In the shadow again

Sam Smith, October 2001- Living in the capital colony always has its share of special problems, but they gained particular poignancy when disaster struck both New York City and Washington on the same day. Despite being the area’s most deadly event since the battles of the Civil War, Washington found itself bringing up the rear in national sympathy just as, on better days, it does in national respect.

Even allowing for the difference in the scale of the twin traumas, there was clearly also a difference in how everyone – from natives to media to distant public – reacted to the attacks on the nation’s economic and political centers. It was a difference that illuminates how we really feel about these places.

In Washington the specific quickly becomes abstract, the personal transformed into bloodless policy. In New York, even the most abstract becomes local and personal. This is not something imposed from outside. The residents of both cities accept their roles – the New Yorker as meat of myth, the Washingtonian as messenger of meaning.

And so it was that while Rudy Giuliani was rounding up the city like a lifeguard after spotting a shark, Washington mayor Anthony Williams went into his bunker and didn’t think to reassure his constituents until the middle of the afternoon. The leaders of the rescue effort in New York were so endearing that David Letterman even had the city’s fire commissioner as a guest. All most Washingtonians know about their fire chief was that he tried to prevent some of his black firefighters from having dreadlocks.

On that bad morning, people here filled the streets, walking and driving away from what in better times had been known as the capital of the free world. Official Washington had responded by turning a disaster it didn’t understand into one it did: a traffic jam. Soon, the traditional icons of order began to appear as well; the city’s dozen or so different police forces were augmented by camouflaged soldiers standing by humvees parked on the sidewalk. Thinking about the possibility of someone crashing into the Capitol building just six blocks from my house, I felt less than reassured by all this activity; it had the aura of belated bureaucratic compensation rather than rational response. When I turned on the TV, all of New York seemed part of a great rescue operation. In Washington, the rescuers were isolated across the river at the Pentagon while the rest of us engaged in a muted ritual of dignified angst. It’s one of the divisions of the town, like black and white, rich and poor. There are relatively few who know how to do things like save lives in a burning building. The rest of us write about it, come up with strategy options to do it better next time, or lobby members of Congress to ignore these options. It is a city of too many words and too few tears and laughs.

But it’s the way we’ve been taught. Especially by Republican presidents, the only CEOs in America who think good management consists of repeatedly badmouthing one’s employees. Until the Taliban cropped up, George W. Bush considered DC a reasonable alternative. He spoke of it as though it were a place outside of America despite the fact that most of those who give Washington a bad name come from somewhere else. When he delivered his revised State of the Union address, he introduced the mayor of New York City in the balcony but not the mayor of Washington. And when it was decided to close certain streets and bridges and scare the tourists away with camouflaged solders and humvees, nobody at the White House bothered to discuss it with the local police or other city officials.

It’s not just Bush, though. A Democratic representative even suggested that because the city did not have a proper emergency plan its congressional budget approval ought to be delayed, this in a town where hotel occupancy had suddenly dropped to seven percent. And instead of the honest anarchy of sorrow, the Senate invited professional grief counselors to testify so we could learn how to manage our mourning just as we think we manage everything else.

The scale of the New York catastrophe was much greater, but as Dylan Thomas said of the Battle of Britain, after the first death there is no other. It is all one. And now parts of our city are dying as well. The restaurants, the businesses dependent on those rows of yellow school buses lined up like number ten pencils in a stationary shop, the recent immigrants who earned their living at these places.

It’s not just a capital, it’s home. Behind the C-Span cyborgs, beyond the marble and the memoranda, concealed in the fog of pomposity and prevarication lies a real place, with real people in real mourning, and real firefighters doing brave things, and real other people who suddenly found nothing was quite the same. Save a tear for them, too, will you?


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