The Land Of Bush And Cheney

May 9, 2014


Is it too soon to examine the White House of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Their tenancy is hardly ancient history, after all. We’re still mired in an unfunded war and struggling through a crippling financial crisis which both began on their watch. The plutocracy that they personified still rules American electoral politics and grows more powerful every Supreme Court term. And it will take decades to establish whether their overriding priority, a “global war on terror,” was an aberrational reaction to a temporary climate of shock and fear or the new, amoral chapter in world history they perceived.

Still, nearly all the key players have already weighed in with self-serving memoirs: both Bush and Cheney themselves and a warehouse pallet’s worth of others, including Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, Paul Bremer, Tommy Franks, Karl Rove, George Tenet, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Ari Fleischer, Paul O’Neill – even John Yoo, the lawyer who attempted a legal justification for our country’s use of physical torture on its “detainees” who had (and in some cases still have) yet to be charged with a crime. Of course, a memoir can only represent its author’s particular point of view, meaning only as much as the author can or cares to “remember.” What we need instead is a dispassionate narrative with no particular axe to grind, and here is the first one: DAYS OF FIRE by Peter Baker, the New York Times reporter who did a similarly non-judgmental job in THE BREACH, the definitive fly-on-the-wall account of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial.

If you have any presumptions about the two featured men, either as an admirer or a critic, you’ll likely find corroboration here, beginning on page 3, where Mr. Baker lays out the impressive Bush-Cheney record of accomplishment (if he’d done nothing else, Bush would still be the best friend Africa has ever had in the White House, one reason accusations of racism stung him so), and then in the following paragraph recounts the “misjudgments and misadventures” that “left them the most unpopular president and vice president in generations.” What impressed me throughout, though, was how the author was calmly able to disabuse me of some assumptions I personally held that just aren’t true.

George W. Bush is not an unintelligent man, though he’s aware that he can come across this way and over the years has found it useful as a bit of jujitsu against opponents: it gives him a negotiating advantage whenever he’s “misunderestimated.” Rather than dim, what he seems to be instead is incurious and impatient, probably after having lived a life that found its way down prescribed and predictable paths (with one notable exception). He has always had the benefit of mentors, friends, guides, some of them inherited. You can gauge your personal prejudice by considering the chilling five minutes on 9/11 after Andy Card told the president the country was under attack and he didn’t move from his chair in that Florida elementary-school classroom. Some will see a steely gaze on Bush’s face as he silently vows to bring the evildoers to justice. Others will note the same expression and see a man desperately hoping for somebody to tell him what to do. Mr. Baker suggests that Bush had thrived on, insisted on order, punctuality, and disruption-free schedules since he changed his life by giving up alcohol at age forty, and his temporary paralysis may have indicated he was coming to grips with the enormity of the desperate, uncontrolled, improvisational days to come.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dick Cheney was not Bush’s puppet master, and that was the notion which most rankled “the Decider” personally, particularly as he became more confident of his footing in the second term (to the eventual detriment of both Donald Rumsfeld and Scooter Libby). Cheney was certainly adept at behind-the-scenes manipulation, and served as the final gatekeeper regarding what the president saw on his desk, but none of Mr. Baker’s many sources can remember a single instance in which Cheney talked Bush into doing something against his will. Cheney’s genius was in understanding how Washington operates – most of it alien to his less experienced boss, even after having observed his father’s long federal career – and in encouraging inevitability. The perfect example was his own selection as vice president; as candidate Bush’s designated point man assigned to find a running mate (after first being asked if he would like to be considered himself), Cheney vetted nine potential veeps in such grinding detail that he possessed valuable information about each of them that precluded perfection in any of them. When the governor finally implored Cheney to run alongside him, the irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Dick Cheney had long said he’d love to be president if the job were simply handed to him; it was all the required baby-kissing and money-grubbing by the figurehead in an actual campaign that he disdained. Now, here was the closest anyone could ever get to that wish. Colleagues who served with Cheney as far back as the Nixon administration were later heard to mutter, this isn’t the Dick Cheney I thought I knew. But anyone who bothered to check his Congressional voting record, so radically conservative that it fit right in with early 21st-century smash-mouth Republicanism, wouldn’t have been so surprised. Except nobody did bother. Cheney, the great inquisitor, was himself never vetted as a V-P prospect. The job was simply handed to him.

Cheney was particularly attractive to Bush for another reason besides his long experience in government and business: uniquely among modern vice presidents, he did not aspire to the top job. As noted, he found running for national office odious, and that became doubly apparent during the campaign. There would be no sniping or second-guessing, no positioning or ass-covering for some future race. Halfway through the first term, Cheney mused aloud: “In this White House, there aren’t Cheney people versus Bush people. We’re all Bush people.” He was being overly generous to the president: of course there were Cheney people, led by chief of staff Scooter Libby and bulldoggish attorney David Addington, and his cadre quickly found itself at odds with the likes of Secretary of State Colin Powell and, less frequently, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, particularly during the runup to Iraq. But as a potential competitor to the boss, Cheney didn’t compute at all – and Bush liked that, both as candidate and as president. The deference extended to official meetings: Cheney never opposed the president in public and tended to either keep silent or ask an occasional question. They held private weekly lunches, but all we know about them is what they told us or their aides.

Having served in the Nixon administration and as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff before being elected to Congress, Cheney witnessed firsthand what he felt to be a dangerous swing of the pendulum of power from the Presidency toward the legislature – an overreaction, in his view, to the Watergate scandals. When it came to authority, Cheney was a Nixonian (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”) and felt no more need to “ask permission” for extraordinary rendition and CIA black-ops than Ronald Reagan had for the Iran-Contra affair. Cheney’s world was black and white, populated by heroes and villains, and from this he never wavered during all his years in office.

Address to the Nation on Immigration. Oval.

Conventional wisdom about the self-described “compassionate conservative” was that George W. Bush was basically a nice guy who got in over his head, but that isn’t accurate either. It’s a notion held over from his fairly successful service as Texas governor, a constitutionally weak position in which he was forced to work alongside Democrats in the state legislature. But family observers had long noted that Bush personally took after his tough, no-prisoners mother over his more conciliatory father. He had been the senior Bush’s doctrinaire enforcer and hatchet man during the 1992 campaign; it was George W. who informed chief of staff John Sununu that he should resign. Upon losing the popular vote and gaining the presidency by its fingertips when a Florida recount was halted in a highly controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the Bush administration – particularly in the form of Cheney – proceeded to govern as if it had won a landslide. There would be no compromise, divided electorate or not. Advisor Karl Rove, who comes off in this account more important in his own mind than he is to day-to-day governance once the elections are done, famously admitted as much early in the first term: it doesn’t matter how close the margin, just as long as you win. The first concrete indication that these people weren’t all that compassionate was a private-sector task force convened by Cheney a few months after inauguration to advise on federal energy policy: not only were outsiders barred from the meetings and their conclusions, we weren’t even allowed to know who had attended. One name appearing on everybody’s speculative list was the doomed Enron’s doomed Kenneth Lay, whom Bush affectionately called “Kenny Boy.” But we don’t know for sure. Transparency was for wimps.

