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Letter From New York:

Apocalypse New York Revisited

American Studies Today Online
Lenny Quart is Professor of Cinema Studies at COSI and the CUNY Grad. Center, and is a frequent contributor to American Studies Today Online and to the Berkshire Eagle. This is the second of his reflections on the events of 11th September 2001.
Posted 20th September 2001

Every time I look up and see the dust and smoke billowing over those ravaged blocks of building rubble (“the amphitheater of destruction”) where the World Trade Towers once stood, I begin to shiver and burst into silent tears. I’m unable to get those monumental murderous explosions and thousands of innocent people who died out of my mind. And if for a moment I do, there is always a shift of the wind blowing acrid, toxic air from the site that makes me choke and forces me to wear a mask and replay yet again Sept. 11th’s horror.

During the last few days I have been obsessively watching television reports and wandering the almost auto-free streets (below 14th St.) talking to strangers. I feel better when I numbly look at the screen or talk — even though often both television coverage and my conversations tend to be repetitive — continually going over the same events, feelings, and news items and analyses. On television I see city firemen describe their digging by hand around the clock through the debris and ashes to find their many fallen “brothers” and countless other victims. They’re covered in gray dust, weary, unshaven, and brave. One also sees policemen, construction and iron workers, paramedics, and doctors from all over the country, as well as the metropolitan area, who have volunteered in the massive rescue effort. When I look at these scenes I feel as if Lower Manhattan has become the set of a Frank Capra film, except his heroic everyman (e.g., Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds) has turned into a multitude of men and women who are humane, caring, and courageous. In confronting a crisis they have shed their imperfect ordinary selves, and become something luminous. That radiance rarely carries over to our everyday lives, but in this extraordinary situation they have been able to transcend our flawed natures — the fear, indolence, cynicism, self-interest and selfishness, we all, to different degrees, share.

The same is true for New York’s thin-skinned, authoritarian, sometimes ruthlessly insensitive mayor. I have often written scathingly about Giuliani’s abrasive personality, and — albeit with much more sympathy, though still critically — about the policies he’s pursued in his years in office. However, in this crisis he has made our President, by comparison, look like an anxious and unprepared politician who finds it necessary to indulge in self-conscious, scripted tough talk (“We will smoke them out of their holes”) to prove his capacity for leadership to the nation. Giuliani, in contrast, has been calm, clear, compassionate, and in control, while repressing his usual defensive harshness and need to browbeat the people around him. One feels his genuine love for the city, and his empathy for those who have suffered and are continuing to suffer. If he were able to run for Mayor this November, his popularity is so great right now that he would probably be elected to an indefinite term in office.

The city may be in mourning, but the numerous church services and candlelight vigils help provide some emotional catharsis. In Union Square Park, beige wrapping paper is pasted on to the concrete surrounded by candles, and people are encouraged to write their responses on the paper to the terrorist attack. Their reactions range from sixties’ slogans like “Make Love, Not War,” “Give Peace a Chance,” and the lyrics of John Lennon’s pacifistic utopian song, “Imagine,” to homages to New Yorkers’ compassion and the fortitude of the firemen. A few people make political statements about the danger of America’s “unconditional support of Israel,” while others write that it’s a “wake-up call” that will rouse Americans from their complacency. The substance of the writing is less significant than the need for people to make their churning feelings public. What strikes me is that, for the moment, sophisticated intellectual analyses dealing with terrorism’s historical context (e.g., speculating about the roots of the powerless’ rage) are beside the point. I have difficulty a abstracting myself from my own feelings of violation and despair. And I feel a need for intellectual humility — a sense that the enormity of what has occurred defies facile or even complex explanation, and that any attempt at rationalization or justification is obscene.

On the other hand, I’m not saying that it’s sufficient to feel outrage — engaging in the kind of jingoism that makes no distinctions between Arabs—lumping them all together as “the other,” or murderously ranting about “nuking them back to the stone age.” We must retaliate, but in a controlled, selective, resolute manner. And we must understand there are no quick fixes, but possibly years of painful commitment, sacrifice, and danger. Our lives have been indelibly transformed — none of us will ever step into the same world again. L. Quart


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