Reflections from the Outer Boroughs of Ground Zero

by Marina Rustow

September 12, 2001



I returned yesterday morning from Long Island City, Queens, where I happened to witness the collapse of the south tower. I have since remained in Brooklyn, where an eerie calm prevails. The highways are empty, one hits a few traffic snarls on the streets due to road closures, and there are people on bicycles everywhere; about half of all vehicles, especially after hours, have flashing lights or sirens. All day today folks continued to gather at the waterfronts overlooking Manhattan, where many had watched the events unfold yesterday, and a day and a half later, it was as if they were waiting for the smoke to be sucked back into the buildings and the towers to rise from the rubble in reverse motion. Lingering in disbelief, trying to accustom themselves to the new skyline, attempting to absorb the human consequences of the altered view, like so many teeth missing from a formerly winning smile.


The general calm is even stranger when one realizes what's gone from the normal mix of urban sounds: the white noise of air traffic, consciously registered only in its absence, has been reduced to an occasional lone helicopter that makes the head swivel upwards to check whether it's friend or foe. The skies have been also eerily blue with a crystalline early-fall clarity, the clouds and humidity grounded along with commercial airline flights. Clear except, of course, for the now constant plume of beige smoke and dust blowing eastward from lower Manhattan.  and yesterday afternoon on the waterfront near Brooklyn Heights, a few single sheets of paper wafted down from the sky above the East River to rest where we were standing: some lower Manhattan office worker's files?


The eeriness surfaces in other unexpected ways: outside a factory I passed on Union Street in Brooklyn today, two trucks were loading up with metal caskets, perhaps an everyday sight in these industrial parts but now assuming new and horrifying meaning. A friend had visited from out of town over the weekend and with a piece of scrap paper demonstrated a sophisticated paper glider technology; when I returned home yesterday afternoon I saw the little airplane on my kitchen counter and shuddered.  Two friends and I driving around Brooklyn in my car were momentarily frozen by the sudden entrance, through the side window, of a loudly buzzing wasp, and as it exited the window opposite and we relaxed, we all simultaneously realized the trivial size and yet great symbolism of this small kamikaze and cracked a few dark jokes in its honor that don't bear repeating.


New Yorkers are said to lack in ethical instinct and civility what they more than make up for in civic pride. Real New Yorkers of course know otherwise since the moments of spontaneous fellow feeling are not rare, though they are memorable. The more than ample supply of blood donors surprised no one here. And yet I feel somehow also that the flow of volunteers was provoked in no small part by the flattery of our being assured, in the most devastating way, that we really are the center of the universe.


Anyone who has lived somewhere other than North America or western Europe smiles with fond bemusement when phone calls require seventeen attempts to go through, and it helped the sense of perspective enormously to speak this evening with a friend who'd lived through the civil war in Lebanon where road closures and power outages were routine. That was today's reality here, making do with the various obstacles while waiting to learn the magnitude of the casualties.


Yesterday's was another reality entirely: the techno-porn of a news industry with neither information nor cogent analysis, only the will to fill airtime. I deliberately left the intersection in Queens where I'd seen the first tower collapse rather than wait for the second implosion among the amateur videographers and other oglers since it's not a sight I'd wish on anyone. And yet there it was, broadcast over and over again in every Brooklyn cafe and bar, the vertical wings of a jetliner slicing through so much steel and glass like a blade through water; the slow motion collapse of an incomprehensibly large structure, buckling, kneeling, and finally allowing itself to fall to the ground in organized fashion, floor upon floor, vertebra by vertebra, like some Martha Graham move. Do not be seduced by the elegance of this footage, I reminded myself and others over and over again; after the tape cuts there is smoke and dust, negligible tokens of the actual human damage. I recalled the CNN broadcasts of airplanes over Baghdad ten years ago, green and purple lights against the black sky belying the as yet unimagined horror on the ground, the obscene euphemism of the phrase “collateral damage” concealing what we'd learn only much later. As Walter Benjamin wrote, the aestheticization of politics is war and the aestheticization of war is fascism.


To be generous, perhaps the media can't help but aestheticize; such are the risks of representation in two dimensions. It can, however, exercise better judgment than to focus selectively on Palestinian reactions: if there was joy among perhaps a dozen of those under the age fourteen, or even, to grant more benefit of the doubt than is likely due, among some short-sighted and unstrategically minded small segment of the population, where were the countless others who understood immediately the setback the attack would represent for Arabs everywhere if it had indeed been committed in their name?  Where were those who felt devastated upon considering the dimension of the losses, which contrary to American media images included not only Americans but immigrants from every corner of the globe?  Reducing the global reaction shot to football-match cheers -- as if war is ever anything but a negative sum game -- blocks the mind from imagining that perhaps there are convincing reasons for anti-American feeling among the various nations whose futures the U.S. has altered irrevocably and generally for the worse. Robert Fisk wrote today in The Independent, “Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime.  But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.”


Marina Rustow is a doctoral candidate in History at Columbia University in New York.