One thing the satirists did get right was Bush’s tendency to receive a first impression and then stick with it, to “go with his gut.” He “loathed” Kim Jong Il of North Korea, but after meeting Vladimir Putin, pronounced him “honest, straightforward.” “I looked the man in the eye,” said Bush, and “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” When Cheney looked Putin in the eye, he thought, KGB, KGB, KGB. Unlike the hard-charging 1992 campaign worker, the presidential Bush was more likely to shy away from personal conflict. He hated firing people, particularly those who had been loyal to him. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s head came on the block, he insisted on a personal meeting, and only after a reluctantly hosted and uncomfortable lunch at Bush’s Texas ranch did it become clear to the General that longtime fealty was no longer a basis for appeal.

Bush’s complicated relationship with his father almost surely colored his entire presidency, partly in ways we’ll never understand. For most of George W.’s pre-political life, it was his industrious younger brother Jeb of whom their parents expected great things; the eldest son was wasting himself in frivolity and desultory attempts at business. It was a strange inversion of the Kennedy family history, in which golden boy Joe Jr. self-abdicated in a premature WWII bomb explosion, and younger freewheeling playboy Jack ascended to the Senate and presidency instead. When George W. Bush sobered up in 1986, he was still the “black sheep” of the clan, and he had lots to prove, both to his father and to himself. When he unexpectedly beat Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race on the same night that Jeb lost his first election for Florida governor, Bush asked his father over the phone, “Why do you feel bad about Jeb? Why don’t you feel good about me?”

There were two main lessons “43” took from “41”’s presidency. First, breaking the elder Bush’s famous “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge cut him off at the knees among hard-line conservatives, who use a Mad Hatter-like formulation regarding taxes and the economy. If there’s a deficit, businesses are being taxed too heavily and are disinclined to hire and grow. If there’s a surplus, as “43” inherited from President Clinton, then taxes are still too high because the government is taking in more than it spends. (Never mind the national debt; that only clouds the issue. As Cheney said one day, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” That is, unless a Democrat is in the White House.) “This is not only no new taxes,” Bush proclaimed during a January 2000 debate. “This is tax cuts so help me God.” He made good on his promise barely four months into office.

Bush Attends Ceremonial Swearing In Of Veterans Affairs Secretary

The second lesson emerged only in retrospect. When the Persian Gulf War liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army in February 1991, “41”’s popularity was the highest of his presidency: even Democrats approved of his performance by a four-to-one margin. He looked unbeatable for re-election. But less than two years later, he was defeated by a deteriorating economy and the Clinton campaign’s unerring focus on it. The tax issue was probably the dealbreaker, but “43” and Cheney detected another chink in the armor: with the world’s most powerful ground force deployed only kilometers away, “41” had not completed the job by deposing Hussein with military muscle. There were many good reasons to simply accomplish the stated mission and leave, which is exactly what happened, but Bush and Cheney felt Saddam had only been emboldened to continue terrorizing his people and developing nukes. A disrupted 1993 car-bomb plot to assassinate Kuwait’s emir and “41,” purportedly traced back to Saddam, was a particular burr. “After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad,” Bush said at a 2002 fundraiser. If generals had seized the day and marched on Baghdad, that might never have happened. At one of their weekly lunches, as Bush was wrestling with the decision to extend his own war into Iraq, Cheney even goaded him on a personal level, one cowboy to another: “Are you going to take care of this guy or not?” Years later, Bush was surprised that this bit of impertinence had stuck with him, but it had its effect at the time.

After 9/11, the notion of retaliation against Iraq had surfaced almost instantly, beginning with Bush himself. “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way,” he ordered counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. “But Mr. President, Al-Qaeda did this.” “I know, I know, but see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.” (As events later proved, he wasn’t kidding about the shreds.) The first few hours after the planes struck were chaotic, with the president struggling to get back from Florida while buildings were burning in New York and D.C. As United Airlines Flight 93 sped toward Washington, Cheney ordered it shot down – and twice more as a military aide re-confirmed “authority to engage.” Recollections differ as to whether he had obtained Presidential approval in advance, but “none of about a dozen sets of logs and notes kept that day recorded the call,” writes Mr. Baker. The plane was brought down instead in a Pennsylvania field by its passengers, before any Cheney order was given (and, fortunately, ignored), as frantic cell-phone calls revealed that other airliners were being used as deadly missiles. Most observers speculate its target was the Capitol or the White House; Cheney and team were below the East Wing in a secure but “low-tech” bunker that had never been used in a crisis before. Cheney spent most of the next few weeks at one or another “secure undisclosed location” (his own words) in order to maintain the line of succession in case of further attacks. Usually the secret hideout was no more exotic than Camp David or his own residence, but it was still undisclosed.

Bolstered by an historic wartime thumbs-up from the electorate – not dissimilar to Bush’s father’s – which extended into the 2002 midterms, Bush and Cheney might possibly be forgiven for convincing themselves that they were acting on behalf of a united nation. To the “reality-based community” (a notorious term that came from an anonymous Bushie widely believed to be Karl Rove), however, the administration needed to pound into “truth” the notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. (Never mind that another member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” North Korea, actually had nukes.) Some suspected the actual motives were less noble after watching post-invasion Iraqi looters sack everything in sight – including museums and munitions dumps – except for the one bit of infrastructure under Coalition protection: the oil fields.


“Stuff happens,” shrugged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at one of the press conferences that made him something of a rock star after the invasion proved easier than anybody expected. Saddam’s army quickly dissolved away, allowing a cathartic “victory” to play out on American tv sets tuned to the “shock and awe” channels, and it turned out that Iraq had actually long since disposed of its WMDs but maintained enough of a pretense to juice the dictator’s perceived international importance and keep the hated Iran at bay. Rumsfeld is the subject of Errol Morris’s new film THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, which one might expect to be a companion to his Oscar-winning THE FOG OF WAR (2003), in which former SecDef Robert S. McNamara expresses second thoughts (his “eleven lessons”) about our prosecution of the Vietnam war. But Rumsfeld displays no contrition, no beard-stroking, no doubt whatsoever. In this he was typical of the Bush inner circle.

