New York

The scale of Tuesday’s disaster in New York remains staggering.

I was in living in Boston in December 1999, when six firefighters burned to death in a warehouse fire in Worcester, Massachusetts. The story was reasonably straightforward and gained a certain amount of force from its elemental simplicity: they went into the building believing (falsely) that there were people trapped inside who needed rescuing, and they didn’t come out. The media, local and national, made much of the tragedy: the tabloid Boston Herald, to which I subscribed for its year-round baseball coverage, ran innumerable front pages on the story. It was all very moving, and I was suitably moved. (There was a nasty subtext to some of the media coverage about the relative worth of the lives of the firefighters on the one hand and the homeless people who squatted in the warehouse on the other, but this was, all things considered, only a marginal narrative in the media frenzy). The funeral procession was said to be the largest single gathering of firefighters anywhere in the world, and President Clinton was there, too, and he said a few words.

Six firefighters died in Worcester and big chunks of New England were traumatised. I read today that _two hundred and two_ firefighters were still on the missing list in New York (and they must all be presumed dead by now), together with _fifty-seven_ police officers. They all went into the World Trade Center thinking there was useful work to be done inside, and were crushed to death when the towers came down. And they are only a small fraction of the overall death toll. A hundred other comparisons could be drawn to make the same point: this was, and is, huge; and it was, and is, quite horrible to think about too much.

The comparison with Pearl Harbor is frequently being drawn — America’s “Day of Infamy”. Pearl Harbor did lead to America’s entry into the Second World War, and America did rally around the leadership of its President, FDR, and various other creditable things flowed from the raid, but (lest we forget) America also interned its citizens of Japanese origin in special camps in the months that followed. If this is indeed a second Pearl Harbor it is very important that bigotry towards Arabs, whether American or not, is stamped on very hard. There have already been several reports from the US of violence against Arab-Americans and other Asian-Americans (including Sikhs and Pakistanis), which is disgraceful. For all his palpable faults, Mayor Giuliani has been doing an excellent job in New York in recent days — he has risen to the occasion, unlike W. — and by both speaking and acting promptly to help defuse anti-Arab bigotry, he deserves yet more praise.

Right-wing pundit (and Magdalen graduate) Andrew Sullivan found these words to go in his own weblog. They suit his disreputable political agenda a little better than they suit mine, but I still think they are both haunting and apposite, and I’ll repost them here:

“I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.”

— From W. H. Auden: “September 1, 1939”

There is a good article in today’s Times (how rarely can you say that!) by military historian Michael Howard. It makes the point that over the last hundred years the three main goals of terrorists have been (i) self-advertisement, (ii) to demoralise governments, and (iii) “to provoke the government into such savage acts of suppression that it forfeited public support and awoke popular and international sympathy for the revolutionary cause.” Given the rhetoric of the US Government and its various allies as they talk of pursuing the people behind this enormity — for once, the word is not being misused by the media — it will be a something of a surprise if they don’t go overboard on the provocation front. Do the American politicians really think that their interests are best served, and that their cities will be made safer in the long run, with all this talk of dividing the world again into “us” and “them” and then waging unceasing “war” on the latter? Let us hope they calm down; and let us hope still more fervently that yet more civilians do not die as a result of the American-led military action which now seems depressingly inevitable.

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