[Note on this piece: The paragraph on ex-President Clinton drew some angry responses. Pretty much anything I write draws an angry response from somewhere, and I'm accustomed to just ignore the fact. In this one case, however, I think the angry responders were right, and I was wrong. It was an error of taste and judgment for which I am sorry. I thought of just editing it out before putting the piece up here on my personal site; but that seems a bit dishonest, so I've left it in. It'll serve as a useful reminder to me of how badly I can screw up when I'm not sufficiently well focused — a mark of humility. ]
• Cry havoc! and let slip the appropriate dogs
God knows, there has been enough to feel depressed about these few days. One of the lesser things has been the way these events have exposed the terrible poverty of our public language. May I be the first to say that George W. Bush's speech on the evening of the atrocity was simply awful? All right, he's no orator; but surely he could get some good writers. Those clunky, clanging metaphors! Those moon-booted clichés! "These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve." Oy gevalt. The legislature, of course, was even worse. Trent Lott declared that it was "a very serious matter" that called for "an appropriate response." I fancied for a moment that I could hear the voice of Winston Churchill: "We shall respond appropriately on the beaches, we shall respond appropriately in the streets …"
• Excuse me, Sir, would you step over here for a moment …
The New York Post ran a full-page photograph of Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers. He looks exactly like a fanatical Arab. If I were doing airport security, I'd definitely want to have a word with him. Oh, but that would be "racial profiling," wouldn't it?
• New York loves a terrorist
Joseph P. Doherty was a dedicated foot soldier in the international terrorist movement, who may well have done his training in camps very much like those the U.S. is now planning to assault, alongside men of the same cast of mind as those who destroyed the World Trade Center. Doherty, of course, was an IRA man, working under Gerry Adams' orders to blow the legs off old ladies at bus stops in London and Belfast. Caught while on the run in the U.S.A., he spent nearly nine years in the Manhattan Correctional Center ("The Tombs") while his attorneys, paid for by pro-terrorist groups in this country, fought his extradition to the U.K. all the way to the Supreme Court. These efforts failed, and Doherty was extradited in 1992. The fool mayor of New York, under pressure from IRA shills in the city, who are legion, ordered a street to be named after the killer. There it is, downtown near the Tombs … a short walk from the World Trade Center. I like to think it is covered with white dust and illegible; but if it is still there at all after the events of September 11th, it will be a sneering insult to the dead.
• Ill wind
Thursday morning, nine a.m., standing at the corner of the street with the mothers, waiting for the school bus. "Can you smell something?" said one. Several of us nodded. We had all noticed it: a very faint acrid, plasticky smell at the back of the nose, just on the edge of perception. We are 36 miles east-northeast of the World Trade Center. I guess the fine particulate matter reached us overnight.
• Shepard Smith: An Apology
A few months ago I did a column on this site about Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, of whom I am an admirer. Apropos O'Reilly's 8 p.m. show, I said: "The previous program is some magaziney thing — I have never actually watched any more than the last minute of it — supervised by an agreeable young fellow with moussed hair." That agreeable young fellow was Shepard Smith. I took him for a lightweight because (a) he is boyishly handsome, and (b) I only ever caught the last few minutes of his 7 p.m. show, when he closes with show-biz filler pieces. Well, I herewith offer a grovelling apology. Smith is no lightweight. He covered the catastrophe this week for hours at a stretch, patiently and professionally, giving thoughtful comment in a straightforward way without emotion or fuss, skating skillfully across those stretches of air time when there is nothing much to say and no news coming through. He got my attention and kept it — which, after all, is what a TV newsman is supposed to do. Another Fox anchor who came through the horror with flying colors was Linda Vester. Linda is even easier on the eye than Shepard Smith. She is, in fact, a stunner of the first magnitude, to whom the small screen does not begin to do justice — I have been interviewed by her, and had great trouble concentrating on the questions. O'Reilly looks like a horse's ass, so you know he must have some superior skills to have got where he is. Smith and Vester look like a couple of fluffmeisters, so one's instinct is to underestimate them. I now realize what a dis-advantage this must be for serious, professional TV journalists. Sorry, Shepard. Linda, would you interview me again soon? Please? I promise not to gape this time.
