Leading a Life, Not In Extremis, But In Peace

I live on Hudson Street, north of Canal, pretty much in the exact spot where Jane Jacobs wrote her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities back in the 1960′s. The morning of Sept. 11-the morning that may change forever how Ms. Jacobs’ title resonates-a New York Post photographer and I scrambled onto the roof of my walk-up and watched the towers go down. The man standing on the roof next to us, supervising a crew putting up a greenhouse, said to no one in particular, “This is war.”

Grief doesn’t really come in stages, does it? It comes in feints, jags and dead-cat bounces, with generous portions of comfort food, discomfort TV and gallows humor sandwiched in between. For a while, turning off the tearjerker vignettes on CNN, walking down to the cordon sanitaire stretching across Canal Street and experiencing the grief close up came as a serious boon. And for a brief moment, as an endless stream of office workers walked up Hudson Street silently–mostly in pairs or groups of three, roughly half covered in a smoky gray paste–I entered that strange parallax where history is happening outside your window and on your TV at the same time.

Now life has returned to a queasy sort of normalcy. The White Horse is again filled with yuppie singles, and history is back on TV. (“I think some of my ex-girlfriends were weaponized,” murmurs a friend. Maybe a certain kind of joke is now O.K.?) And a very comforting, and very sincere, unity is giving way to a hardening of social roles. The cruelty-free divas have started to assert themselves, and a style of thinking we might call “wishful paranoia” has taken over in the e-mails I’m getting from lefty friends. “This is all about oil”-the same refrain we heard, with some justification, during the windup to the Gulf War. This time, however, the stab at worldly cynicism is really a poignant and hopeful refrain, as if by invoking America as the perennial imperial fathead we can stave off a much more troubling ambivalence toward the bombing in Afghanistan.

In learning to cope with this stricken dreamscape we’ve all fallen into, I’ve been obsessively running a pair of strange, maybe even tasteless parallels back and forth through my mind. The first is the homonymic proximity of “tourist” to “terrorist.” The two share a preference when it comes to destinations, don’t they? As a result, terrorists pick symbolic targets toward which New Yorkers, and liberal eggheads like me, have very mixed feelings. (Has anyone pointed out that only a generation ago, had some young, affluent Americans the means, they would have blown up the Pentagon first?)

The second parallel is Daniel Yergin’s description of John D. Rockefeller in his Pulitzer-winning The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power: “Tall and thin, he struck others as solitary, taciturn, remote, and ascetic.” Hadn’t Bin Laden been described in The New Yorker as “tall, slim, ascetic”? (He was, by the C.I.A.’s station chief in Pakistan during bin Laden’s heyday as sugar daddy to the mujahideen.)

In a quest to decrypt these parallels, I began reaching, almost unconsciously, for works of nonfiction. The rummage began with the William James essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” whose relevance isn’t tough to pick up: “In 1898,” James wrote, “our people had read the word ‘war’ in letters three inches high for three months in every newspaper. The pliant politician, McKinley, was swept away by their eagerness, and our squalid war with Spain became a reality.”

The parallels go deeper: As James describes it, nostalgia for the Civil War had the same ring to it our media-stoked veneration for the Greatest Generation does now: “Those ancestors, those efforts, those memories and legends, are the most ideal part of what we now own together, a sacred spiritual possession worth more than all the blood poured out.”

But James was after bigger game. He wanted to calculate whether war itself-organized violence on a large scale, with all its dark exhilaration and its prospects for true honor and courage-was a necessary and permanent feature of the human condition. “War is the strong life,” James was forced, even as a committed pacifist, to admit. “It is life in extremis.”

James went on to argue that the impulses behind war may be with us for good, but that war itself might not be if we can plausibly substitute for it. And all around James, the forces of substitution had started to assert themselves. “In images of robber barons and captains of industry … business was a kind of warfare, in which all’s fair which succeeds,” Alan Trachtenberg writes in his AmStud masterpiece, The Incorporation of America (the second installment in the nonfiction grab bag). Covetousness, aggression and plunder-life, in short, in extremis-were to be found everywhere in Gilded Age business practices; Horatio Alger, a chummy story of luck and pluck, had given way to outright rapacity and cunning.

In an ironic twist, while flamboyant bandits may have created America’s mammoth corporate empires, by mid-century they’d been taken over by the gray flannel conformist, the Organization Man. (The trick of the 90′s was its attempt to cloak gray flannel in the aura of life in extremis-think of “Neutron” Jack, not to mention all the ponytailed software execs and their copies of Sun Tzu.)

The idea of business as warfare by other means circles back naturally to Rockefeller, the ur-warrior capitalist, and thus to Mr. Yergin’s book on oil. If The Prize has a single revelation, it’s that we inherit a modern world created largely by a cadre of severe, inner-directed buccaneer visionaries like Rockefeller who founded the oil industry and thus, by extension, the auto industry, the interstate-highway system, the ‘burbs, the drive-through, the drive-in-in short, the omnivorous petroleum combine this war is believed, on the part of certain gadflies, to be feeding.

Looking out on Hudson Street, I think I’m beginning to understand what else we may be fighting for in Afghanistan. (Those poor young people who are doing the fighting for the rest of us; if only we could send the Sun Tzu reading group in their places.) It is not Big Oil, or the size-matters jingoism that created the Trade Center in the first place. We’re fighting for the right to lead a life not in extremis, but in peace. For, in the end, murderous saints and visionary buccaneers turn out to be equally insufferable: Neither breathes the air of normalcy, and neither is comfortable with letting the three unalloyed human virtues-autonomy, spontaneity and resilience-thrive.

In the end, one long-term casualty of terrorism will be our right to live in cities, on a human scale and liberated from the shiftlessness and anomie of the car. (In addition to ordering up Cipro, everyone I know has started pricing homes in the suburbs.) Which brings us back to Jane Jacobs and our final installment of nonfiction, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her elegant paean to the intimacies of low-rise urban culture. Autonomy, spontaneity, resilience-these are St. Jane’s cardinal virtues. In the cause of lived democracy, Ms. Jacobs’ urban vision is no less resonant than Jefferson’s agrarian vision was for the small farmer.

In my fondest hopes, this is what the American flags quilting the storefronts and walk-ups along Hudson Street declare. Hung alike by lefties, investment bankers, foreigners, gays, straights, buppies and hard hats, maybe they say: On Sept. 11, we met the enemy. And he is not us.