Without Donald Rumsfeld, you might not even have a Dick Cheney. It was Rumsfeld, Cheney’s longtime mentor, who convinced President Ford to bring Cheney in to succeed him as Chief of Staff when he became the youngest man ever to serve as Secretary of Defense. Cheney returned the favor years later when he counseled Bush to appoint Rumsfeld as the oldest SecDef in history. Through all the intramural squabbles of the Bush years, Cheney and Rumsfeld were never on separate teams. Rumsfeld was the ultimate organization man, highly attuned to protocol and what he saw as proper chains of command. He communicated orders and random thoughts in hundreds of memos that were so voluminous they came to be known by his staff as “snowflakes.” Rumsfeld spends much of THE UNKNOWN KNOWN reading from various snowflakes, some of which sound like koans, full of Zen ambiguity but lacking any enlightenment. For example, this passage, which originated as a press conference answer and gives the film its title: Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know. One Rumsfeld snowflake was directed at President Bush as he searched in vain for WMDs in Iraq: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. By such logic did our country invade a sovereign nation in a runup so blind and frantic that besides squandering precious blood and fortune, it also consumed the political career of a man who otherwise might well have become the first black president of the United States: General Colin Powell. (Think about how that might have altered the Republican brand.)

In Rumsfeld’s view, SecDef’s job was to wage and win a war. Whatever happened afterward was somebody else’s responsibility. In fact, the various administration members’ accounts of the post-invasion debacle form a Quentin Tarantino-like Mexican standoff, pointing at each other with fingers rather than pistols. What fool dissolved the Iraqi army, encouraging trained soldiers to fade back into the population as armed dissidents? Who failed to protect storehouses of weapons and ammunition, never mind priceless, irreplaceable cultural antiquities? How did uniformed American jailers turn into sadistic monsters? When did we begin fighting wars with contractors and mercenaries, including a private-sector paramilitary immune from U.S. or Iraqi law? What gave us the idea that we could pay for this whole mess with another country’s oil? Each memoirist tells us, in his or her own way: I don’t know, bro, but it sure wasn’t my fault.


Rumsfeld held a great advantage over Bush, at least while war plans were being laid. To his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson’s tragic mistake in Vietnam was trying to micromanage the war from Washington. Bill Clinton, to some extent, had been guilty of the same thing in tentative humanitarian uses of the military (even though Clinton had worked his will in Kosovo without a single casualty). Instead, Bush resolved to listen to his generals on the ground, under the direction of Rumsfeld. The only general he didn’t listen to was Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “several hundred thousand soldiers” might be needed to occupy Iraq after the war, in direct opposition to Rumsfeld’s notion of a quick, sleek, in-and-out strike by a lean, techno-savvy force. Shinseki was never asked to elaborate, and was replaced later in the year.

The speedy ground “victory,” and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” football-spike aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, kept the wartime fervor bubbling hot enough to defeat Sen. John Kerry and win a second term. Bush liked to brag that more people voted for him than for any other presidential candidate in history. (The all-time #2? Sen. John Kerry in that same election. It helps when there’s no vote-siphoning from a third-party candidate, as Ross Perot did to “41” and Ralph Nader did to Al Gore. Both were topped by Barack Obama four years later, but Bush is still the only Republican presidential candidate to win the popular vote since his father in 1988.) Re-energized, vastly relieved at never having to campaign again, emboldened by a victory that was clearly mathematical after the overly lawyerly 2000 race, and much more comfortable in his presidential skin, Bush enthused in his first post-election press conference: “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.”

But now the war had entered its excruciating just-dragging-on phase, a bloody grind of noise behind anything else the president tried to accomplish. He had some plans for the second term, to at least partially privatize Social Security and forge some desperately needed immigration reform. But the public was losing patience with the war effort and thus its authors. Sovereignty had been handed over to Iraq (“Let freedom reign!” Bush scribbled on Condi Rice’s note. Not “ring.” Reign.), but without U.S. troops it only amounted to a few words on a piece of paper. The lurid images from Abu Ghraib prison had been assimilated but not forgotten. Don Rumsfeld had gallantly offered his resignation over the scandal, but as Mr. Baker writes, “cynically, it could be seen as forcing Bush to either support him or cut him loose.” “Pretty smooth,” Bush told an advisor. “He called my hand.”

That had been the first-term Bush. The more assured second-term president now paid less attention to the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld; one imagines he must have been growing tired of advice that the fullness of time was proving so wrong. There’s a famous clip, used by Michael Moore in his film FAHRENHEIT 9/11, of Bush resolving to hunt down America’s enemies, then stepping back to a golf tee and saying, “Now watch this drive.” It makes him seem callous, flippant, even foppish (whatever PR officer approved that idiotic photo-op should have been beheaded), but that’s not so, either. Bush agonized over the victims of his wars, at least on the American side, and his frequent visitations and other acts of kindness to veterans and their families went unpublicized, which suggests to me that they were genuine. (He even temporarily gave up golf in sympathy, perhaps because of that mortifying clip.) The war consumed Bush, and if any regrets were deeply internalized – you can’t betray your troops by second-guessing their mission, he frequently said out loud – they were still present.

Despite Rumsfeld’s space-age cogitations, it appeared that what we really needed was more troops (easier to argue than more domestic spending, which we needed as well), and with the support of the usual suspects – John McCain has never seen a military muster he didn’t like, and his obviously bobbleheaded choice of Sarah Palin later helped our nation dodge a fusillade of bullets because he could only grouse from the Senate, not push buttons from the Oval Office – Bush doubled down on the troops a la Shinseki and thus helped tamp the reddest Iraqi embers. When I heard Citizen Rumsfeld’s Fox News comment two months ago that, in his words, “a trained ape” could have done a better job handling Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai than President Obama and his team, I first wondered how the word “ape” came to mind, then reminded myself that I shall never again be lectured on foreign policy by this particular individual. As for Cheney, Mr. Baker writes that by the time of the surge, “He was becoming more like a regular vice president.” In June 2007, when Cheney urged bombing of Syria’s newly discovered nuclear reactor at a meeting of the national security team, Bush asked, “Does anyone here agree with the vice president?” Not a single hand went up.

When Bushies were delivered their electoral “thumpin’” by a war-weary electorate in the 2006 midterms, it was finally time for Rumsfeld to go away for good, and the chief picked up SecDef’s longstanding offer of resignation like a Texas-League grounder. (Some Republicans, who were beginning to recognize a sinking ship when they saw one, began grousing that if Bush had thrown Rumsfeld to the dogs before the election, it might have helped their chances, but to Bush that would have been a sign of weakness, always less desirable than wrongheadedness.) This did not sit well with Cheney, but less and less did these days; if the president was a lame duck, then what did that make a vice-president who was not interested in running for higher office? The debilitating ennui of the war, now officially America’s longest, topped by a financial cataclysm overseen by the “business party” (i.e., the foxes had been guarding the henhouse all along) rendered McCain’s ticket – made to appear even more feckless by the transparent Hail-Mary selection of Gov. Palin and his tin-eared insistence on a money-meltdown White House “summit” at which he barely spoke – DOA against the first credible black candidate in history, who was only there because he’d narrowly beaten the first credible female candidate in history. On the way out, Bush even towel-snapped Cheney one last time by refusing to pardon the veep’s loyal aide Scooter Libby, who had been convicted of leaking the name of a covert CIA officer. He commuted Libby’s sentence, obviating jail time, but refused to wipe the slate clean, despite all of Cheney’s protestations right up to Inauguration Day. Bush was his own man on this issue, and if he had not always been, perhaps he had grown in the office. At least when measured against Dick Cheney.


