Dispatch #1: On Loss
Part 2: Hellsapoppin
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   I had just put together some reminiscences about the city for The Spook’s September issue.
See TheSpook.Com.  Its people and institutions, its energy has been incredibly important for me professionally and personally, even though the only time  only time I have ever lived there was for a few months in l970. I was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter and had sublet an apartment on Second and 2nd from a coke dealer that was around the corner from the Hell’s Angels. Eights years later I was commuting from Westchester to my office at the New Yorker and having lunch at the Century and playing squash at the Harvard Club. This was a completely different New York. There are many different New Yorks, and I’ve been exposed to maybe half a dozen of them over the years. After my 1978 Amazon book, I wanted to write a big book on New York, to follow the ultimate natural jungle with the ultimate human jungle (which is in my view as “natural,” in its own way, as the Amazon), but was waylaid by financial considerations, as has often been the case with my more ambitious undertakings. Plus Mr. Shawn, the New Yorker’s legendary editor, of whom I and everyone else at the magazine were in awe, had tactfully shot me down with the question, “Don’t you think that taking on all of New York City might be too big?”

    The one thing that cuts across  all the different New Yorks is this quality of “heart.”  I first came into contact with it in l967 when I landed a summer job between my junior and senior years of college as a cub reporter for the New York Daily News. My job was to write captions for the Sunday Coloroto Magazine about the weekly bathing belle (“Svelte, statuesque Barbara Contino graces the springboard of the Astoria pool,” etc.) and another column called “Mainly For Seniors” (“ Despite her years—all l04 of them—Mrs. Sophie Slobodein of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, is an active cuisiniere”). The most interesting one was called New York’s Changing Scene. My editor, a wizened New York Irish veteran of the City Desk who periodically fortified himself with nips from a flask he kept in his vest pocket, would hand me a snapshot of a streetcorner in one of the boroughs taken in 20s or 30s, and another one taken from the same spot that was only a few days old. Often there was no discernible overlap. The scene had totally changed. I would scrutinize the old photo with a magnifying class, pick out things, and do research on what it was like back then. This was excellent training for the Dispatches, now that I look back on it. How many times in my world travels have I returned to some beautiful place I had passed through a few years early and found it completely obliterated. 

   Among my souvenirs from my twentieth summer at the Daily News is a photograph of a very fat monk in his robes who is swinging at a softball that was taken by one of the paper’s photographers—I don’t know his name. It won a big prize that year and I’ve taken it with me where I’ve lived. It still makes me feel good every time I look at it, and everyone else who visits the bathroom where it hangs. I can’t think of more classic Cartier- Bressons decisive-moment picture. It captures the monk just as he is took a huge cut at the ball, swinging for Heaven, and has missed. It also captures what I love about New York, the heart that I am talking about. 

    I stood for half an hour with the people at the doors of Penn Station, who were all undoubtedly struggling privately to come to terms with what had happened. How could anybody hate us so much?  I suspect many of them were thinking. What does this mean? Is the world coming apart at the seams, the entire human experiment, the tenuous global social contract that is still being negotiated because it is in no one’s interest that the species annihilates itself and takes everything with it?  The growing frequency of outbreaks of massive psychotic violence—the Rwandan genocide, Tulsa, and now this —is certainly ominous. 

   How did you classify such an attack?  It was clearly an act of terrorism, but was it also an act of war, as the president called it later in the day. Bin Laden had declared a jihad against America, so it was. He had come right out and said that he was out to kill Americans. So the deaths in the towers and the planes and at the Pentagon were more than “collateral damage.” Wasn’t this also an act of genocide?  Killing people, even just one person, because they belong to a group, with the intent of exterminating the entire group or weakening it beyond the capacity to recover is how genocide is defined by the Geneva Convention. Usually the group is racial or ethnic or religious. “Americans” are a national group that embraces hundreds of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, but in Bin Laden’s eyes we are all infidels-- a corrupt, decadent tribe who he feels it is his religious duty to wipe off the face of the earth. So yes, this can be seen as an act of genocide. And what about the killing of ten or fifteen Palestinan civilians a day in Israel since the declaration of the second intifada a year ago?  Is this some important day in the Muslim calendar? I asked the woman standing next to me. It’s the anniversary of the Camp David Accord, she told me in a low voice. So maybe the terrorists are Palestinia: suicide bombers taking out a really attention-getting target. Or Bin-Laden’s folks who had chosen this day for their attack as a gesture of sympathy. 

