A PERSONAL MEMOIR OF AMERICAN POWER AFTER 9/11
By SCOTT L. MALCOMSON
POTOMAC BOOKS, INC.
Copyright © 2010 Scott L. Malcomson
All right reserved.
Chapter One ONE DAY
The babysitter was late. My wife's sister had phoned earlier to tell us a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. My wife, Becky, and I were eager to get to work. She was an assistant United States attorney in the Southern District, downtown Manhattan; I was an opinion editor at the New York Times. These were the sort of civic-institution posts where you feel you ought to be around in emergencies. Becky's dad called to say a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. Becky had just taken our daughter to her preschool class down the street. The babysitter arrived; traffic on Flatbush Avenue had slowed her down. I went to drop off the dry cleaning. The truck (Engine 226) from the firehouse, straight across the street from us, was gone.
I returned home to dress for work. Becky called her office, and the security officer answering the phone said the building was closed. At Church Street and Park Place, Becky's building was just north of the Trade Center's towers, both of which now had substantial fires burning away in their upper floors. Becky's boss, Mary Jo White, had prosecuted the bombers who had hit the World Trade Center in 1993, and I had somehow thought she would already be at her desk, sending out investigators and so on. She was proud of her antiterrorism prosecutions and expertise. But the fires were too close.
So Becky would stay home. We heard that the subways were closed. I would have to walk. As I went down the stairs Becky called out that a plane had hit the Pentagon.
I considered going to P.S. 261, the local elementary school, to vote in the Democratic mayoral primary. I didn't like any of the four candidates much. But I try to be a good citizen, and voting is the really tangible part of living in a democracy so I hate to miss it. Nonetheless, as I walked toward the school I noticed that downtown Brooklyn was being covered in ash. (The first tower had fallen, but with all the sirens, traffic, and other sounds I had not heard it.) I guessed that the election would be rescheduled. I stopped at a small shop to buy a fresh notebook and pen, then walked up into Brooklyn Heights. There was so much smoke that I thought a building had gone down on our side of the East River; but it was all from the massive cloud created by that first tower falling and by the smoke of the fires.
I walked along a path down an alley of trees in a small park dedicated to Brooklynites who had died serving in World War II. This was where I would jog on normal mornings. There were people covered with ash walking the other way and guards with shotguns by the courthouses. I was worried that I might have trouble talking my way onto the Brooklyn Bridge, but when I reached the entrance the real problem was that the walkway was filled with thousands of people pressing into Brooklyn. I jumped down to the roadway-the Manhattan-bound side was already closed to nonemergency traffic-then climbed back up to the walkway when the crowd there had thinned some. Ahead was the north tower, burning at about the ninetieth floor.
On the roadway, below me now, cars with sirens raced by every thirty seconds or so. I saw a fireman on a small motorcycle, almost a scooter, going as fast as the little motor could take him, into Manhattan; and another fireman walking in the same direction by himself. It occurred to me that these men were off duty and had heard about the fire and were simply trying to get to it by whatever means. Walking ahead of me-we were pushed up against the right-hand barrier by people going the other way-were three people in civilian clothes with sidearms on their belts; off-duty cops, I supposed, heading toward the disaster.
I was relieved to be going their way. Whatever this disaster was that was happening around us, I felt lucky because I had a job to do. Whatever this disaster was, there would be a debate on it, and public debate was what my job was all about. I had to see what I could see and get to the paper; it gave me a feeling of resolve, a peaceful feeling.
There was an old man in a dark suit, coated with white ash. He was nearly round-a creation, I suppose, of decades spent sitting in chairs and moving only his hands. He conveyed himself steadily forward in a rhythmic, rolling, heaving walk, carrying one of those distinct red-brown accordion folders that lawyers use to hold their papers. It was full to bursting (they always are), clutched in his left hand. In his right hand a briefcase. Ash covering his bottle-thick glasses.
A young man with a ripped T-shirt. Everyone, just about, with ash on their clothes. Very few people crying. To say this was an orderly procession is somehow an understatement. It was as though people were commuting away from death; that was their point of departure for the day. A handful of people ran, I imagine out of simple anxiety or because they might have thought the Brooklyn Bridge could be attacked, too. (And why not? Why not kill us everywhere? Why was I not falling into the river?) But the great majority walked away from death at a prudent, if quick, pace.
