I kept a 911 diary from September 11th, 2001 to May 26th, 2003. I
finally put it down after returning from Abu
Dhabi, by way of
Paris, after the
start of the Shock and Awe campaign that began the Second Gulf War.
I have not seen it again until now, some ten years after 911, but am
making portions available in commemoration of the event.
Vietnam to Ground Zero
The rookie cop with the juvenile face pounded his fist at the
side of the car. The Vietnam veteran
behind the wheel slammed the brakes. The car screeched to a halt.
This was the second police roadblock in ten minutes. As Lenny, the
driver, again fished for his license I could see he was truly
rattled and I knew why. Lenny had survived truck convoys on the
roads of Vietnam and almost a year at the
Hanoi Hilton. He had seen his platoon buddies beaten by sadistic
guards. He’d been tortured himself.
I also knew that Lenny was reliving a portion of those dark
times at that moment. It was unreal for me too, part of the
nightmare that began when I climbed to my rooftop on the South
Brooklyn waterfront on September 11th and saw, across the nearby
Hudson, under an incredibly calm, almost luminously blue sky, the
smoke-wreathed towers of the doomed
Had it not been for this nightmare I would not have been in
the car at that moment. I would have been in my loft, working on my
latest and greatest. But only vehicles with two passengers or more
were permitted over the bridges into Manhattan and my friend had business in Midtown
that could no longer be put off. He’d asked me to come with him and
so I came. He had no one else. No family, no children, and no
friends worth a damn.
In retrospect I should have said, “Lenny, have your license
in your pocket so you can just pull it if the cops stop you,” but I
didn’t. Not even as we were diverted onto the gridlocked Prospect
Expressway when the Battery tunnel
entrance was closed, a sign ahead pointlessly announcing that, “proof
of identity is required for all vehicles using the Brooklyn Battery
tunnel,” did I think about anything like this. The expectations of
decades are sometimes hard to change overnight, even in the face of
At the hairpin on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, from which we would take the
into Yorkville, a Chevy sedan full of passengers just ahead of us
behaved oddly. It stopped for no apparent reason, inched forward,
then stopped again. Not even Lenny’s leaning on the horn made it
move. Just a few score feet shy of the turnoff to the bridge, the
Chevy stopped again.
Two cops waited at a security checkpoint by the turnoff
ahead, their car on the greensward, lights flashing. They glanced
our way. Finally the car ahead sped up, passed the turnoff and shot
up the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. As we rolled onto the ramp, past
the watchful police, I turned to look at the car that had been
blocking us. I caught a glimpse of its passengers. Bandanas tied
around heads and ball caps worn backwards. Now I understood.
But this was before, on our way in. Now, barring our way
home, the green cop, the rookie working traffic, harangued the
combat veteran for not stopping.
“What are you, blind?
What do I look like, a lamp post? I tell you to stop, you STOP!”
Lenny stammered out a reply. The rookie kept on baiting him.
The fact was, the cop had appeared out of nowhere as the light had
changed. There had been no sign, no indication of any kind whatever
that we were in fact approaching a police roadblock. Vietnam was a
metaphor for everything that my friend Lenny said and did. I knew he
was now, in some part of his psyche, back at the Hanoi Hilton.
But I had reached my limit. Someone else might have chosen
different words, might have said something about my friend’s Vietnam
War experiences, about how we were not terrorists, and that this
should have been obvious. Or maybe I might
have said something about it being wrong to hassle a retired
man who had worked all his life for the American dream. Others might
have even tried being polite about it. Or said nothing at all.
But I came up in Bensonhurst, and in times of trouble the kid
who knocked around those deceptively middle-class but actually
knuckle-bustingly tough streets emerges, and throws off the veneer
of the adult’s painfully acquired culture and education. What came
out of my mouth was delivered in the accent of my youth, which is
that of Palermo and Naples transplanted a thousand miles.
I looked the rookie straight in the eyes.
“Hey, show some respect,” I advised him.
The phrase may need some explanation to those who did not
grow up where I did, because its meaning is rich in nuance.
In Bensonhurst, there are, and have always been, three or
four key phrases; “Show some respect,” is one of them. It has a
plethora of meanings. With the Wise Guys, to be warned to show
respect is to be issued a stern rebuke. It means more than, “You are
out of line.” It means that you have passed limits of tolerance and
you have put yourself beyond the pale. That you have ceased to act
like a human being and become -- another
Brooklyn phrase -- an “animal.” It puts you on
notice that the guy you have disrespected is on the edge of
violence, even if he who has shown disrespect happens to be a police officer.
