The City Resurgent Shakes Off Dust

MISSING: N.Y.C., 20 miles tall, 337 years old. Multiple scars. Pretty good-looking. Tattoo on chest of Billie Holiday. Tattoo above tailbone of Fiorello La Guardia. Wild at heart, savagely humorous, lusty glint in the eyes. Last seen morning of Sept. 11.

Walk through the unspeakable sadness downtown and you sense that something much larger has died than all these beautiful young people in the leaflets, with their broad smiles and vacation bodies and phone numbers left by a spouse in denial. New York City and liberalism are gone as we knew them. Neither will be reconstituted in the same way.

Few of us have ever loved the city more than we have in the last two weeks. We’ve felt our loyalty called upon, and we’ve been there. With donations, or going out to restaurants, visiting bunkered friends, or just walking around our old haunts downtown glancing sympathetically into the hollow depths of someone else’s face, and moving quickly on.

But there seems something false or artificial about the boosterism-Milton Glaser’s “I ™ New York” logo on the cover of the Daily News , Senator Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the towers must be rebuilt. The tone is wrong. It masks some terrible truth that the wisest understand and few wish to face. New York is missing in the same way that those young people on the lampposts are missing. The New York we knew is gone.

Consider a political fact that would have been incomprehensible before Sept. 11: Just about everybody and his brother (now including the Mayor himself) want Rudolph Giuliani to remain as Mayor for a longer term. I don’t dispute for a moment that Mr. Giuliani has been majestic. Still, what does it say about the spirit of our city that a father figure who is so controlling and authoritarian as Mr. Giuliani should be so ravishing? It says that people are deeply fearful, that they have lost New York.

The markets will not recover for a long time. Lower Manhattan may never recover. Real estate will be blasted. Restaurants will go out of business. Theater will take years. Our film business is endangered. Small fashion designers are history.

You hear people say, “We have to stay in the city now more than ever.” But they are like those people who said, on the Internet, “Let’s buy stock on Monday morning”- before the Dow (being honest) went down 700 points. I’ve heard several friends talk about leaving the city. Children are nervous in the city. A new and quiet exodus would seem to be upon us.

As for liberalism, the injury to national security has made everyone a conservative overnight. The most hawkish statements have come from the mouths of liberals. Even Courtney Love wants to go fight. All the lessons of Vietnam seem to have been lost in a moment. We are back in a mind-set that we haven’t seen since World War II.

The crisis has resuscitated not only Mayor Giuliani but another problematic figure of the last generation: the patriarchal (and usually) white male. We seem to have skipped past every question we had about gender roles, in fear. All the heroes are men. Why were there no female firefighters? We are comforted by the presence of big men. For all the misgivings about the Bush administration’s brain trust, there is comfort in “old-fashioned” kooks like Donald Rumsfeld.

A year ago, people cared about Mayor Giuliani’s girlfriend. Today, people would bring scented oils to his harem.

It’s hard to think of a cultural value that has not changed overnight, and probably changed for a very long time. Who doesn’t wish that there was some form of racial profiling on airline passengers? Firehouses are notoriously hostile places for women to work-no one would question that now. And imagine if a reporter brought in the story of Bob Kerrey’s terrible raid in South Vietnam today, rather than a year ago. Today no one would run an article about a zealous young man who seemed to have taken part in a long-ago atrocity.

Of course New York is liberal territory, the Blue of last year’s Presidential map. One has to believe that if the Blues are collapsing, so are the Reds, as Walter Kirn said in The New York Times . If liberals have been forced to worship security, conservatives have been brought to understand that multiculturalism gives us strength.

George Bush actually seems to be mindful of the lessons of Vietnam (fingers crossed on that one). Laura Bush speaks with a sweet sincerity about protecting Muslims. (Will they ever say the word “abortion” again? I hope not.) The most eloquent statement in favor of civil liberties has come lately from Bob Barr, the right-wing Georgia Congressman.

Now that America loves New York, maybe New York can actually take strength from the rest of the country. Because as long as we are fearful, we force our leaders to conduct themselves like mullahs ….

As soon as a war begins, one begins to imitate one’s adversary. To root out the terrorists, we must think like terrorists. And assassinate their leaders, and employ rogue agents.

We should study the terrorists, their commitment and, yes, courage to prosecute a hateful plan. They were hardened fanatics. They lived among us, with Western opportunity available to them, but were unseduced by it. They had a strong, and terrifying, belief, not just in the monstrousness of American foreign policy but also in the sickness of our values.

But we have beliefs, too, and the awakening of Sept. 11 is a spiritual one. For the first time in a very long time, the country has displayed a Whitmanesque democratic spirit. Firefighters and blue-collar workers are ennobled, celebrities are out of the headlines (notwithstanding the embarrassing telethon, and Oprah Winfrey at Yankee Stadium). Journalists have cried, and Republicans have embraced multiculturalism. And if the World Trade Center is rebuilt, it will be with the consent of the people who have to work in them. (Weren’t you always a little terrified going up in those buildings? Wasn’t the scale inhuman?)

Rudolph Giuliani has risen as a national symbol largely because he is so comfortable with spiritual terms. He once thought he was going into the seminary. Now he speaks openly of prayer, and miracles. (Think of the miracle that he didn’t run for Senate last year; he still had important work to do in the city.)

The secular humanists really did try to get spiritual talk out of the public square. Only the right wing was allowed to use spiritual ideas in talking about public issues, and the left thereby deprived itself of all awareness of a godhead or of mystery, something larger than our words and explanations and science, something bigger than ourselves. It was a form of privileged denial-alongside the widespread belief that we weren’t in a war for our way of living against a quiet army that doesn’t believe in free speech or women’s rights. Now, in the foxholes, there are no atheists. Everyone is holding hands and saying the Lord’s prayer. I hope we can absorb its lesson, not to fear as we walk in the valley of the shadow of death.

Walt Whitman’s poem on the death of Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” barely mentions Lincoln at all. It is a love song to death, “sane and sacred death.”

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,

Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?

Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,

I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

At 46, Whitman, who was New York’s poet, understood that life is meaningless without the knowledge and presence of death-something Oprah Winfrey also said at Yankee Stadium, with a New Age vocabulary, when she spoke of the fragility of life and the need to “turn up the volume” on what really matters. Looking back on our pre–Sept. 11 life, it is hard to see the depth or seriousness of our death-denying culture. Our values were strictly materialistic, youthful beauty was everything, physical labor was held in disdain, and Barbra Streisand and Sharon Stone were holding forth on the democratic process and being taken seriously. Myself, I think I spent half the weekend before Sept. 11 switching between baseball and Full Frontal Fashion , on Metro TV, with all the pretty girls on the runway …. The terrorists zapped all that.

The way we will win the war against terrorism is to call on our modern gods as the quiet men with box-cutters called on theirs. It is a spiritual issue-not one focused on an afterlife, but focused on the meaning of life here and now. It means figuring out what your god is, what you live for.

A poet friend told me it was the messy English language that she was trying to explain on the blackboard to her working-class students last week- aisle , isle , I’ll . A minister friend said it was a God who demands that we give up our notion that man is the measure of all things. A writer friend said it is the philosophy of free will given to us by Freud and other great modern thinkers. And those three friends are women, who would have no place at all in the vision of the butchers.

The most moving stories of Sept. 11 were about the people who were calm as death approached, and who knew that they had to do important work in the interval. The men on the airplane who stormed the cockpit. The firefighters who went into the World Trade Center. The evacuators. The people at their desks who called their spouses to talk about family. Reports are that, even in the shadow of death, these people were not fearful. It isn’t so much that they showed us how to die, as how to live.