[Reader-list] Sontag, Ghosh & Johnson in the New Yorker

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Wed Sep 19 02:14:16 IST 2001


Susan Sontag writes:

The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the
self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public
figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed
to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to
infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a
"cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free
world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken
as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many
citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word
"cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill
from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those
willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage
(a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of
Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is
not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live
in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this
was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic President who assures us that
America still stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of
office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by
this Administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they
stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and
perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of
American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to
American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what
constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not
being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously
applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed
contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing
rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent
days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.

Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be
a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the
politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes
candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve
together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical
awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may
continue to happen. "Our country is strong," we are told again and again. I
for one don't find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is
strong? But that's not all America has to be.


Amitava Ghosh writes:

In 1999, soon after moving to Fort Greene, in Brooklyn, my wife and I were
befriended by Frank and Nicole De Martini, two architects. As construction
manager of the World Trade Center, Frank worked in an office on the
eighty-eighth floor of the north tower. Nicole is an employee of the
engineering firm that built the World Trade Center, Leslie E. Robertson
Associates. Hired as a "surveillance engineer," she was a member of a team
that conducted year-round structural-integrity inspections of the Twin
Towers. Her offices were on the thirty-fifth floor of the south tower.

Frank is forty-nine, sturdily built, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair and
deeply etched laugh lines around his eyes. His manner is expansively
avuncular. The Twin Towers were both a livelihood and a passion for him: he
would speak of them with the absorbed fascination with which poets
sometimes speak of Dante's canzones. Nicole is forty-two, blond and
blue-eyed, with a gaze that is at once brisk and friendly. She was born in
Basel, Switzerland, and met Frank while studying design in New York. They
have two children—Sabrina, ten, and Dominic, eight. It was through our
children that we first met.

Shortly after the basement bomb explosion of 1993, Frank was hired to do
bomb-damage assessment at the World Trade Center. An assignment that he
thought would last only a few months quickly turned into a consuming
passion. "He fell in love with the buildings," Nicole told me. "For him,
they represented an incredible human feat. He was awed by their scale and
magnitude, by their design, and by the efficiency of the use of materials.
One of his most repeated sayings about the towers is that they were built
to take the impact of a light airplane."

On Tuesday morning, Frank and Nicole dropped their children off at school,
in Brooklyn Heights, and then drove on to the World Trade Center. Traffic
was light, and they arrived unexpectedly early, so Nicole decided to go up
to Frank's office for a cup of coffee. It was about a quarter past eight
when they got upstairs. A half hour later, she stood up to go. She was on
her way out when the walls and the floor suddenly heaved under the shock of
a massive impact. Through the window, she saw a wave of flame bursting out
overhead, like a torrent spewing from the floodgates of a dam. The blast
was clearly centered on the floor directly above; she assumed that it was a
bomb. Neither she nor Frank was unduly alarmed: few people knew the
building's strength and resilience better than they. They assumed that the
worst was over and that the structure had absorbed the impact. Sure enough,
within seconds of the initial tumult, a sense of calm descended on their
floor. Frank herded Nicole and a group of some two dozen other people into
a room that was relatively free of smoke. Then he went off to scout the
escape routes and stairways. Minutes later, he returned to announce that he
had found a stairway that was intact. They could reach it fairly easily, by
climbing over a pile of rubble.

The bank of rubble that barred the entrance to the fire escape was almost
knee-high. Just as Nicole was about to clamber over, she noticed that Frank
was hanging back. She begged him to come with her. He shook his head and
told her to go on without him. There were people on their floor who had
been hurt by the blast, he said; he would follow her down as soon as he had
helped the injured.

Frank must have gone back to his office shortly afterward, because he made
a call from his desk at about nine o' clock. He called his sister Nina, on
West Ninety-third Street in Manhattan, and said, "Nicole and I are fine.
Don't worry."

Nicole remembers the descent as quiet and orderly. The evacuees went down
in single file, leaving room for the firemen who were running in the
opposite direction. On many floors, there were people to direct the
evacuees, and in the lower reaches of the building there was even
electricity. The descent took about half an hour, and, on reaching the
plaza, Nicole began to walk in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge. She
was within a few hundred feet of the bridge when the first tower collapsed.
"It was like the onset of a nuclear winter," she said. "Suddenly,
everything went absolutely quiet and you were in the middle of a fog that
was as blindingly bright as a snowstorm on a sunny day."