A young man jogged past me toward Manhattan, in his running outfit, headphones on. He was not going to let a little disaster interrupt his exercise routine. He was, in his way, the most surprising sight on the bridge.
I was halfway or so across when a rumble sounded and the second tower collapsed. A thousand people turning around for a moment; some screams. I checked my watch: 10:30 a.m. The building came straight down like a waterfall (like a pillar of water). It seemed unbelievable that something so huge could drop that way. It took maybe fifteen seconds.
A thousand people turned back to resume their walk toward Brooklyn. Some had cried out and friends or strangers had braced them up. The helpfulness of people was striking in that it was so unsentimental, quick, and practical. We had just seen hundreds of people exactly like us die.
A man appeared beside me. I could not tell why he was going into the city. He gestured up at the open air where the towers and the people in them had been. "Somebody's going to pay for this," he said.
"Somebody already has," I said. I'm not sure what I meant. It's just what I said. I had the dead in mind. The lightness of that new open air above the city, the heaviness of these newly dead.
As the bridge ramped down into Manhattan, the smoke thickened and there were even fewer people. I could breathe, more or less, but not well. The air had a distinctive smell, with burning plastic in it and something like wet clay.
* * *
I considered turning left and heading toward the towers, but to reach the Times I needed to go right. Responsibility took me uptown, past City Hall, and up around the courthouses on Center Street. Most of the police officers and firemen were rushing toward whatever remained of the World Trade Center so the streets were clear; the civilians had fled, the officials had not yet taken over. I felt I had the run of the city, that sense that comes when the streets have emptied during emergencies or very heavy snows. I felt, I can go anywhere, and I am alive.
Security people had already cleared a space around the Javits Federal Building, which is attached to the New York headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). I thought, almost involuntarily, of old Senator Jacob Javits, son of Lower East Side immigrants, a good-hearted Republican who did not mind having his name put on big buildings. I was glad he had not lived long enough to see this happen to his city. I'd never thought of death in quite this way before-as something that could happen just in time, fortunately; as something you would not want to do too late.
* * *
Walking north through Chinatown I tried to reach Becky by cell phone, but the phone system had ceased working. At pay phones people were lined up, waiting so patiently in their ash-covered clothes to phone in and say they weren't dead. Two men in Chinatown pulled the grate down on their commercial-sign store. What else to do but close up? Who knew what would be happening later that day? Who could possibly have even the slightest idea? North through Chinatown, the news became less clear, less emphatic. Maybe on this block of SoHo they could keep the shop open? Even though so many people were simply standing in the street with their mouths open, staring downtown, waiting? And already around Prince Street I looked a bit odd, because of the ash coating. It's in my eyes, nose, mouth, and hair. It is, it was, the pulverized remains of two tall buildings, also in some tiny part the last powdery remains of several thousand people, which I tasted on my tongue and around the rim of my mouth and swallowed. Good-bye.
By the time I reached the Village I was brushing the ash off my shirt and face because people were looking at me strangely. On Bedford above Houston, not far beyond the fire station, a woman bounced on the balls of her feet in physical anticipation of a grief that was coming her way. She just knew it, she said to the woman standing before her, a friend, "They say to wait because they still don't have no information." The second woman began to cry and totter, saying something; the first woman braced her up, yet bounced even more rapidly. She held her friend by the shoulders, at arms' length, screaming, "No, don't say that! Don't say that! They don't have the information yet!"
I found my sister-in-law nearby, in the West Village. I was tired of walking and had thought to borrow her bicycle. She was at the deli around the corner from her apartment, stocking up on food to get her through whatever calamities lay immediately ahead. She had a colleague with her, a young woman who hung back while we talked. The woman (my sister-in-law told me quietly) had got to their office early, before the first plane hit. Their office was on Church Street below Chambers Street. When the plane hit, and then for some time afterward, she had observed people falling from the sky. Or not falling, exactly, because they were not pushed. They were flying.
Straight down to death on the sidewalk.
My sister-in-law's colleague had fled from this sight, hurrying north; now she was here at the deli counter, furtive, hardly able to speak. She could not get back home to New Jersey because all the routes had been closed. She would spend the rest of the day at my sister-in-law's tiny apartment in silence.
I rode the borrowed bicycle north, coughing up the ash I had taken in downtown.
