After ’63 and ’68 Some of Us Can Be Useful

Decade of ‘Buzz’ Forgotten; The Chatterati Get ‘Serious’

The city is engulfed in emotion. Principal among the feelings that pervade the community are grief, anger, shock-these need no further words from me. But there are other feelings at work as well, and these perhaps bear a bit more thinking about than has so far been the case.

There is a lot of guilt going around. Some is genuine, understandable and, in a way, commendable. This is the guilt felt by you and me that we have been spared a tragedy that has ripped apart and devoured other lives and other families and so have little right to enjoy ourselves while thousands mourn and hundreds dig. There is something to be said for those who feel this kind of guilt and are, for a time, socially and economically immobilized by it, who are temporarily deaf to admonitions to go out and spend, to get back to business as usual, even if they have such a business or life to get back to. This will come, in time-but not just yet, not just now. It has only been three weeks.

Then there’s the “guilt” that’s completely phony. For perhaps as long as a dozen years, certainly for at least five, the New York we are forced to read about has degraded from cosmopolitan to provincial, a small, by-invitation-only society dominated by roughly 200 so-called boldface names who have led the city on an extended vacation from common sense and substance.

The paradigmatic figure of the age has been the gatekeeper or secondary talent: the publicist, the editor, the curator, the agent. Knowing whom to know has been three-quarters of the battle, perhaps more. The media, which should stand apart from “society” and celebrity in order the better to judge them, have prostituted themselves in return for invitations. “Gossip” columnists-who in fact do little more than flack for the flacks-pride themselves at being at the best tables with hairdressers. Press releases pass as news. Noise is an acceptable substitute for achievement. If you can make it anywhere, you can make it here-so long as you have the price of a P.R. firm. Once the cosmopolitan joy of the world, Manhattan-seen from the top down-has become a provincial backwater.

This has been a golden age of the second-rate and the trivial, in almost any sphere of human activity or ambition you care to specify-and now, in the wake of the W.T.C. calamity, the people who brought it to you are trying to disown it. Like rats scuttling down the hawser of a foundering ship whose bottom they have gnawed through, the chatterati (and those they suck up to) have pulled grave faces and proclaimed the end of “irony,” which appears to be their euphemism of preference for triviality, fecklessness, utter lack of serious purpose, a tolerance of mediocrity, a worship of “buzz” and snobbishness of the most bourgeois kind.

I urge that you read Leon Wieseltier ( The New Republic ‘s Oct. 8, 2001, issue or online) on this and related subjects. Now is a time for these people to shut up, period. Now is a time for people with standards to cry: “Enough!” And if we really want to get serious about dealing with the enemy among us, the only answer is ethnic cleansing: immediate deportation of the Brits (and Commonwealth types) who in the past dozen years have invested our media with their hick Groucho Club narcissism.

Just think of it. An entire generation-people born between, say, 1960 and 1980-feels itself suddenly obliged to get serious, and hasn’t the slightest idea how. An entire generation is obliged to confront fear with no practice at coping with it. There has been no existential preparation-in kind, let alone degree-for what happened on Sept. 11. There have been no psychological equivalents of air-raid or fire drills. Watching one’s dot-com options tank and losing the Beamer to the repo man has been about as bad as it’s gotten.

Maybe, at long last, this is where people my age come in and can make ourselves useful. We lived through the Cuban missile crisis in 1962; I can remember standing in Yankee Stadium at a football game on that Sunday, the Giants vs. the Cardinals, singing the national anthem at the top of my voice and really, really fearing that the world was going to blow up in our faces the next day. We lived through the assassination traumas of 1963 and 1968. We lived through Vietnam in all its fear-making aspects, and we lived through OPEC and the 70′s, and Watergate. And the more we were obliged to live through, and survived, the greater became our resistance, the resistance of the oft-bitten handler of poisonous snakes. Nothing prepares one for the terrors of Sept. 11, obviously, but we do have some experience of the aftereffects of collective crisis. The nerve ends that produce panic have been cauterized.

So perhaps one beneficial consequence of Sept. 11, if there can be said to be any, is that it will force the generations to reconnect. There may be one or two things we old folks know that others will find useful.