Cheney was nothing if not stalwart. He became obsessed with the possibility of another attack against America, a “second wave,” and he never let it go. As with the Commies he hated, to him the end justified the means, thus “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” his cold-blooded euphemisms for US-sponsored extra-legal kidnapping and torture. He famously held that “if there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Queda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” applied only to 9/11, not the 95% of scientists alarmed over man’s contribution to climate change or the 90% of Americans who favored stricter gun regulations. He continued to insist, notably in R. J. Cutler’s 2013 film THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DICK CHENEY, that he had protected America against further attack and foiled evil plots due to information gleaned extraordinarily, though some interrogators say they obtained every bit of actionable stuff without resorting to torture.

Bush admired Barack Obama’s meteoric rise but felt his successor was unqualified to prosecute American foreign policy, perhaps forgetting his own global inadequacies on Inauguration Day 2001. When candidate Obama remarked in a debate that he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan to chase terrorists even without the government’s permission, Bush found it “stunning” in its “naivete.” (That Cheneyesque bit of bravado, of course, was exactly how Obama eliminated Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment that had eluded Bush for seven years.) “This guy has no clue, I promise you,” Bush ranted one day. “You think I wasn’t qualified? I was qualified.”

Near the end of his term, a former aide asked Bush, “You’re leaving as one of the most unpopular presidents ever. How does that feel?” Bush responded, accurately, “I was also the most popular president.” After 9/11, his approval rating reached 90%, the highest ever recorded. But his fall from public grace was also historic. During the nadir of the financial crisis in October 2008, a Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans disapproved of Bush’s job performance, the lowest marks for any president since the firm began asking that question in 1938. And while others at their worst – Nixon, Truman – fell below Bush’s low approval ratings, his dragged on and on. The last time a majority supported Bush was March 2005, “meaning he went through virtually his entire second term without most of the public behind him,” as Mr. Baker writes, and Cheney fared even worse. But “Bush’s graceful post-presidency seemed to temper judgments.” Unlike Cheney, unlike Rumsfeld, unlike nearly everyone else in his administration, Bush has found the fortitude to resist self-indulgence. In retirement he has uniquely been able to maintain a discreet silence, and his legacy is at least partially mending as he displays the common courtesy that few others in his party can manage to conjure.

Rolling Away The Stone

July 20, 2013

rscov1188Rolling Stone [full disclosure: my grad-school beer-money provider and record-shelf-filling helper] is in the hot seat just now for selecting as its current cover photo not an Annie Leibovitz or Mark Seliger portrait of a celebrity, but a “selfie” cameraphone shot of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber who’s still alive. This image has caused a tsunami of outrage, especially in New England, where the vicious April 15 attack that killed three and wounded 264 others still has many in a state of shock.

Some companies have banned the issue outright. First, New England-based CVS/Walgreens and Tedeschi Foods announced their refusal to sell it. They were later joined by – as of this posting – Rite-Aid, Kmart and 7-Eleven company-owned stores (the home office will encourage its franchisees to follow suit). Knee-jerk cries of “censorship” have inevitably followed, but this is a tough moral call for many of my well-meaning friends, who are really wrestling with the issue. I am too.

The first thing we think of has to be the hundreds of victims and their anguished loved ones. That’s why we can understand the outrage even when we don’t share it in a visceral way. What would we do in their place? Probably scream and shout – and weep – as well. Grief isn’t rational, and it hasn’t been that long since half a million people came out on a beautiful spring day to celebrate a Boston tradition and cheer on their heroes. This wound is only beginning to heal; it’s still there.

Note that there’s little objection (in fact, I haven’t heard any at all) to Janet Reitman’s cover story itself, a fine piece of journalism that you can read here (make note of the editors’ response to this controversy at the head of the piece). It calmly depicts how the kid next door could turn into a radical and ultimately a monster, the precise word used on the cover. The troublesome part isn’t even the image itself. It can’t be. Back in May it was printed on the front page of the New York Times, in color, in the center, above the fold, and nobody said a word.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

What bothers people is the juxtaposition of this image with Rolling Stone, and the outrage has to come largely from people who don’t read Rolling Stone (let’s be honest, that’s most people). I infer this from comment after comment decrying the magazine’s “glorification” of an alleged murderer. From the outside, Rolling Stone probably looks something like Tiger Beat: it’s only youth culture, the cover should rightly depict nothing more profound than the latest rocker or pop-culture sensation. Heck, getting on the cover even inspired a Top Ten novelty hit in 1973. What outsiders don’t realize is that Rolling Stone is one of the last bastions of long-form journalism, and has been practicing this venerable profession since its founding. Not a single issue goes to press without at least one piece, maybe even the cover story, which has nothing to do with show business but is meant only to inform and illuminate its readers on the issues of the day. Longtime RS readers were not surprised to see this image on the cover, only found it remarkable for its stated purpose. Here’s your bomber, this…kid.

“They made him look so glamorous.” Nope, it’s only a selfie, that’s you doing that, by virtue of his proximity to the Rolling Stone logo. What you can’t tell from looking at the digital image above, what you can only suss by holding the printed copy in your hands, is that unlike most of RS’s cover portraits, on which you can damn near see individual hair follicles, this photo began so low-res that, blown up for the RS cover, it almost loses focus; here, you can see pixels. In person, it registers instantly that this shot was clearly taken by the subject with a cameraphone. Like the selfies you take. He’s a tousle-haired teenager with a mobile phone, just like RS’s core audience, and that can’t help but unnerve some of them. The image’s power issues from its very normalcy: to any even remotely contemplative kid, it’s uncomfortably like looking into a mirror. Which leads to…

“He’s become a role model. He’ll inspire others.” Any kid unhinged enough to view what Tsarnaev allegedly did as a good thing, to conclude that being on the cover of Rolling Stone is worth an act of mass carnage, will be sorely disappointed to find that they’ve already done their terrorist cover. Besides, we’re full of enough self-hating, gun-toting, random-snuffing “role models” to satisfy a nation of over-armed, sick depressives, and nobody does boo about that, not even when the victims are a room full of first graders.

Another role model?

Another role model?

“They just did this to make money.” I would strike the word “just,” but they publish every issue to make money, and choose every cover subject to attract attention. Will newsstand sales of this issue spike? You’ve already seen the cover, and you can read Ms. Reitman’s story with a single click, so maybe not – especially since it won’t be available at all those outlets. But as New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote, when’s the last time somebody asked you, “Have you seen the cover of Rolling Stone?”

