There was plenty to feel uncomfortable about watching last week’s right-wing gladiator games inside Madison Square Garden. From the Republicans’ medieval-sounding political platform to the sight of Texas delegates shaking their cowboy hats while Puerto Ricans yelled ” Viva Boosh! “, the whole affair seemed like a reality-TV show produced by the director of The Manchurian Candidate . (Either one.)
But it was the relentless summoning of Sept. 11, 2001, during the convention that triggered the most potent turn of my stomach. The Republicans managed to accomplish something I’d never imagined they could: A week from its third anniversary, they stole Sept. 11 from New York. After extensive focus-group testing conducted in Ohio and other swing states, the Republicans peddled 9/11 back to the American people, wrapped in an American flag and a ribbon that said Four More Years! To this New Yorker, it felt more like a red, white and blue fuck you .
On Thursday, the convention’s last night, I saw the World Trade Center disaster brought to life through montage, movie, speech and song from inside the military-industrial complex of Madison Square Garden.
There was Michael W. Smith, a West Virginia pop singer who “gave his life to Christ”; he performed a “patriotic ballad” called “There She Stands” while hunched over a keyboard. With images of the smoldering towers and billowing American flags behind him (intercut curiously with footage from several different wars), he serenaded an arena of terror-stricken conservatives about how the Stars and Stripes have lifted us all from the depths of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
It’s not my kind of music, but then it wasn’t my kind of message, either. Those of us who experienced the real version of that day know that it was less about patriotism and more about learning to live with an anxiety and fear that folks in Dayton can complain about, but will never know.
Then there was George Pataki.
The waxy-looking Governor informed us that after Sept. 11, “this great state rolled up its sleeves, looked terrorism straight in the face and spat in its eye …. On that terrible day, a nation became a neighborhood. All Americans became New Yorkers. So what I’ve wanted to do for a long time was say ‘thank you’-in front of our country, and with our children watching. Thank you, America, from the very bottom of New York’s heart.”
I hope the Governor can forgive me for not feeling particularly thankful last week, in a deserted city with so many police around that it felt like Sept. 11, Part 2.
The film that followed the Governor, a re-examination of Sept. 11 through George W. Bush’s life, had its own mushy angle. President Bush was seen hugging a firefighter at Ground Zero, holding a bullhorn and throwing a baseball at the World Series in October 2001, all accompanied by a cheesy narrative about character. “What he did that night, that man in the arena, is he helped us come back,” intoned Fred Thompson, the narrator. “That’s the story of this President. He told us, ‘No matter what, you keep pitching.'”
All that was before President Bush even took to the pulpit to remind us once again about Sept. 11 and what it meant. In case we had forgotten.
All the while I sat like an atheist, too stunned to react in the Madison Square Garden bleachers. Occasionally, if a zealous delegate caught me not applauding, he would send a nasty look my way or clap loudly near my ear. If any of them had asked, I might have explained that I was too busy to clap; rather, I was recalling the trauma of the World Trade Center collapse with stiff arms and twitching tear ducts. If we’d chatted, I might have asked them how they would feel, having a raw moment in their recent past replayed endlessly like a cheap product placement on TV.
The Republicans and their flogging of a tragedy violated one of the unspoken rules that allows a city like New York to function without veering into civil war: A person is allowed to talk trash about his or her own mother, but not someone else’s. Experiencing Sept. 11 was bad enough; having people come from far away and tell you what you should learn from it was insulting.
It didn’t help that the delegates roaming the city in packs seemed to have a real love-hate relationship with New York City: a love of the NYPD, and a hatred of everyone else. Based on a week of anecdotal evidence, I found many of the visitors to be smug and incurious. They liked New York as a backdrop for a catastrophe and an excuse to go to war, but they thought New Yorkers were savages. They were bitter and angry.
At a party on the U.S.S. Intrepid after President Bush’s speech-a party sponsored by major defense contractors like Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing and others-I tried to explain my feelings to a chunky redhead from Texas.
“Don’t you think,” I stammered, “that the Republicans are bringing up 9/11 a bit too much? For New Yorkers, it’s very painful to see it all again …. ”
“Well, it was a major part of his Presidency!” the woman said.
“Yes,” I continued, “but making us watch it over and over again … how many times do they need to bring it up?”
“That’s the fault of the liberal media,” she replied.
Earlier, at a R.N.C. book signing in the Hilton Hotel, I asked two lady delegates from Pennsylvania if they’d ever wondered what all the protesters were so upset about.
“Protesters are forgetting that we’re here at the invitation of New York City ,” one woman said, sounding disturbingly like the Church Lady. “After 9/11 the Republicans thought, by bringing the convention to New York City-having been invited by the city-we would help to improve the economy, which had to have taken a drastic downturn after 9/11. So here the Republicans come to help, and we’re faced with all these … you know .” She shook her head in disgust.
By the end of the week, when they all finally left, I felt violated, as if some bowlegged cowboy had just rolled into town, had his way with me and fled.
After all, it was Governor Pataki, Rudy Giuliani and Mayor Michael Bloomberg who played Big Mack Daddy last week, pimping out our streets to the G.O.P., selling our tragedy to the rest of the country as if it came from Aisle 4 at Wal-Mart. Long after the hotels were empty and the steamroller had moved on, there was a little voice in my ear. It said: Four More Years ….