How to Convert ‘What If’ Into ‘What Should Be’

I haven’t been to ground zero. I have friends who have, fashionable people who make the trip of a Saturday morning to “bear witness” and then head back uptown for lunch at Swifty’s. Life must go on, we are told, and even were we not so advised, life would go on because that’s what life is about until it is taken from one.

Not having been there personally doesn’t mean the image isn’t burned into one’s awareness. The terrible spiky desolation brings to mind paintings by Anselm Kiefer, which reinforce recollections of another place seen earlier this year, another site of the unmatchable horrors that flow from the insane confluence of innocence, fanaticism, malevolence and technology.

I mean Auschwitz, which I visited this year, believing it to be an essential experience for any non-Jew (most of my Jewish friends find themselves unable to make the journey south from Kraków).

I haven’t written about my visit to Auschwitz, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, because I personally haven’t been able to find words to confront the sheer emotional and physical scale of the place, which in quick order forces recognition of the sheer scale of the evil that was done there. Auschwitz takes away the vagueness of the event; once seen, one knows what was done there and how it was done in a way that no metaphorical or descriptive art can capture. The day we went, the sky was fair and the ground grass-covered, but one felt the ash in the air, just as I suspect one will “feel” ash in the river breezes a half-century from now as one walks along West Street.

If there is a West Street.

For reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has ever read the sort of letters people with “pride of oppression”-my grievance is quantitatively or qualitatively bigger than your grievance-write to editors, I dare not compare Auschwitz and the World Trade Center, even though I feel that industrial-scale homicide begs precise measurement. But there is one way in which Auschwitz and the W.T.C. do merit mention in the same framework.

If Hitler had been assassinated in the late 1930’s, as some advocated, there very likely would never have been a Holocaust. Oddly, neither of the two books of “speculative history” on my shelves, What If? and Virtual History, addresses this question, although the editor of the former, Rob Cowley, does point to Hitler’s “evil charisma” as a key element-if not the key element-in the rise of Nazism. Would Sept. 11 have occurred without an Osama bin Laden, a Saddam Hussein? People closely acquainted with the specifics think not. Sudan apparently wanted to hand over Mr. bin Laden in 1996, but the United States demurred, feeling that we didn’t have a case; of course, back then we were governed by a “what, us worry?” administration much concerned with legal niceties, which would not long afterward stand reason and decency on their heads in an effort to define the precise legal meaning of the word “is.”

If Islamic fundamentalism can be decapitated, so to speak, with the elimination of Osama bin Laden-the objective of the military operations now under way in Afghanistan-and of Saddam Hussein (as this space urged two weeks ago), chances improve that a repeat of the W.T.C. or worse will not occur. For a definition of what “worse” might be-including the hijacking and crashing of large cargo planes such as those operated by FedEx and U.P.S.-I urge you to read Richard Garwin’s article in the current New York Review of Books.

To turn a mob-or a much smaller network of disaffected individuals-into an efficient killing machine requires a man (or woman-think Joan of Arc) at its head. Someone who is not just a paymaster, but a force. Such as Hitler was, or Robespierre and St. Just, or Lenin. If cooler heads are to prevail, the hottest ones need to be lopped off. By hottest heads, I mean “a single voice that effectively articulated grievances and won support for violence” (as Barton Gellman of The Washington Post describes Osama bin Laden in the International Herald-Tribune of Oct. 4).

At home, this is also a time for cool thinking, as the country and city passes from what I think of as Post-Trauma Stage I, during which everyone behaves as well and as selflessly and as usefully as he or she possibly can, to Post-Trauma Stage II, when individuals and institutions begin to revert to type as life, yes, goes on. The Rudy We Knew prior to Sept. 11 was no more a figment of ours (and the media’s) collective imagination than the Rudy who presided with such magnificent forthrightness in the wake of the W.T.C. calamity.