You have the right to decline to sell anything you like. (As a Times editorial pointed out, in CVS’s case, this means cigarettes are fine, Rolling Stone not so.) You also have the right to refrain from patronizing a particular company for whatever reason you like: an ugly logo, a surly server, an act of censorship — or a cover image that offends you. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Life During Wartime

August 24, 2011

At first, the title sounds like a bit of puffery, because this isn’t a thick, dull reference about the geopolitical changes of the last decade. But nevertheless, it’s exactly what’s advertised: an impeccably sourced, human-scaled look at how 9/11 made our world different, so quickly that we hardly noticed. It is also a fine counterweight to dependence on a 24/7 news cycle or the thin accusations of rabble-rousers on both the left and right. The author, Dominic Streatfeild, makes the pages fly while giving us the background detail we need to fully apprehend eight significant consequences of the attack on America and our overheated (and ultimately tragic) response to it. I’d already heard about some of the events he discusses, but I hadn’t really understood them. This is not an anger-inducing book; most people have gotten past that stage. What it invokes are sorrow, as the actions of mostly well-meaning people spin out of control; and foreboding, that sudden injections of fury and fear – of which our fellow countrymen have recently demonstrated plenty – could make it all happen again.

Each of the eight chapters begins with a tight closeup on a single human being and pulls back to place that person in the context of something wider, like a reverse zoom in the movies. Thus we see that great changes, sometimes sinister ones, issue forth from living individuals, that utter innocents can become victims in an eyeblink. It’s a vantage point that tends to fade when you’re looking at, say, a list of troop movements from the comfort of a Washington office – made somewhat less comfortable by the paranoia that permeated the Bush administration.

We begin with Mark Stroman, a young Dallas racist who was unhinged long before 9/11, but was swept away in the riptide of rage that followed it. He hated most minorities, but the very worst were “sand niggers,” “Ay-rabs.” The author guides us through the virulent cowboy-revenge posture that swept American culture immediately after the attacks; whether or not the cruel and vulnerable Stroman heard this or that broadcast or snippet of commentary, he was right in tune with the times. The attacks drove him over the edge, and he went on a rampage, first murdering an Indian convenience store owner. “For legal reasons, I can’t tell you about the others,” the author writes. “I can’t even tell you how many others there were.” But they were all Asian immigrants, and no money was ever taken. We visit Stroman on death row, and find him utterly unrepentant: if allowed to do so, he would undoubtedly continue.

A rickety Indonesian boatload of desperate international refugees sought asylum in Australia, but had the bad luck to try it in October 2011 and was stopped by a Royal Australian Navy frigate. The right-wing coalition leading the country began to mold public opinion, conflating protecting Australia’s borders with the War on Terror. Through a bizarre chain of communication lapses, the government believed, and managed to convince Australians, that the refugees had thrown their children overboard to force a rescue, something all the sailors present knew to be untrue. The boat was shunted off to Papua New Guinea, out of the reach of Australian law yet administered by Australians, so untouchable by the host country. This is the same kind of legal no-man’s-land that exists at Guantanamo Bay, which in fact set a precedent using Haitian boat people in the 1990s.

On June 30, 2002, an AC-130 SPECTRE gunship obliterated a wedding party in Deh Rahwood, Afghanistan, killing 48 and injuring 117, first with 105mm cannon and then with 25mm and 40mm machine guns fired on fleeing revelers. The party was targeted on a tip that an uncle of the bride’s, the Taliban’s #2 leader, might be there. He wasn’t. The AC-130 crew claimed it responded to anti-aircraft artillery. Apparently the soldiers hadn’t been briefed on the Afghan custom of firing rounds into the air as part of a celebration. This was only the first of several wedding ceremonies to be lethally disrupted the same way: lousy intelligence, “anti-aircraft fire.” But it’s the most important to us, because Mr. Streatfeild introduces us to the decimated family.

Remember those aluminum tubes that “proved” Iraq’s nuclear intentions? A blowsy bit of “intelligence” that had been repeatedly swatted away by everyone with any expertise, yet to their shock and horror, it reappeared after 9/11 and helped justify our invasion of Iraq. We watch the discovery unfold, learn why it is technologically impossible for these tubes to be used as centrifuge rotors – as every engineer knows – and sigh as the discredited “evidence” rises from the dead in the American confusion and panic after 9/11. So hungry for war are our leaders that the CIA’s hapless WINPAC (Weapons, Intelligence, Non-Proliferation, and Arms Control) unit, which had been beating the drum loudest, is reduced to arguing, well, maybe these are the wrong-sized tubes for WMD, but maybe the Iraqis plan to upgrade them; and finally, they knew we were monitoring, so they deliberately ordered the wrong tubes to confuse us! The administration leaks its mushroom-cloud theory to the New York Times, then uses this very story to bolster credibility in a bit of circular logic that would confound Lewis Carroll, ending after the invasion with if we can’t find anything, that only shows you how sneaky they are!

Al Qa’qaa is a 1,100-building complex ten times the size of Central Park, located in the desert near Yusifiyah, southwest of Baghdad. On April 3, 2003, less than two weeks after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Al Qa’qaa was bombed and its guards fled, leaving the Middle East’s largest explosives plant unprotected. About a week later, the US 101st Airborne, en route to Baghdad and glory, bivouacked just outside the facility, apparently unaware of what it was. By now, it had already been looted of trucks, air conditioners, equipment and the like. But Al Qa’qaa was also stuffed with missiles and explosives. All of it had been vetted by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, who had specifically warned Americans about this location, along with the other weapons sites they examined. It did no good. The invaders were utterly unprepared for the scope and scale of looting (some of it, astonishingly, while Coalition troops passively stood by), and failed to protect anything, with one exception: the facilities of the Ministry of Oil. Through its indifference, the coalition squandered any local support it might have initially gained, and looted Iraqi munitions found their way around the world – and into the hands of the newly-empowered insurgency, which obtained about 90% of its explosives right under the Coalition’s nose. Alongside the U.S.’s flustered, ever-shifting denials and conflicting attempts to explain, the author interviews one of the founders of the Iraqi Islamic Army, who casually recounts what he did with some of the ordnance that the Americans asserted did not exist.

Suspects have been secretly “rendered” – that is, snatched abroad and relocated to face justice – since the Reagan administration. But it was under George W. Bush that most safeguards regarding the American rendition program were loosened or eliminated: “suspects” could now be pre-emptively kidnapped, even when there were no charges against them, and “rendered to interrogation,” to “black” CIA sites outside the country where no judicial process was even planned. Like the Australians had, the U.S. decided that during a “War on Terror,” treaties requiring humane treatment of prisoners did not apply even to its own citizens when held abroad. But its program of “extraordinary rendition” blew up when Khaled el Masri was abducted in Mallorca, whisked to a black site called the “Salt Pit” in Afghanistan, and held for 149 grisly days without trial. The reason we know about the case of “the Egyptian” is because this time, the CIA snatched the wrong guy. Mr. Streatfeild expertly tells the story from the captive’s point of view, then from inside the informal gang of planespotters and journalists which pieced together the secret U.S. program.

