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Taking it slowly

Todd Gitlin
Todd Gitlin
16 September 2001

Of all I have seen and heard in the last days, the story I most want to tell is this:

Thursday afternoon, around 5, my wife and I went down to the perimeter of the ruins along the West Side of lower Manhattan and fell in with a crowd that was greeting and applauding rescue workers – police, firemen, phone and gas company people, iron workers and welders, most driving slowly northward out of the smoking WTC area as other trucks drove south, heading in. Some came trudging out of the zone, their boots caked in gray ash. Some faces were gray. Mainly the fire fighters on foot had gray faces. The calls from the crowd were mainly: Thank you! Some people passed out cookies, bottles of water, soft drinks, cups of soup. There were some American flags. Some people came around handing out pictures of loved, lost ones.

We ran into a friend and walked a bit eastward along Canal Street, where the scene repeated itself. At one, a New Jersey off-duty cop with a Central Casting tough-guy demeanor said he’d been working on-site for more than a day, taking time out to go back home, get a hair-cut, and come back with a truckload of supplies. He impressed a young woman to get into the back of a pick-up truck with him, all the while casting aspersions on the masculinity of George W. Bush, who had just arrived to visit the remains of the WTC. This is the week of working-class heroes.

Out of the zone of ruins walked a man and woman in their early thirties, handsome, clear-eyed, wearing yellow slickers and boots. They were trying to figure out how to get to the subway. We advised on directions and fell in with them. Mary and Dean, friends or lovers, had driven down from the small city of Syracuse – 250 miles northwest – to volunteer, and had just spent some 36 hours in the belt of destruction, digging in rubble, dispersing whenever horns went off to signal that buildings near the WTC were in danger of collapsing themselves. They’d been directing themselves, more or less. Now the Federal managers were coming in to take over.

They said it hadn’t been easy to get into the damage zone: in fact, they’d had to trick their way in. They had reported to the main volunteer depot at the Javits Convention Center a mile and a half north. Mary, an image consultant at a cosmetic company, had some therapeutic experience and wanted to work with children. They found three hundred people lined up in front of them.

So they attached themselves to an upstate fire company, got their yellow slickers, boots, and smoke-protection masks, and made their way to Ground Zero. They didn’t know George W. Bush had made his appearance that afternoon (or that he’d been given a far less vigorous reception than Mayor Giuliani), nor were they impressed. At the time, they’d been catching a couple of hours’ sleep. Soaked by the first rain in days, they’d gone first to the shell of a nearby hotel, but there was a stench, and someone came up and told them not to sleep there, there were bodies. Searching for some other structure that looked as though it wouldn’t collapse on them, they followed fire fighters into another building. There too, Dean had seen human remains under the rubble.

I asked him what he thought the US ought to do now. “We have to do something,” he said, “but it’s not easy. We have to be careful about retaliating. We need diplomatic pressure. We can’t go bomb a lot of innocent people. Then we will have done what they’ve done.”

You will hear a lot in the days and weeks to come about jingo Americans who want to bomb someone, obliterate anyplace. There will be talk – there is already some – about bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age, as if it is not already close to that. The talk shows batten on bravado-laden would-be cowboy bombers, eyeballs saturated with endlessly recycled TV images of the explosions. There are probably more of these reckless talkers living out in the vastness of the republic beyond New York City – in what Mr. Bush is pleased to call “the heartland” – although on second thought Syracuse ought to qualify as a piece of that.

If and when military power lashes out in the days to come, Washington will claim that all Americans agree on what the government is doing. But there are an awful lot of Americans like Dean who feel spasms of anger and vengefulness and have not succumbed to them. Those who plan indiscriminate war may well roll over such doubts and dissent. But they are here. They have not been stampeded. They are the heartland. These patriots are not going away.

There’s more than one America. During the painful days ahead, let our allies and critics remember that we are not all mad bombers, racist or authoritarian bullies – far from it. The White House may claim that the American public demands all-out war, but there’s little sign of that. Even in high places in Washington there are counsels of restraint and focus – starting, it seems, with Colin Powell. Don’t understand America too quickly. Don’t box us in.

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