It was early evening by the time Nicole reached Fort Greene. She had
received calls from several people who had seen Frank on their way down the
fire escape, but he had not been heard from directly. Their children stayed
with us that night while Nicole sat up with Frank's sister Nina, waiting by
the telephone.

The next morning, Nicole decided that her children had to be told that
there was no word of their father. Both she and Nina were calm when they
arrived at our door, even though they had not slept all night. Nicole's
voice was grave but unwavering as she spoke to her children about what had
happened the day before.

The children listened with wide-eyed interest, but soon afterward they went
back to their interrupted games. A little later, my son came to me and
whispered, "Guess what Dominic's doing?"

"What?" I said, steeling myself.

"He's learning to wiggle his ears."

This was, I realized, how my children—or any children, for that
matter—would have responded: turning their attention elsewhere before the
news could begin to gain purchase in their minds.

At about noon, we took the children to the park. It was a bright, sunny
day, and they were soon absorbed in riding their bicycles. My wife,
Deborah, and I sat on a shaded bench and spoke with Nicole. "Frank could
easily have got out in the time that passed between the blast and the fall
of the building," Nicole said. "The only thing I can think of is that he
stayed back to help with the evacuation. Nobody knew the building like he
did, and he must have thought he had to."

Nicole paused. "I think it was only because Frank saw me leave that he
decided he could stay," she said. "He knew that I would be safe and the
kids would be looked after. That was why he felt he could go back to help
the others. He loved the towers and had complete faith in them. Whatever
happens, I know that what he did was his own choice."


Denis Johnson writes:

Several times during the nineteen-nineties I did some reporting from what
we generally call trouble spots, and witnessing the almost total
devastation of some of these places (Somalia, Afghanistan, the southern
Philippines, Liberia) had me wondering if I would ever see such trouble in
my own country: if I would ever feel it necessary to stay close to the
radio or television; if I would sleep with the window wide open in order to
hear the approach of the engines of war or to smell the smoke of
approaching fires or to stay aware of the movements of emergency teams
coping with the latest enormity; if I would one day see American ground
heaped with the ruins of war; if I would ever hear Americans saying,
"They're attacking the Capitol! The Pentagon! The White House!"; if I would
stand in the midst of an American crowd witnessing the kind of destruction
that can be born of the wickedness of the human imagination, or turn to
examine American faces a few seconds after their eyes had taken it in; if I
would one day see American streets choked with people who don't know
exactly where they're going but don't feel safe where they are; and if I
would someday feel uncontrollably grateful to be able to get my laundry
done and to find simple commerce persisting in spite of madness. I wondered
if the wars I'd gone looking for would someday come looking for us.

Travelling in the Third World, I've found that to be an American sometimes
means to be wondrously celebrated, to excite a deep, instantaneous loyalty
in complete strangers. In the southern Philippines, a small delegation
headed by a village captain once asked that I take steps to have their clan
and their collection of two dozen huts placed under the protection of the
United States. Later, in the same region, a teen-age Islamic separatist
guerrilla among a group I'd been staying with begged me to adopt him and
take him to America. In Afghanistan, I encountered men who, within minutes
of meeting me, offered to leave their own worried families and stay by my
side as long as I required it, men who found medicine somewhere in the
ruins of Kabul for me when I needed it, and who never asked for anything
back—all simply because I was American.

On the other hand, I think we sense—but don't care always to apprehend—the
reality that some people hate America. To many suffering souls, we must
seem incomprehensibly aloof and self-centered, or worse. For nearly a
century, war has rolled lopsidedly over the world, crushing the innocent in
their homes. For half that century, the United States has been seen, by
some people, as keeping the destruction rolling without getting too much in
the way of it—has been seen, by some people, to lurk behind it. And those
people hate us. The acts of terror against this country—the hijackings, the
kidnappings, the bombings of our airplanes and barracks and embassies
overseas, and now these mass atrocities on our own soil—tell us how much
they hate us. They hate us as people hate a bad God, and they'll kill
themselves to hurt us.

On Thursday, as I write in New York City, which I happened to be visiting
at the time of the attack, the wind has shifted, and a sour electrical
smoke travels up the canyons between the tall buildings. I have now seen
two days of war in the biggest city in America. But imagine a succession of
such days stretching into years—years in which explosions bring down all
the great buildings, until the last one goes, or until bothering to bring
the last one down is just a waste of ammunition. Imagine the people who
have already seen years like these turn into decades—imagine their brief
lifetimes made up only of days like these we've just seen in New York.

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