Uzbekistan’s brutal president Islam Karimov became a vital strategic Coalition ally as we planned the invasion of Afghanistan. In exchange for a shopping list of American goodies, he provided the “undisclosed location” that was the staging area for our assault (it’s where the convoy which destroyed the Deh Rahwood wedding party came from) – a U.S. airbase deep within central Asia, even inside the former Soviet Union – and hosted an unknowable number of CIA renditions. Unfortunately, despots around the world seized on this unholy alliance to further enslave their own people; they loved Bush’s “with us or against us” stuff, and used the Global War on Terror to justify any punishment they chose on anyone they chose to declare a “terrorist.” And in Uzbekistan, things went from bad to worse.

Finally, the single most heartbreaking fallout from 9/11 damaged the World Health Organization’s massive effort to defeat polio, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), the largest public health project in history. Begun in 1988, GPEI vaccinated more than 2 billion children in 200 countries and was on the verge of stamping out the poliomyelitis virus once and for all. Even in warring zones, “Days of Tranquility” halted hostilities so children could be inoculated (the Taliban and the Northern Alliance both helped with the effort in Afghanistan). Then came 9/11, the invasion of two countries, vicious and untrue Internet rumors about contaminated vaccine and the West’s secret intentions, and general mistrust of Muslims. Nigerians were the first to refuse vaccines, then polio vectors were traced to Mecca, where the annual Haj brings together about three million Islamic pilgrims, ripe for contagion. Al-Qaeda and other ultra-right-wing Muslims forbade vaccination as blasphemous and Western. Most polio victims were now Muslim, and because 9/11 turned the world upside down, especially with regard to this particular faith, the virus’s relentless spread now threatens to undo GPEI’s quarter century of miraculous work. On July 2, 2007, Australia’s first polio case in 21 years was diagnosed. He was an unvaccinated foreign-exchange student from Pakistan, traveling lawfully, with a visa.

Each of these stories is told in exquisite detail, using crisp, economical language. I guarantee that no matter how closely you paid attention to the contemporary media (in fact, you might be less informed if you did), you’ll still learn something from this important book. Mr. Streatfeild does not attach blame to any person or country: there’s plenty to go around. The politicians, the military, the media, the citizenry, we all share in collective overreaction to a barbarous act, and willful disinterest in the true responsibilities of a free and just people. “Al-Qaeda doesn’t threaten our existence,” the author writes. “It never did. Our reaction to it just might.”

Osama bin Laden, 1957-2011

May 3, 2011


First, can we stop with the criticism that the President is namby-pamby on national security? That corpulent drug addict Rush Limbaugh is already deriding him for alleged overuse of the first-person pronoun in his Sunday night speech, using a Jedi dark side trick to cleanse his own mind of the grotesque flight-suited MISSION ACCOMPLISHED preening of Mr. Obama’s predecessor. But one person has to say, GO: the commander in chief. One person has to, excuse me, pull the trigger. If things had gone better in the Iranian sand for Jimmy Carter in 1980, he would be a national hero and Ronald Reagan would have had to wait four years, maybe forever. That had to be on the President’s mind last weekend, because this was far from a slam-dunk mission. All praise to the brave SEALs, and everybody else who followed the President’s orders at great risk to themselves. But shut up, Rush, when the President of the United States cops to personally ordering troops into harm’s way.

Second, can we agree that American weekly newsmagazines are irretrievably broken? Both Time and Newsweek, which went to press before this happened, feature the royal wedding on their just-landed covers. They lost big on the timing, and now they’re newsstand laughingstocks, unless they rush “special editions” into press – but with what reporting, and who’s gonna pay for it? My hunch: we’ll catch ya next week, America! The only newsweekly which will have a current story is The Economist, which lands in subscribers’ mailboxes on Friday. Oh, by the way: they’re British! And here’s the complete coverage of the royal nuptials in what must now be regarded as the world’s best English-language newsmagazine:

A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central
London on April 29th. Millions of Britons took advantage of the
opportunity to take a foreign holiday.

Third, one’s initial reaction must indeed be jubilation: this lousy, privileged bastard who coerced so many down-class acolytes into missions he would be too afraid to perform himself finally got what was coming to him. He preached retrogression, yet chose luxury over the cause, like so many other hypocrites before him. But the American football-style celebrations I saw on tv looked very much like the Arab demonstrations after 9/11. Remove the audio, Photoshop-smudge the pickets and T-shirts, put up an Al Jazeera logo, and what’s the difference? I don’t like the way these images may be playing on the other side of the world. I am a firm believer in the adage, “People are alike all over,” but I fear that malefic others may decide to use our shared zealousness against us.

5/6/11: Time rushed out its next issue, which landed for subscribers by Thursday. It was 70 pages long and had five ads, three of them for drugs marketed to seniors. Newsweek also dropped early, on Friday, 62 pages, similar ad ratio but slightly more upmarket. Rather than doing “special editions,” both mags simply hurried up the next issue — Time even had some non-Osama stuff, but not Newsweek — to get those damned royal-wedding “commemoratives” off the frickin newsstand. They each faced an unusually long span before the next pubdate, and both better hope nothing else earthshaking happens in the meantime, in case they still want to be seen as part of a medium which responds to breaking news. The Economist, 104 pages landing on Friday as usual, complete with the rest of the world’s news, cover-lined: Now, kill his dream. Bin Laden was only one of many stories, and this British mag — now clearly best of breed, my friend — ignored the royal wedding.

7/1/11: Everybody with a deadline misses the big story occasionally, and this week it was The Economist’s turn. All anybody could talk about on Friday was the collapse of the Manhattan DA’s sexual assault case against former International Monetary Fund general manager Dominique Strauss-Kahn over his accuser’s credibility. And it was a big European story as well, perhaps the biggest of the day. But The Economist had already gone to press, and the issue that dropped on 7/1 had no mention of the surprise development.

The Mosque Of The Red, White & Blue Death

August 17, 2010

At last, news reports about the “Ground Zero mosque” are starting to get a few things right. First, the proposed site isn’t at Ground Zero at all, but two blocks north, from which the World Trade Center site cannot be seen and vice versa. The planned community center (that is what many genuine mosques are to Muslim-Americans, but this project’s different) will include meeting rooms, a 500-seat auditorium, a pool, and yes, a prayer space. The avowed model is the uptown 92nd Street Y, which has the same relationship to a synagogue as the current wing-nut pinata does to a real mosque. As New Yorkers who have partaken of its rich store of (mostly secular) lectures, interviews and performances can tell you, that Jewish cultural center has never shoved religion in our faces, and it’s a vital asset to the community. Back downtown, two other actual mosques, dating from 1970 and 1985, have long existed near the proposed center; they’re overcrowded. In one of the three adjacent buildings which would comprise the center – they’ll have to be razed first – worship services are already taking place. Among its tasteful and reverent Ground Zero neighbors are an off-track betting parlor and a strip joint.