The cop caught my meaning. I was sure of it. Caught it to the
full. Maybe he was from the old neighborhood. It’s possible. We did
have some who’d become policemen there.
The rookie bristled. Then he did something strange. He yanked
on the handle of the passenger-side door, and it flew open. He stood
there gaping at me for a moment or two with his hand on the door as
I glared back at him. Then he sheepishly shut it again. I don’t
think he’d known what he was doing, or expected the door to have
been unlatched. I think he’d simply been acting out. Then he
recovered, and once more donned the mantle of authority.
“Just for that I’m not letting you through. You turn the car
around and go the other way,” he shouted at us both. To me, “And
you better learn to show
some respect to a police officer if you wanna be smart.”
“When you stop playing Gestapo.”
We were already rolling, down Church Street,
rushing north, straight past the police checkpoint, ignoring the
young cop’s orders to go the other way.
In the driver’s side rearview, I looked back at the rookie.
He had turned toward the fleeing car. He was gesturing wildly,
flailing his arms, probably ordering us to immediately halt. But my
friend Lenny didn’t see the cop. The former Army truck driver who’d
made runs under fire along what they’d once called the Trail of
Tears had his pedal to the metal. He was intent on putting distance
between us. I said nothing. Let whatever would happen, happen. I
half-expected the caterwaul of sirens, but in the end it never came.
Later, on Canal, we heard an ambulance wail behind us, and
I’m sure that Lenny thought the same as me: the cops had sent the
paddy wagon to come and get us after all. It would be an episode of
“Cops” on Canal Street.
Up against the side of the car. Handcuffed. Detained. Charged with
running an NYPD roadblock and for looking like terrorists. They
don’t take any guff from felons on “Cops.” We were now worse than
history. We were about to become an episode on a series rerun.
But it wasn’t the law on our tails. It was only an ambulance,
on its way to someplace else. We turned right on
and headed for the Brooklyn Bridge. There were no more checkpoints,
just police directing traffic and some National Guard off to the
sidelines, looking on, assholes from upstate as out of place here as
the footprints of brown bears.
Crossing the bridge toward Brooklyn, I again thought back to
the morning of September 11th, when I stood on the rooftop of the
old factory in which I lived and looked across the Hudson at Apocalypse.
Our freedoms would be challenged in the aftermath of the
atrocity, of this much I was certain. Later, I flashed on another
image, that of bacterially multiplying rhinoceros heads, the cental
image from the Ionesco play “Rhinoceros, ” a play about a society on
the edge. Like crystals forming in a shock wave, like microbes on a
glass slide, ordinary people were being transformed into rhinoceri, day by
day. They had lost their identities as humans, traded them away for
conformity in the surreal police state portrayed by Ionesco. Become,
as the Bensonhurst phrase goes, “animals.”
There’s a lot of unfocused, surly anger in this city today.
It is ready to lash out at anything that might present a target of
opportunity. That which doesn’t conform to expectations can become a
target. Since September 11th, I have experienced several rage
incidents, ranging from the gray-haired man in Bermuda shorts who
glared and snarled a curse as he deliberately shouldered past me at a supermarket, to
drivers seemingly bent on suicide by intentional head-on collision,
as if attempting to stage a martyrdom mission by automobile instead
Some manifestations have been subtle, others disquietingly obvious.
Maybe it’s my own fault for doing my shopping and even buying
my gas in Marine Park instead of my own supposedly hipper
and artier neighborhood. But I haven’t led any life outside of
physically living there in years. I never liked or trusted yuppies,
never felt part of their scene. I’ve always been the “half-Italian”
kid from Bensonhurst, feeling more at home with straighter types.
Out in Marine Park
the air sometimes smells of the salt of the
Atlantic ocean and you can hear the gulls. The fruit’s
But it’s also a kind of Fort Apache,
one of the last outposts of white, middle-class, nonimmigrant New York, and further on,
in Gerritsen, the cops and the firefighters live. It won’t ever be
gentrified the way the Manhattan-side edge of the boro was. What
will happen -- what is now happening -- is that one group of
middle-class New Yorkers will be replaced by another group, and in
time, yet another group will replace those newcomers. Today it is
still -- literally -- a place that is divided in to blacks and
whites, with few shades of gray. And so it should come as no
surprise that in Marine Park, where I buy my groceries and gas,
where I have gone to smell the salt air of the Atlantic that I
cannot smell in South Brooklyn, and to escape the pretensions of
yuppiedom for the still “real” Brooklyn, that I should find myself
looked at as the resurrection of 911 terrorist hijacker Mohammed
Here the flags are draped everywhere, and with them has come
the anger. Most claim that the flags are emblems of solidarity and
unity. They are that, but they are also emblems of rage, of a
collective hysteria that lashes out blindly, like Kronos reaching
out to grab his own children and hurl them to his mouth to devour
them, and the faces behind the windshields of cars that pass in the
streets of Marine Park are often tight with anger. The
flag-waving patriotism has its disturbing aspects. When was the last time that
we as Americans felt compelled to wave flags around with such
hysteric abandon? When did mere slogans become mantras of national
identity? Like all slogans, these new ones have formed dividing
lines between us, like other slogans of past eras:
either dead or red, silent majority, love it or leave it, and other buzzwords of times
better left behind.
