the world in the aftermath of the attack, that in our age of weapons of mass destruction every square foot of our globe can become such a ground zero in a twinkling. We have long known this intellectually, but now we know it viscerally, as a nausea in the pit of the stomach that is unlikely to go away. What to do to change this condition, it seems to me, is the most important of the practical tasks that the crisis requires us to perform.

It takes time for the human reality of the losses to sink in. The eye is quick but the heart is slow. I had two experiences this week that helped me along. It occurred to me that I would be a very bad journalist and maybe a worse neighbor if, living just a few blocks from the catastrophe, I did not manage to get through the various checkpoints to visit the site. A press pass was useless; it got me no closer than my own home. A hole in the storm-fence circling the site worked better. I found myself in the midst of a huge peaceable army of helpers in a thousand uniforms—military and civilian. I was somehow unprepared by television for what I saw when I arrived at ground zero. Television had seemed to show mostly a low hillock of rubble from which the famous bucket brigade of rescuers was passing out pieces of debris. This proved to be a keyhole vision of the site. In fact, it was a gigantic, varied, panoramic landscape of destruction, an Alps of concrete, plastic and twisted metal, rising tier upon tier in the smoky distance. Around the perimeter and in the surrounding streets, a cornucopia of food, drinks (thousands of crates of spring water, Gatorade, etc.) and other provisions contributed by well-wishers from around the country was heaped up, as if some main of consumer goods on its way to the Trade Center had burst and disgorged its flood upon the sidewalks. The surrounding buildings, smashed but still standing, looked down eyelessly on their pulverized brethren. The pieces of the facade of the towers that are often shown in photographs—gigantic forks, or bent spatulas—loomed surprisingly high over the scene with dread majesty. Entry into the ruins by the rescue workers was being accomplished by a cage, or gondola, suspended by a crane, as if in some infernal ski resort. When I arrived at the southern rim, the rescuers were all standing silent watching one of these cages being lifted out of the ruins. Shortly, a small pile of something not shaped like a human being but covered by an American flag was brought out in an open buggy. It was the remains, a solemn nurse told me, of one of the firemen who had given his life for the people in the building. And then the slow work began again. Although the site was more terrible even than I had imagined, seeing was somehow reassuring. Unvisited, the site, so near my home, had preyed on my imagination.

A few days later—one week after the catastrophe—I took my dog for a walk in the evening in Riverside Park, on the Upper West Side. Soft orange clouds drifted over the Hudson River and the New Jersey shore. In the dim, cavernous green of the park, normal things were occurring—people were out for walks or jogging, children were playing in a playground. To the south, a slender moon hung in the sky. I found myself experiencing an instant of surprise: So it was still there! It had not dropped out of the sky. That was good. After all, our local southern mountain peaks—the twin towers—had fallen. The world seemed to steady around the surviving moon. "Peace" became more than a word. It was the world of difference between the bottom half of Manhattan and the top. It was the persistence of all the wonderful, ordinary things before my eyes.

Curiously, it was only after this moment of return to confidence in the continuity of life that the shape and size of the change that had been wrought in the world a week before began to come into view. The very immensity of that change—and, what was something different, the news coverage of that change—was itself a prime fact of the new situation. In an instant and without warning on a fine fall morning, the known world had been jerked aside like a mere slide in a projector, and a new world had been rammed into its place. I have before me the New York Times of September 11, which went to press, of course, the night before the attack. It is news from Atlantis. "Key Leaders," were talking of "Possible Deals to Revive Economy," a headline said, but who was paying attention now? Were "School Dress Codes" still in a struggle with "A Sea of Bare Flesh"? Yes, but it was hard to give the matter much thought. Was "Morning TV" still a "Hot Market" in "a Nation of Early Risers"? It was, but not for the reasons given in the article. Only one headline—"Nuclear Booty: More Smugglers Use Asia Route"—seemed fit for the day's events.

Has the eye of the world ever shifted more abruptly or completely than it did on September 11? The destruction of Hiroshima of course comes to mind. It, too, was prepared in secrecy and fell like a thunderbolt upon the world. But it came after years of a world war and ended the war, whereas the September 11 attack came in a time of peace and—so our President has said—started a war. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, starting the First World War, is another candidate. Yet the possibility of war among the great powers had long been discussed, and many previous crises–in the Far East, in the Mediterranean, in the Balkans—had threatened war. It was not the event but the aftermath (we are still living in it)–the war's ferocity and duration and the war-born horrors that sprang out of it to afflict the entire twentieth century–that changed the world. Also, whereas the guns of August touched off a chain of events—the invocation of a web of treaty agreements, the predetermined mobilization schedules of great armies—that statesmanship and diplomacy seemed powerless to prevent, today little seems predetermined, and the latitude of choice, ranging from international police work to multifront major war, seems exceptionally wide.