* * *
At the Times, on East Forty-third Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, I headed to my office on the tenth floor. When I got off the elevator Gail Collins was there with a warm embrace. Formerly a columnist, she had become the editorial page editor five days before. She appeared relaxed and confident, but she also needed help. My immediate superior, the Op-Ed editor, Terry Tang, had been unable to make it in from New Jersey, with the bridges and tunnels being closed and the ferries either moored or being used for rescue. Other colleagues were missing, too.
At Op-Ed, it was just Mary Suh and I out of our normal staff of five editors. The decision had been made already to have columnists fill our page, unless some piece came in from outside that was so perfect it would have to run. But we could not be certain the columnists would come through, and in any case there was the rest of the week to plan. So Mary and I set about trying to find contributors and thinking of angles that would become relevant two, three, or more days ahead. We called former secretaries of state, terrorism experts, engineers who understand big buildings, specialists in airline security. We tried to contact fiction writers and historians and others who had a more general expertise in the human condition, with the idea that they could illuminate, somehow, what was happening to us.
I had been hired by the Times's Op-Ed page for several reasons, the main one being to shape its coverage of foreign affairs. I had spent years working abroad, writing articles and books in South America, Africa, Europe, Central Asia, and the Pacific islands. I had covered election campaigns and disease outbreaks and murders, business stories and cultural stories, and all this added up to a sort of professional expertise-not least of which was an expertise in how the United States was seen from outside. There was no one at the Op-Ed page with similar experience and hadn't been for some time. This may seem odd-it did to me-but it makes sense within the Times's industrial-democratic business model. The basic idea is that a journalist develops a skill set that exists independent of expertise; he or she can be moved from Rome to the Newark school board to sports to business without a dip in quality. The bargain for the journalist is that he doesn't have to develop (or be limited to) a particular expertise; the bargain for management is that the journalist is replaceable. Within Op-Ed, this democratic gravitational force did not apply to the writers we reached out to-they had to be experts-but it did apply to what they had to say, which needed to be comprehensible and useful to the average reader. As editors, we both had to know more than the average reader and to be able to imagine what it was like to not know much at all. (The ultimate power, then, rested with the editor rather than the writer; the story was sometimes told of an exasperated editor shouting into the phone, "When we want your opinion, we'll give it to you!") The editor who could most forcefully put across the point of view of the uninformed often won the editorial arguments. It was a peculiar balancing act and took some getting used to.
Before this morning, foreign affairs were, from the page's perspective, of only modest interest. American power and leadership were secure and essentially unquestionable, and foreign topics were localized: Middle East negotiations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, Irish republicanism, Hutus and Tutsis. This was about to change.
It was difficult for people to phone into Manhattan. It was difficult to get a line into Boston or Washington, as well-the two cities that, along with New York, provide most of the commentators one sees on television and Op-Ed pages. There is something of a master media Rolodex: we kept seeing the people we were phoning show up on CNN; sometimes we saw someone on CNN we had not thought of or didn't know and proceeded to hunt the person's numbers down. George Shultz, who had been Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, phoned back when I was away from my desk; then a half hour later there he was on CNN, from a studio in San Francisco. Gen. Wesley Clark was on, appearing uncomfortable, with his soldier-in-the-spotlight look. I had met him not long before, at Richard Holbrooke's apartment during a party. I was struck at the time by his good humor, by his nervousness, and by what he said about America's future of waging optional wars-what would come to be called wars of choice-because there would be no real necessity for fighting, only possibilities for fighting, and America, as the indefinitely hegemonic power, would be free to select among them.
* * *
President George W. Bush was off somewhere, flying around, though he had announced from Sarasota, Florida, that he would hunt down "those folks who committed this act." Holbrooke appeared repeatedly on CNN, talking about Osama bin Laden and states that shelter terrorists. He appeared reasonably confident that the author of these attacks-we knew that four planes had been taken, and there were rumors of more-was bin Laden, together with his group, al Qaeda, or "the Base." The bin Laden group worked out of Afghanistan. What they were doing boarding planes in Boston, Newark, and Dulles, Virginia, then somehow flying them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was anyone's guess. It hardly seemed plausible. Pushing a raft full of dynamite against a ship in Yemen was one thing. It seemed quite another to take control over and fly four commercial jets. And how could bin Laden, somewhere in Afghanistan and (as the country's Taliban leaders had been saying for well over a year) forbidden from even using a telephone, possibly be the "mastermind"?
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