Of course, Rudy’s a cop at heart, always has been. His next job ought to be as head of the task force established to hunt down and destroy al Qaeda’s financing sources and networks, an effort in which he could deputize his greatest score, Michael Milken, now his pal in consequence of their mutual experience of prostate cancer. Who understands better than Mr. Milken how money moves? Indeed, isn’t it reasonable to describe his junk-bond “daisy chain” as a form of Wall Street hawala?

It’s a time of personal and collective cognitive dissonance, as we come to grips with what a cheesy, trivialized society we had become-dominated by a politics of self-indulgence posing as self-expression, with expenditure the chief signifier of quality and value-and wonder if we are as powerless as appears to be the case to prevent ourselves from returning to that condition. The evidence isn’t encouraging.

Not that some of it isn’t downright funny. It’s at times like these that the rich tend to feed our need for clowns. Last Sunday’s New York Times Style section reported the antics of what we’ll call the “well-to-do-it-yourself” crowd, who are determinedly getting back to nature indoors with busywork and tatting and showing Martha’s bourgeois adherents qui est qui. I especially enjoyed the idea of House Beautiful editor Marian McEvoy-a woman who looks as if she last went out of doors to spectate at Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration-gathering and then gluing dead leaves to her dining-room wall. I also enjoyed Times reporter Ruth La Ferla’s description of two smallish paintings as homages “to the Florentine interiors of Donatello”-notwithstanding that the pictures illustrated are palpably of exteriors, and that Donatello, greatest of Quattrocento sculptors, did no architecture. This is what I mean by post-traumatic cognitive dissonance, when even the subtlest minds mistake up for down, inside for out.

And then, thankfully, there’s Talk. The latest (November) issue is a study of the point I’m trying to make. Inside are two sets of photographic group portraits-one set of two made subsequent to Sept. 11; the other, of six, made prior to the awful date-that illustrate the kind of people deemed to reflect the real, the great, the gritty, the unvanquishable New York, capital city of The World According to Tina. The post-W.T.C. images are of the staff at St. Vincent’s hospital, and of a group of firefighters and relief workers. That’s one New York.

The other New York is quite different. A visiting Martian examining these six images, made between Jan. 11 and Sept. 10 (with hastily added captions to provide post–Sept. 11 relevance and “depth”), might experience perceptual dissonance. These photos are of a Bronx elementary school (of the “charter” variety, naturally); a so-so aggregation of behind-the-camera movie types; some jazz musicians, most of whom appear to be over 80; some chefs and chef-kissers; a photographer and his studio crew pretending to be Warhol’s Factory; and-my favorite-“The Heavy Hitters,” a collection of boldface habitués of the Four Seasons, who are the present era’s equivalent of Britain’s “Cliveden Set” back before World War II.

I’ll be returning to the latter in a future column, because they tell us so much. Suffice it to say that, suitably, at the picture’s formal epicenter is a moral void-namely Henry Kissinger-and next to him, preening with sheer joy at having been chosen for inclusion in such a glittering, glorious company, is the Republican candidate for Mayor. And people beat up on Fernando Ferrer for hanging out with Al Sharpton!

Six photos of what “makes” New York, at least in its pre–Sept. 11 incarnation as seen by Talk. Not a doctor, not a jurist, not a writer. Not a professor. No curator, museum director, editor, critic, visual artist, person of the theater. No figure from sports in a city that boasts a Super Bowl team, a World Series champion, that is the fons et origo of “the city game.” No one from advertising. For journalists, Talk gives us a gossip columnist and a bunch of TV interviewers. For finance-don’t get me started! Let it be noted that the “Heavy Hitters” image includes Alex and Julian, who own the Four Seasons and therefore dictate placement-which may be what life at the top is all about.

Indeed it may. But as the kid declares in the famous New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”

POSTSCRIPT: From now through January, the New-York Historical Society will be exhibiting John Koch: Painting a New York Life. I had something to do with putting this show together. It was conceived to provoke reflection-but in times like these, when we’re besieged by questions of self-identity, it may also prove consoling. I think you’ll enjoy it. I urge that you see it.