All the more important, then, is the character and depth of the first public reaction. Today, when it comes to reactions in general, there is a new structural factor of the first importance to keep in mind. This, of course, is the news media, whose very nature it seems to be to magnify stories. These stories can, like coverage of the Gary Condit drama, be trivial and ridiculous or, like the Monica Lewinsky scandal, half serious and half ridiculous, or, like the September 11 attack, wholly serious. There are many hundreds of thousands of journalists in the world today.I think of them—us—as a kind of army, indeed, a very large one, as armies go. It is an army that terrorists almost always seek to recruit. Their deeds seek to influence public opinion, which is to say public will. The terrorist act of September 11, though costing more lives than any other, was no exception. As so many have observed, it was, probably by evil design, a disaster film–even a comic book or video game—brought sickeningly to life: horrific "infotainment" or "reality TV." The use of real life and real lives to enact a plot lifted out of the trashiest entertainments was an element of the peculiar debasement of the event. (The terrorist's use of the disaster genre has of course left Hollywood groping for some new stock-in-trade to amuse us with.)

The media army has thus been faced with an old dilemma on a new scale: If it carried out its responsibility of covering the news, it at the same time risked advancing the agenda of the terrorists. Of course, the terrorists can miscalculate the consequences of recruiting the media army. If the hijackers' hope on the 11th was to weaken the will of the United States to oppose their cause, obviously their plan backfired. American will to defeat them could scarcely be stronger. On the other hand, weakening American will to lash out may not have been their goal. Just the contrary may be the case. If I were a terrorist leader, there is nothing I would be praying for more ardently than an attack by the United States on one or more Islamic countries leading to the death of many innocent Muslims. If this happened, then, having successfully recruited the media army, I would have recruited the armed forces of the United States as well and would be well on my way to creating the war between America and Islamic civilization that at present I could only dream of.

Last week, it looked as if the United States might fall into this trap. Of course it was not media saturation alone that created the possibility. The wish to retaliate on the scale of the injury, an ageless instinct, would have been running powerfully in the country in any case. In his speech before the joint session of Congress, President Bush issued an ultimatum that the Taliban government of Afghanistan was bound to reject (and did reject): It must, among other things, deliver up its "guest" Osama bin Laden and all other terrorists in Afghanistan to American justice, and open its country to full inspection. If the Taliban refused, Bush said, they would "share the fate of the terrorists." Here was a clear declaration, if there ever was one, of an intention to overthrow a government.

By this week, however, there were signs that the effects of the President's high-proof rhetoric, which press and public alike gulped down eagerly, were wearing off, and greater sobriety was setting in. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, reported to belong to a hawkish faction in the Administration, eager to topple not only the Taliban but also the regime of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, was surprisingly asking, "Is it likely that an aircraft carrier or a cruise missile is going to find a person?" He thought not, and suggested instead that "this is going to happen over a sustained period of time because of a broadly based effort where bank accounts are frozen, where pieces of intelligence are provided." As for Afghanistan, it was "not as though there is a front, and that there are good guys and bad guys," he surprisingly opined. In the clearest indication of a reversal of course, President Bush himself said, "We're not into nation-building." Countries that aren't into nation-building are ill advised to get into nation-toppling. However, American forces continued to pour into the Middle East, and the Administration could at any time switch back to a war policy.

Among the public, too, there were signs of cooling fever, if not of lessening resolve. Atlantis—the world of happenings other than those of September 11—began to poke above the waves. Among the recommendations that the Red Cross made for dealing psychologically with national crises was to avoid watching the news all the time. This is sound advice—as good for national policy as for mental well-being. A will to do justice that burns with a steady, low flame will be more useful than one that flares up all at once and then gutters out.

Vaclav Havel once invoked the "power of the powerless," by which he meant the power of the nonviolent weak to defy and defeat totalitarian regimes through unarmed acts of noncooperation and defiance. But the powerful have some power, too. Terrorism is jujitsu, by which the violent weak use the power of the powerful to overthrow them. Nineteen men with plastic knives and box cutters (so far, investigators have been unable to identify a larger network that supported the act) used some of the United States' biggest and most sophisticated aircraft to knock down some of its biggest buildings, all in the apparent hope of enlisting the world's media army to provoke America's real army to commit acts that would rally opinion in the terrorists' part of the world to their own side. But the powerful can refuse to cooperate. Tom Friedman of the Times advised that the United States, like the Taliban, should act "a little bit crazy." But the Taliban are a poor model. That way lies our undoing. When all is said and done, it is not in the power of America's enemies to defeat us. Only we can do that. We should refrain.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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