I’m amazed, and a little ashamed, at the outpouring of fervor against this construction, and the myths being used to stoke it:

Ground Zero is hallowed ground, so Muslims should have the good sense to worship elsewhere. Hallowed ground? Sarah Palin doesn’t even recognize my city as part of “real America.” Nobody should lose sight of the continuing grief of those who lost loved ones in that barbaric attack. But some of them were Muslim. Let’s try it for the millionth time: we were not attacked by Islam. We were attacked by Al-Qaeda, a ragtag gang of right-wing extremists so nutty that they think they can restore a worldwide caliphate. They’re the Muslim equivalent of the shameful “God Hates Fags” protesters. And by the way, if this ground’s so hallowed, where’d the GOP go when the program to monitor and treat Ground Zero emergency workers died an ignoble “procedural” death in Congress? These selfless, now-abandoned heroes were at Ground Zero, not near it.

Ground Zero is unique, like Pearl Harbor; normal rules don’t apply. That would be easier to swallow if it weren’t for similar protests in other spots like Wisconsin (in hallowed Wilson, patriots threw chunks of asphalt through a newly converted mosque’s windows; “Islamic terrorism begins in the mosque,” said some bird named Rev. Wayne Devrou, without a smidgen of irony), Tennessee (in hallowed Murfreesboro, goons spray-painted “NOT WELCOME” over the “future site of” sign; “They’re not a religion. They’re a political, militaristic group,” said one 76-year-old vet) and California (in hallowed Temecula, the Tea-Party-affiliated protest organizers even encouraged people to bring their dogs, as a deliberate insult to Muslims). By the way, uniformed soldiers of the Japanese nation did attack us at Pearl Harbor, and the Nazis did murder millions of Jews. But, phew, let’s go again: we weren’t attacked by Islam. This isn’t about mourning the victims of Ground Zero; it’s about religious intolerance, pure and simple, and to my shock and sorrow, it seems to be nationwide. I thought we had codified a solution to that problem more than 220 years ago. Which brings me to…

This is a Christian nation. Muslims should just shut up and blend in. While it’s true that most of the founders had nominal religious affiliation (even George Washington, who didn’t take communion or kneel when he prayed; Thomas Jefferson, who did not believe in Jesus’s divinity or resurrection; and Benjamin Franklin, who rarely attended Presbyterian services because he found them dull), and nearly all felt that religion was a healthy influence on the republic, many were “deists” rather than the type of “Christian” represented by today’s evangelicals. They believed in what they called a “prime mover,” or “divine Providence.” That’s one reason you can’t find the words “God,” “Creator,” “Jesus” or “Lord” in the Constitution or any amendment, with one exception, in the Signatory section: “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.” This method of assigning dates, of course, is also used by atheists; it has nothing to do with religious affirmation. The framers were not dismissing spirituality, far from it. But, mindful of the misuse of faith in centuries past (“I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross,” wrote John Adams. “Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!”), they firmly stipulated that it was no business of the government’s. To make this crystal clear, on June 7, 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Tripoli with the Barbary pirates of North Africa, which declared that we had no quarrel with the faith of any “Mehomitan” (Muslim) nation, and that “the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” Many American pioneers came to the New World to escape religious intolerance, not to extend it.

It’s no surprise to hear blowhards like Palin, Newt Gingrich (who, unlike Palin, ought to know better), and the full throats of Fox News braying about this “issue”: they’re not running for anything, so there are no consequences to what they say. (But rest assured, Newt: Jon Stewart’s staff is watching all this.) It’s sad when Harry Reid or the Anti-Defamation League – or even the President himself — feel they have to distinguish between the right of Muslims to build a mosque and the propriety of doing so. The NY Post reported that a four-hour hearing, after which Community Board 1 voted 29-1 to approve the mosque project, “got so heated that one young girl, whose father is Muslim and mother is Jewish and who went to testify in favor, decided instead to sit silently.” Could freedom of speech be the next Constitutional right to be literally shouted down? Fortunately, our governing document comes up for a popular vote in only one scenario: a proposed amendment. It’s not meant to bend and sway with public opinion polls. Let’s try one final time: Islam, the faith of 1.57 billion people, 23% of the world’s population (Christianity, counting Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, is around 33%, the world’s largest, but that sure doesn’t make Earth a Christian planet), is not our enemy. Radical kooks are: for example, the “Christian” who walked into a church foyer to murder a physician. If anything can help build bridges of understanding between widely-held faiths, it’s the one-on-one contacts that can be made through cultural centers. Why are we even talking about this?

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) says, “Ultimately I suspect that once this simmers down in a few weeks, people will realize that everybody’s liberty is at stake here.” Congressman, the precise number of weeks is about eleven: that’s how long until the midterms, and you can bet the right will be stirring the pot at least until then. I’ve never been prouder of Mayor Michael Bloomberg than the day he said, “It’s fair to say if somebody was going to try, on that piece of property, to build a church or a synagogue, nobody would be yelling and screaming. The ability to practice your religion was one of the real reasons America was founded. And for us to just say no is just, I think, ‘not appropriate’ is a nice way to phrase it. If you are religious, you do not want the government picking religions, because what do you do the day they don’t pick yours?” If opponents of the mosque get their way, said the mayor, it will be “a sad day for America.” Until recent weeks, I would have expected the vast majority of Americans to agree with him. You live and learn.

April 19, 1995

April 19, 2010

Fifteen years ago today, an unhinged coward lit a truck bomb and destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, mostly federal workers (among the murdered were 19 children under the age of six, who were at the building’s day care center), and injuring 680 more. At the time, it was the most destructive terrorist attack in American history. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was executed by lethal injection exactly three months before his grisly record was toppled.

A few months after the 1995 bombing, I found myself in Oklahoma City for a writers’ conference. Some editors didn’t care for such clambakes, but I liked them. You met would-be authors (sometimes for a guaranteed fifteen-minute slot, which was part of the attraction), along with other editors, agents and poobahs. You made yourself available for less formal contacts too, sometimes spoke in an auditorium or banquet hall, and generally tried to encourage the local talent, in exchange for plane fare, a nice hotel room, and sometimes an honorarium. Writing is a lonely business, and it really helps to meet others who are struggling through the same kinds of pain. One woman walked up to me and said she was a novelist, “currently pre-published.” I had never heard that before, and I told her it was a wonderful attitude.

The Oklahoma conference was larger than most. There are local writers’ groups all over the state, and they even have competitions among them, so one function was an awards banquet honoring the state’s best in various kinds of writing. That’s a great idea – one more form of encouragement.

Because this conference was so buttoned down, they had a group of writers assigned to each special guest. I lucked into some great folks. Their job was to hang with me, drive me around in their van, and make sure my money was no good in Oklahoma City, even if we went off campus for, say, some BBQ. We found ourselves with a free afternoon one day and one of them said, “Anywhere you’d like to go?” I said, “I want to see the Murrah Building.”

