12 September 2007

L’Shanah Tovah

For the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Jon Feldstein and I decided to make the day an annual celebration of our friendship — that is, to find something positive amid the rage and sorrow that still grip us. On the morning of the attacks, I saw the World Trade Center in flames but didn’t know what had happened, so I continued on my way to work. Feldstein and I telephoned each other several times, until phone service was cut off and my office at Opera News was evacuated. I had nowhere to go, and little way to get there: the subways were shut down, and bridges to Brooklyn, where I lived at the time, were closed. But I knew that if I made my way to Feldstein’s neighborhood, in the West Village, I’d find him somehow, and I did.

I walked downtown, against the flow of pedestrians and thinking, inevitably, of Scarlett’s return to Pittypat’s house when all the rest of Atlanta is fleeing Sherman. And thinking, too, that the last time America was attacked this way, we did it to each other. Now we didn’t know whom to blame, although a few people tried to find some scapegoat: I heard a white man shouting at a Sikh taxi driver, “Go back where you came from!” After that outburst, though, the long avenue of Broadway was almost completely silent. Nobody spoke, and there were only rarely any motor vehicles passing by: ambulances and police cars. People clustered around parked taxicabs, where drivers cranked up the radio and New Yorkers listened to the news. From time to time, a military jet passed overhead. As I made my way farther south, I began to encounter people fleeing Ground Zero. They were covered in white dust.

When I got to Greenwich Village, Feldstein hadn’t gotten home yet. I left a note at his apartment, then waited at Julius’, a bar that, by night, draws an elderly gay crowd (Tree calls the place “God’s waiting room”) and, like egrets to the elephants, young hustlers. But by day, the place isn’t very gay, in any sense of the word: just another neighborhood bar, where hardcore barflies shoot the breeze and knock back liquor in the dark, cool quiet.

That day, Julius’ was like Cheers on methadone: everybody knew your name, but nobody could remember it. We were in any case distracted by the television over the bar, where ABC News was playing. It was the first view I had of the pictures of the fall of the World Trade Center, and I heard myself cry out. I ordered another beer. Over time, the wound of 9/11 has not healed for me so much as been covered over, as if a metal plate has been riveted over a hole in my head. But I still can’t look at those pictures, moving or still.

Beside me, a scruffy barfly was drinking substantial quantities of vodka and repeating, to nobody in particular, “I saw it, man. I fucking saw it. I saw it.” I tried to get him to tell me more, but his shock was too great. Vodka was the only answer.

At last Feldstein found me, and through that long day and those that followed, we kept each other company. Late in the evening of 9/11, I was able to ride the subway back to Williamsburg, and the next day Feldstein met me there. The wind had changed, and in my apartment you could smell the smoke from Ground Zero. We went to an air-conditioned bar, where the smell was not so bad. We drank a great deal of beer. We didn’t talk much. But we got through it.

That is what I try to focus on when I remember that day. I was lucky: evil might attack, but I still had a friend.

I was lucky in other ways, too. I didn’t know anyone killed in the attack, and my cousin Nicole, who was working at the Pentagon that day, was spared. From San Francisco, my brother valiantly contacted anyone and everyone to tell them I was safe. Bernard, still in France at the tail end of a vacation from which I had returned only the day before, was panic-stricken, unable to think of a reason I might be on Wall Street but unable to rest until he got the news. My parents, on vacation in Budapest, remained strangely untroubled, and didn’t try to phone me until two weeks later.

But it’s hard — for them, for me, for anybody — to make much sense out of 9/11. It is unthinkable, unimaginable, ungraspable. In those first days, I wanted answers and leadership, and the mere fact of Mayor Giuliani’s saying “I don’t know” seemed like both. If I’ve had trouble drawing conclusions and learning lessons in the aftermath of 9/11, so has the government.

Some kind of strike against Al Qaeda seemed reasonable, necessary and urgent, but in time the war in Afghanistan was pushed aside by the war in Iraq, Osama bin Laden went unpunished, and the men and women in charge of the country came to seem like a Taliban unto themselves, irrational and implacable. From torture to secret prisons, from the destruction of legal institutions to attacks on civilians at home and abroad, the tools of terror are now wielded by the administration. Too often, my resentment toward bin Laden has been overshadowed by resentment of George Bush.

That feeling was exacerbated by Washington’s curious memorial service yesterday, the testimony of David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker on the “success” of what the White House calls a surge in Iraq. I’ve seen how this war has compromised the minds of many: Condoleezza Rice is perhaps the most brilliant woman I’ve ever met, whose intelligence is almost palpable as you shake her hand, but I suspect the average barnyard chicken could do a better and more honest job in government nowadays. And Petraeus and Crocker, to say nothing of the Congress, seem to be succumbing, with varying degrees of resistance and resignation, to the same warping spirit. Yet even Petraeus doesn’t try to say that America is safer now because we are fighting in Iraq. He is applauded when he calls for a gradual, partial withdrawal — though it was planned from the beginning, and though it will leave us with precisely as many soldiers in Iraq as were there in the fall of 2006, when the voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the war.

But Bush is persuaded of the rightness of his cause and dismissive of the will of the people. He still spouts his spurious justifications, flimsy arguments and ludicrous historical analogies. He still claims that his war in Iraq has something to do with fighting terrorism, against all available evidence; and as thousands of Iraqis die and millions take flight, he still insists they’re better off now than they were four years ago. In an administration where the vice-president can claim every executive privilege while insisting his office isn’t part of the executive branch, these pronouncements may seem reasonable by contrast. Yet listening to them, I’ve begun to feel nostalgic for the usual stance of his father’s administration: “We’re the government, and we say so — that’s why.” Better not to fudge an excuse if you haven’t got one.

In his more candid moments, the younger Bush has admitted he’s playing for time — he even uses that word, “playing,” while men and women and children are dying in the dust. It’s become clear that he intends to persist according to his lifelong pattern: you get a post because of your father’s connections, you make a colossal mess of it, and you leave it to someone else to clean up. He’s done this at every stage of his career, and the American people knew it when they voted for him. Angry as I am at Bush, I realize that America has no one to blame but herself. That’s one reason I left the country after Bush’s election, in 2004.

Before 9/11, I thought I’d live in New York the rest of my life, and the dream of living in France was just that — merely a dream. In my heart, I’m still a New Yorker, yet somehow it no longer mattered whether I lived there. But shouldn’t the experience have taught me — taught America — taught George Bush — something more?

We’ve come a long way since 9/11, mostly in the wrong direction. But there’s always hope for better times, and I’m comforted to see that the Jewish new year begins tonight — just when I need it most.

For some of us, there will be a day of atonement, too.