One is that, while there are problems in life that we cause for ourselves, there are others that are caused for us, that are done to us. There are conditions precedent, or conditions that develop, that we exacerbate for ourselves through arrogance or insensitivity or ignorance-usually a combination of all three-but that we have no blameworthy part in causing. In June, I expressed the hope in this space that the Bush administration would be more sensitive to the antipathy felt in certain parts of the world. “There’s nothing we can do about sects that see us as Great Satan,” I wrote. “But we can do a better job understanding how ordinary people feel about us.” I assumed, of course, that we were keeping a close eye on the “Great Satan” bunch. I have since reread Bernard Lewis’ 1990 Atlantic essay on Islamic hatred of America (www.theatlantic.com) and I encourage you to do the same, and to wonder whether anyone in Washington did.

America is a youth-directed culture-probably too much so, since young people really don’t know much except what they like. What makes America unique is that its elders make way. Except in certain pockets of tribal or religious proscription, we don’t fight McDonald’s or hip-hop. We may hate it, and we may say so, and we may even see a certain threat of cultural diminishment in the stuff, but for most of us “over –ings,” it isn’t a life-or-death issue. In a live-and-let-live society, how could it be?

I don’t blame America for what happened on Sept. 11. Not one bit. I don’t agree on that score with people like Susan Sontag (indeed I’m grateful, based on a recent photograph of Ms. Sontag, that nobody hijacked her and flew her into a tall building). I do think we have to think clearly about what comes next. After a dozen years of thinking frivolously, or muddily, or without discrimination, that may not be so easy.

Like many Americans, I’m afraid. Not “concerned.” Scared. I sense the panther on the other side of the door, amorphous, gray, stalking-like Sandburg’s feline fog, like T.S. Eliot’s feline fog.

I’m afraid for myself to some extent, but I have relatively few chips left to gamble, compared to people the age of my children (14 to 44) and their children (2 to 12). What bothers me is my conviction that the sort of people who did the W.T.C. won’t be looking for an encore. The fire next time, as they very likely see it, will be expected to add a minimum of two zeroes to the Sept. 11 body count.

It could happen. It could happen because the other guys are nuts-true believers by their standards, but crazy by ours, and ours are the lives I care about. Crisis management, especially on a cross-cultural or cross-national scale, frequently comes down to a judgment as to just how crazy the opposition is. One reason the 1962 missile crisis was eased is because it was the Russians whom we were facing eyeball to eyeball. The other guy was “folk” essentially like us-people of the West who thought more or less the way we did, which meant that we could take the chance they’d do what we’d do if our bluff was called. This is not true of the present crisis. The other guy is nuts. Face it.

In 1962,Khruschevturnedhis freighters around, but that may not-will not-be true of whoever, now or in the future, in the name of Allah, dispatches a nuclear device with a10- or 20-mile death radius from Djakarta or Haiphong or Karachi. Dispatches it inside a container-one of undifferentiable hundreds-on a flag-of-convenience freighter bound for Port Elizabeth or Miami or San Pedro, to be set off by a sleeper agent using a detonator built from parts bought at Radio Shack.

As I see it-and I’m no talk-show Metternich, so stop me if I’m completely wrong-the only way to forestall this dread eventuality is to take out Saddam Hussein. Now. In our own Fertile Crescent version of Pearl Harbor. With as little “collateral damage” as possible, but without warning and completely, in a way that takes Iraq-in military terms, in terms of weapons technology-back to the Stone Age and then some.

Am I nuts? Maybe. But it seems to me that the Iraqi regime is the straw that stirs the venom-laced drink. No, make that punchbowl, by comparison to Sept. 11.

Iraq puts the geopolitical edge on the knife wielded by the extremists who have perverted the teachings of Islam. Saddam is the glue in the equation; he’s the umbrella, the one really deep pocket on that side of the table who can place big weapons in the hands of zealots. Put him down for the count, forever, and the game changes. And don’t tell me about “the wrath of Islam.” Let a million Pakistani Muslims demonstrate in Karachi all they want; there’s nothing wrong with a little mass “acting out.” Then they can all go back to watching Friends . The fact is, the Muslim hordes won’t physically be at the gates of Vienna or Tours next week-not in an era when Charles Martel rides a B-52. The problem comes when Saladin gets a few of his own. That’s why you bet a strong hand while it’s strongest. If the destruction of Baghdad is the price of securing America’s future, that’s a chance that’ll have to be taken.

No more Mr. Nice Guy, in other words. You may not agree, but I think that the evidence is now tragically overwhelming: In the contest between Nice and Nuts, it’s not hard to predict who’ll finish last. Last is hard enough to take, but Dead is unacceptable.