I saw a faint shadow pass over my host’s face. “OK, you got it.” I tried to backtrack: “You don’t mind, do you?” He looked me straight in the eye. “It still hurts to go there. We’re happy to take you, but we never suggest it. The visitor has to do that.” I clumsily tried to back away again, but the die was cast. “You’ll see what we mean when we get there.”

And so I did.

No photos or TV coverage of the calamity could prepare me for the real thing. One third of a huge office building was sheared off and crushed, as if it had been stepped on by a gargantuan movie monster, which had also left an 8-foot crater. A chain-link fence now surrounding the building was stuffed with notes and plush toys for the children. The outpouring of grief was palpable. Someone had cut a hole in a nice middle American city, and it was still bleeding.

The power of the blast was far more enormous than I’d expected. Buildings across the street from the Murrah – itself set back from the road – were ravaged so badly that it’s a miracle more people didn’t die. They tell us that it damaged 324 buildings in a sixteen-block radius. McVeigh himself was lifted off his feet as he ran away after lighting a two-minute fuse. The explosion could be heard and felt as far as 55 miles away. It registered 3.0 on the Richter scale.

I stood at the chain-link fence and realized my mouth was hanging open. Tears welled up as I thought, there actually was a monster here. The man who caused this to happen. I couldn’t bear to look any more and went back to the van. None of the Oklahoma writers had gotten out. They saw that I’d been affected – they’d clearly gone through those stages of grief long ago — and didn’t say much as we drove back to the hotel, to a warmer environment of novels and poetry, a now-understandable chunk of it about the day horror came to town and decided to stay.

September 11, 2001

September 11, 2009

I was at work at HarperCollins on 53rd Street that morning, a crisp, cloudless early-autumn day – perfect weather for flying. Our company was about to publish a new cookbook by TV chef Emeril Lagasse, and the publicity department had scored a coup for Emeril, the highly-sought cover of the next issue of Newsweek. But they’re always able to dissolve such an agreement for important breaking news. When the phones starting ringing with the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, we thought it was a freak accident, like the B-25 bomber that struck the 78th floor of the Empire State Building on foggy July 28, 1945, killing 14 people. My first thought was, well, there goes Emeril’s cover. Then we turned on the TVs and saw the second plane live.

To say we were shocked is an understatement. Shock happens and then goes away. This didn’t. We were disturbed because we didn’t know how many more planes were in the air, and we were in a pretty tall building ourselves. (Reports tell us that people in Chicago’s Sears Tower just knew they were next.) We were dumbfounded at the savagery of the attack against thousands of innocent victims, and confused about any possible motive. And we were heartbroken when the buildings finally collapsed. Previously, you could see them out of the corner of your eye when you stepped out to Fifth Avenue. Now, just a plume of smoke.

You didn’t see everything, trust me. A literary agent from England was staying downtown not far from the Twin Towers. He saw people jump to their deaths before his eyes. He told me he’ll never be able to forget it – even though he wants to.

All vehicular traffic stopped in Manhattan, and nobody could drive anything onto or off of the island. The phone lines were irretrievably jammed as desperate friends and relatives tried to check on us; the telephone silence at Harper was eerie. Those who could, walked home in the early afternoon: the bridges were open only to pedestrians. I trudged up Madison Avenue along with hundreds of shellshocked others. Nobody said much. Suddenly we heard an airplane engine high above us. Everybody stopped and looked up: all planes were supposed to be grounded! Then we could see it was a scrambled U.S. military jet, and we quit holding our breath. Only those who’ve lived through that paranoia can fully appreciate the recent prodigious idiocy of allowing an airplane to fly low over the city just to take photographs, and without warning the authorities. Whoever approved that boondoggle clearly hadn’t been in New York on 9/11.

Business in New York is fairly insular. There wasn’t much publishing or advertising located in the Twin Towers: those offices were mainly for financial firms and international trade. So neither Linda nor I personally knew anyone who perished on 9/11. With one degree of separation, though, plenty, and the carnage spreads remarkably fast when you start counting up friends of friends.

We were scared and shook up, and for a brief moment, the rest of the country had our backs. What we didn’t know was that in Washington, some neoconservatives had been waiting for a spectacular, motivating national trauma, “like Pearl Harbor,” as an excuse to unilaterally change the map in the Middle East – and this was it! Most people don’t remember that the president’s job approval ratings were already cratering that summer. In a political sense, 9/11 was the best thing that ever happened to George W. Bush. It’s almost certainly responsible for his narrow “re-election” three years later. It allowed him to prosecute a war without end entirely on credit (Osama bin Laden bragged that 9/11 had been an economic attack, a way to “bleed” the West, and the Bush administration eagerly took the bait), usurp “wartime” powers from a pliant nation as cleanly as any Orwellian villain, and obtain enough timid Congressional support for his ham-handed invasion of Iraq, which will go down in history as one of America’s most colossal blunders. Without the tragedy of 9/11, none of these other tragedies would have been possible, and our world would be very different today. Remember budget surpluses?

We also remember those thousands of innocent people who were brutally murdered on this day, as well as the heroic responders who tried to save as many as they could. However meekly it may tend some wounds, bin Laden has finally paid for his crime, thanks to the daring of some brave Americans and their Commander in Chief. Have we learned anything? It was eight and a half years between the first Trade Center bombing and 9/11. Are we due for another attack on the homeland? All we can do is contemplate, commemorate, and mourn – for so many, many reasons.

9/11/11: It’s only an arbitrary round number, but it feels different today. A little nip in the air, first of the season, some clouds but otherwise pretty much the same weather I remember. A friend of mine was disturbed by some joking he overheard from some very young people. It’s different for them. When I was a kid they still remembered Pearl Harbor. At my school (in Norfolk, VA, a Navy town), one of our history teachers was a USN-Ret. commander who was there on 12/7. Every year the Upper School (the kids old enough to take it) trudged into his room, class by class, and heard the grisly details in a colored-chalk talk: kind of like Glenn Beck, only this one was true. All these many years later, we might as well be remembering the Maine. This too shall pass, just like Pearl Harbor agita, though I admit I have been dreading this particular anniv because it’s the first nice zeroed number, and I hope people can keep their ideological cool and nothing bad happens. At Pearl Harbor the enemy were wearing uniforms, but still the Greatest Generation “detained” Japanese-American civilians for no reason other than an epicanthal fold. It can get nasty when otherwise decent people become angry and frightened at the same time.

9/11/12: I’m not the only one walking around NYC today who remembers that the weather, and the sky, were almost exactly like this on the fateful day. By nightfall, though, we were all back in the warmth of our homes. We’re very fortunate.

9/16/16: I read today that the students who have just entered high school will be the first group to have 9/11 taught to them as a piece of history, because it happened before they were born. That’s how things start to fade. Pearl Harbor occurred eight years before I did, and by high school it was far more viscerally important to our elders than to me and my classmates. This too shall pass.

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