• Security no-brainers
It is now plain that the White House was a sitting duck for those hijackers. They could have flown a plane right into it, if they had been able to find it while shooting low over the capital at 600 miles an hour. I have often thought of this when in Washington, and I suppose millions of other people must have, too. Looking at the White House, I have thought: "Looks easy to fly a plane into it, perhaps with a small nuke on board … Nah, they must have some sort of defense in place against that." Well, apparently they don't. Isn't anybody in the nation's vast security apparatus assigned to think these obvious thoughts?
• The weasel under the cocktail cabinet
Every horror-story writer or producer of scary movies knows that the trick of the thing is to juxtapose the familiar, commonplace and comforting with the wild, grotesque or bizarre — "The weasel under the cocktail cabinet," as Harold Pinter said. I keep thinking of this when I am watching shots of that vast rubble pile downtown. I have spent most of my working life in business offices, and know my way around them. I know the pleasures of settling in to a new desk: family photos here, spare tie there, can I take a jacket hook from that empty cube? Where's the copier? Uh-oh, they gave me a 17-inch tube — can I change it for a 21? Now, there it all is, fire-seared and covered with dust, all the familiar apparatus of my working life, soiled and trashed and burned and dead. This should mean nothing alongside a stack of corpses; but somehow it makes everything worse.
• What do you tell the kids?
I had the TV on all day Tuesday, of course, but switched it off when it was time to collect the kids. No reason to darken their sunny little minds with such horrors. I picked them up at the bus stop, walked them home, then let them out to play for an hour before homework and music practice. Sitting down to dinner later, Nellie, aged 8, asked: "Daddy, why did those men blow up the World Trade Center?" How did she know about that? I asked. "I saw it on TV at Barbara's house." Damn. Protect your kids? Yeah, try it. The culture is everywhere, seeping in through any tiny crack. Like the war on terrorism, this one has many small reverses, and goes on for years.
• Boxers or Briefs?
Suppose this had happened on Bill Clinton's watch. The following interesting questions come to mind. (1) What shade of yellow would his face have been on September 11th? (2) How many world sprint records would he have broken heading for the nearest bunker? (3) Does the President's Secret Service bodyguard carry a change of presidential underpants?
• Where were the helicopters?
People in those floors of the World Trade Center above where the planes hit could not go down through the fuel inferno. They were driven up, to the roof. Was it not possible, in the hour before the towers collapsed, for helicopters to be got there to ferry them off? I don't know, I'm only asking. I can see that with the heat updraft and the smoke, it would have been awfully difficult, but would it have been impossible? New York City is full of helicopters, you see them all the time. Surely they could have saved a few?
• The day they killed New York?
Until last Friday (!) I did part-time contract work — computer programming — for an investment bank in New York City. This bank had three full floors in 5 World Trade Center, one of the lesser buildings in the shadow of the Twin Towers. Number 5 collapsed Wednesday, having been fully evacuated right after the attack. Well, on Thursday morning I got a phone call from an ex-colleague whose office had been on one of the uppermost floors of that building. He was calling from the firm's main data center in Princeton, New Jersey, to where key systems people had been relocated after the attack. The point of the call was to clear up a small technical matter I had left un-documented before I quit, but of course I wanted to ask him about IT. Had he been in the office when it happened? "Oh, yeah. Sitting at my desk." How fast had he moved? "Real fast. There was a rush for the elevators." Trying to recall the geometry of the WTC complex, I said I supposed he had heard debris falling on the roof. "On the roof? It was coming in through the expletive windows!" How long did he expect to stay in Princeton? "For ever, I hope. I don't want to work in New York City again." Multiply that last remark by the entire headcount of the securities business, and add in all the other businesses — restaurants, stores, limousine fleets, travel agents, shoeshine stands — that service them. Did the terrorists kill New York City? Jonah has proposed rebuilding the Twin Towers as a simple act of defiance. Nice: but will anyone want to work in them? And if New York City is dead, did my little house here in the burbs just lose a chunk of its value? It seems churlish to think such things at such a time … but you think them.