Monday, September 03, 2007

The Breaking Point

Published: September 3, 2007

It’s that month again, and when the New York skies are clear, as they have been and were then, you gaze at the proud prow of Manhattan and still feel the absence, and perhaps you see once more those papers from the crumpled towers fluttering out across the East River to strange landings in Brooklyn.

My daughter’s fourth birthday was that morning, and we looked at the billowing smoke from the water’s edge in Brooklyn Heights and she cried. I took the subway to work, one of the last to run, and a woman beside me was sobbing. When, that night, I emerged into Times Square, nobody. I walked for miles through a ghost city.

That was a breaking point, dividing our lives into before and after, and the world into pre- and post-, and we’ve all had to succumb to the awful 9/11 shorthand that compresses the loss of almost 3,000 lives into a couple of digits, and the wider loss of America-as-sanctuary into a date.

This compression of horror has been a sorting device, necessary to push away the falling bodies and that emetic acrid-sweet odor that lingered below Houston, and to put some order into what has followed — Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, the Department of Homeland Security — and these of course are only other forms of inadequate shorthand.

The United States was not previously a homeland, it was just our land, and that unhappy neologism with its Orwellian echoes, its sense of exclusion rather than inclusion, its faint fatherland-like echoes, seems to capture the closing and the menace and the terror-terror refrain with which we have all learned to live.

That refrain, for Americans, but not only them, has a pursed-lipped face called Bush-Cheney, and the braggadocio-smirk of the bring-it-on duo has come to form yet another shorthand for a certain grimness, one as relentless as the U.S. national debt clock.

For many around the world, sympathy has turned to alienation over six years, and that’s something else Americans have had to learn to live with, the feeling that we owe an explanation of the inexplicable, a step-by-step guide of how we got from there to here, an accounting of who we really are and, you know, it’s not us doing the fingerprinting and we still like rock ’n’ roll.

You can’t talk about the Belgian idea, or even the Indian idea, but the American idea is inseparable from this country’s global resonance, and it’s in the tarnishing of that idea — the partial replacement of a liberating notion by a threatening one — that a sea change has occurred.

As Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush, put it to me: “Historically, the world has always given us the benefit of the doubt because it believed we meant well. It no longer does.”

He added: “It is easy to lose trust, but it takes a lot of work to gain it. Can the sense of confidence in us be restored? Sure. But not easily.”

The American idea, in other words, is dimmed, but endures. On a clear day and holiday weekend, that now lopsided prow of Manhattan still stirs something noble, a sense of “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who stepped ashore and made their can-do American way.

Last year, 702,663 people became citizens; there are 877,039 naturalization cases pending. Countries are still divided into those people want to leave and those people want to get into. That division is also a measure of where oppression reigns and freedom resides.

I gazed past the Statue of Liberty to the tip of Manhattan the other day with my 89-year-old uncle, Bert, who first saw the city in 1947, two years after the end of a war in which, as a young South African officer, he had fought his way with the Allied army up through Italy. The Queen Mary had brought him, six to a cabin, from the English port of Southampton to New York.

“You know, when I got to London from Johannesburg, I thought it was the middle of the world,” he said. “But I can’t tell you what it felt like to step into the canyons of New York. I had this overwhelming feeling of promise and of being at the center of the New World, the coming world.”

It is this sense of promise that the United States must restore to provide the leadership without which the big issues facing the world do not get resolved. Sometimes I imagine that a piece of the terrible white confetti of 9/11 has blown all the way around the globe to arrive, like a message in a bottle, and that I open it and read: “September is not the cruelest month.”

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