     Could this also be seen an act of revolution? America has become the hated upper class of the world, in the eyes of many people, not just fanatical Islamists. This is how we are seen by a lot of people in Africa, Latin American, Europe, Canada, the Middle East, Asia. I am constantly having to defend America in my travels. Here we are, 4% of the world’s population who cornered 66% of its resources, if Jeremy Rifkin is to be believed. We have all the goodies, and this obviously isn’t right and a reasonable motive for revolution. As J.Paul Getty said, there will always be someone in the penthouse. The class struggle will always exist. But now it has transcended national borders. 

     So perhaps this attack can be compared—along with the more obvious comparisons-- to the bombing of Tsar Alexander II in on March 13, l881 by a 25-year-old Polish students named Ignacy Grinevitsky, who was Jewish, which prompted a wave of pogroms against the Jews. After that act, which struck at the very heart of Russia, it was clear to everyone that the days of the tsar and the aristocracy were numbered, although the revolution that brought them down didn’t happen for another 36 years. Maybe that was the message that Bin Laden was sending. The party is over, America. And he was just the messenger. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else. Not that what he did can be countenanced, not to diminish the diabolical insanity of what he did, cutting short 6800 innocent lives and counting. That’s how it always is in these liquidations, I thought as I stood there with the others: a lot of good people get killed because of some “ism.” A lot of useful, innocent people are lost. 

    It was also now stunningly clear to me that mainstream American culture is just as vulnerable as the species and cultures that it is destroying. I realized that I was going to have to expand the mission of the Dispatches. Spread the web of compassion to embrace my own culture, cut it some well-deserved slack. The insecurity that most of the world lives in has come to our shores.

    Now there will be more xenophobia. The part of America that I have big problems with will come back to the fore. Africa will be left to its own devices as resources are diverted to the war against the terrorists, and support systems already woefully inadequate will collapse, which will result in all the more loss of species and cultures. A whole lot more loss is in store. I am starting to dislike this word. It’s one of these buzzwords of the moment, like closure, and oxymoron a year or two ago, which is already old and on the way out. But the very fact that it is in such wide circulation these days is perhaps telling. 

   My ability to travel safely and report these Dispatches will undoubtedly be impacted, and to place them in magazines that were hemorraghing ads even before all this and will have less space and inclination to run long stories on foreign subjects that are not about the Middle East, that will shed light on the enemy. I will be leery like everyone about taking airplanes. And airplanes have been an incredibly important thing in my life. They have transported me to new worlds, opened my eyes to the astonishing diversity of life on planet. My grandfather was a partner of Igor Sikorky and Serge Rachmaninoff in the twenties. They developed the Pan American Clipper ship, whose maiden flight was to Rio. One of my aunts was on it. This summer my second son, a junior at Yale who is half-Brazilian, flew to Rio and fell in love with a girl there. Twenty-five years ago, I flew down to Brazil and fell in love with his mother in Brasilia. We divorced after I met the woman who has been my wife for the last eleven years on an Air Ethiopia flight from Entebbe, Uganda, to Rome, on October 4, l987. So I associate planes with love, not terror and death, and I will do my bit for the economy by continuing to take them. What curious times these are ! It has become our patriotic duty to keep traveling, consuming, shopping, investing, spending money, so the economy won’t collapse. There is no rationing to put up with—yet. 

   On the Friday after the attack, the Day of Remembrance, I listen on my truck’s radio to Billy Graham addressing much of the American establishment at a church  in Washington. “This earthly tent is temporary, but the house of God is eternal.” And God is on our side, God will help us do what has to be done. A few minutes later, an interview given by Bin-Laden several years time ago is quoted. “From this mountain in Afganistan, God helped us destroy the Russians, and now He will help us make America a shadow of itself. And the war against the Americans will be much easier.” So God is on both sides, hedging his bets. “Just like he is at the Army Navy game,” the writer Russell Banks who is my neighbor in the Adirondacks, reminds me. 

   The world is going to take a huge step backwards, back to the Middle Ages, Banks predicts. It’s going to be the Christians against the Muslims, the crusades all over again. The president even used the word crusade, apparently oblivious to its unpleasant historical resonance for Muslims. Another friend, the New Hampshire poet John Van Hazinga, e-mails a poem he has written called “Hellsapoppin.” There’s a little town by that name south of Yuma Arizona, the hottest pocket of the country. Michiko Kakatuni had a column in the New York Times about how hard it was to find words to describe the attack and its aftermath. But if you had to sum it all up in one word, hellsapoppin is a pretty good candidate.

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