Friday, September 15, 2006


Frank Rich is getting a lot of grief for comments he made in last Sunday's column about this photo of people conversing in Brooklyn on 9/11 as the Twin Towers smoldered in the background. Rich wrote that it was a "taboo" photo,

so much so that Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos kept it under wraps for four years.... It shows five young friends on the waterfront in Brooklyn, taking what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background.

...What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what's gone right and what's gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

Three days later, in Slate, David Plotz declared that what Rich wrote was a "malicious, backhanded swipe" -- unquestionably, Plotz wrote, the people in the photo had gathered to engage in "civic debate":

they're almost certainly discussing the horrific event unfolding behind them.... These New Yorkers have not turned away from Manhattan because they have turned away from 9/11. They have turned away from Manhattan because they have turned toward each other for solace and for debate.

Two people who were in the photo have subsequently told Slate that Plotz is right; then the photographer staked out a middle ground, telling Slate he considers the photo "ambiguous" and making reference to Rich's "thoughful words."

Well, I also went to a park on 9/11 -- Riverside Park on Manhattan's Upper West Side. I was trying to get a glimpse of the Towers from the piers, after leaving work. That's what a lot of other people were doing.

But not everyone. Some people were bicycling and rollerblading and jogging. Some were lolling on the grass, where they wouldn't have been able to see much. The people in Thomas Hoepker's photo may have had absolutely nothing on their minds but the terrorist attacks, but that didn't seem to be true for a lot of people I saw.

Yet I wouldn't go as far as Rich does -- I don't think those people had "moved on." There'd been a disaster, but they'd emerged unscathed. Volunteer opportunities had become limited -- for instance, word had already spread around town that the Red Cross literally couldn't accept any more blood donors. I think a lot of people just thought: "Well, what do I do now?"

So they did what they would have done if they'd been sent home early from work for some far more innocuous reason: they got in a run or a bike ride.

I'll throw in another memory: Once, heading to Boston on Christmas Eve morning, I totaled a rental car on the West Side Highway after skidding on some black ice. Thanks to seatbelts and airbags, my wife and I were unhurt, but the car had to be towed away. Now, here's the thing: I wasn't the owner and no other car was involved, so paperwork was limited. Physically, we were fine. Cops had seen the accident and radioed in a call for a tow truck, then they drove us home put us in a cab with our stuff.

The accident felt as if it should have been life-changing -- I kept waiting for some feeling that I'd never be the same. Instead, it soon became obvious that the rest of my life was going to proceed pretty much as it would have if the accident had never happened. So we got a bus to Boston instead, and life went on.

That's an inexact comparison: 9/11 did bring significant change to New York and America. But it didn't change everything. All but a handful of office buildings were still standing -- we still had to go to work, didn't we, the next day, or at least soon afterward? Didn't we still have family and friends, bills to pay, significant others to be with?

In New York, we think about 9/11. But we think about other things, too. We probably think about 9/11 the way we think about street crime: maintain a sense of heightened awareness, mostly in the subconscious, then get on with life. Keeping the thoughts at a deep level, readily accessible but below the conscious level, is a way not to be defeated by fear.

Right-wingers would probably misinterpret what I've written here -- to them, anything less than constant wailing and gnashing of teeth means you've "forgotten" 9/11. To us, the wailing and gnashing looks like a substitute for rational thought and intelligent response -- it seems like an obsession with feeling grievously wounded (all the more repellent on the part of people who watched the whole day unfold on TV), rather than at attempt to remain calm and rational so you can make smart decisions about what to do next, about a future terrorist attack or about the day-to-day lives terrorists don't want us to be able to live.

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