Does national trauma mean we have to
suddenly shift into reverse? Look in the rearview, there's a wall
I have no plans to change my routine. Nobody will bully me. I
am allergic to bullies. I will do as I see fit. I will not give in.
I find that I have doubled my workout routine. I carry Mace.
I have not been physically attacked and I don’t believe that I will
be, but believe I’ve come close since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon of September 11th.
Yet I have felt, in these last few weeks, that I have sometimes been
on the edge of assault, and I need to be ready to defend myself
against physical violence. It is grimly ironic that such an attack would
likely not come
from terrorists, but from those who would regard me as a terrorist
surrogate for their blind, unreasoning rage. If somebody wants to
get in my face, wants to take out their rage on me, I will not run
and I will not call the police. I will turn off my cell phone. I
will show them my own rage. I have had enough of this. I have had
enough of them.
Let them show me some respect. Or let them face the
Ultimately, a backlash may set in. I believe it has already
begun. Our freedoms have been taken; the majority of us, I am
certain, want them back, despite the hysteria that drowns out sanity. The threat
to our society cannot be underestimated. History is filled with
precipitating acts that have profoundly altered societies for better
or worse -- shock waves that have crystallized cultural vortices
into something adamantine. The Renaissance gave way to the
Reformation and Enlightenment. The battle of Waterloo established Britain as the dominant political and cultural
power in Europe and with it a
germinal representative democracy. The assassination of JFK gave way
to an era of polarization and dissent that almost tore America apart at
the seams, and repercussions of those days of national trauma are
with us yet.
There are many other such threats we now face. But the new
order does not crystallize without precursors. Its formative
elements must exist to provide the stellar mass from which it coalesces.
America at the dawn of the 21st
century, post-911 America, is a nation in which the semblance of tolerance and
acceptance of different ways of living and thinking has badly
fractured. A streak of
conformism has always run through the cultural fabric, allied with a
streak of apathy and avarice. That streak has grown into a torrent.
I cannot help thinking that the terrorists had chosen just
the right moment to strike. A time in
America when the nation stood on the
edge. A time when a precipitating act could tilt it in any
direction. Had they known? Had they chosen September 11th for
precisely that reason? How deeply had they thought out the
consequences of their heinous actions? Were they mere religious
fanatics or more than that? As they sat around motel swimming pools
elsewhere, did they discuss the far-ranging implications of what
they were about to do?
We may never know. But I conjecture that, just as we
underestimated their ability to have executed a coordinated action
of such devastating magnitude, we may too underestimate their
ability to have placed it into a theoretical framework of long-term
impact on American and global society.
If we do this, we can conjecture something even more
chilling: Mohammed Atta and his murderous accomplices
wanted America to react
with panic. They wanted America to turn its rage against
itself, to become a repressive society such as the ones that
produced them in the first place. To become an Egypt or a Syria or a Saudi Arabia
where the phones are always tapped and the population is always
watched by secret police. Atta had the face of a vampire. He looked
like Dracula. And this dispiriting end is precisely what a Dracula
would have in store for us. One where our national soul was sucked
dry and replaced with a zombie-like half-life of relentless fear and
I am concerned that those who would strip us of our freedoms,
those to whom diversity is anathema, those who -- until September
11th -- have openly expressed loathing for everything that New York
City stands for, will use this horrendous tragedy as an excuse to
impose a police state on this nation, just as I am concerned that
New Yorkers, in their fear of further terrorist strikes, will agree
to its implementation in the false hope of lasting security.
I am concerned that next week, next month, next year, my
talking back to a police officer who was clearly harassing my
Vietnam veteran friend may have become, in and of itself, a crime
punishable by a jail sentence. I am concerned that roadblocks and
identity checks here, in this city, and elsewhere, will become
commonplace, even -- I shudder at the word --
normal. I am concerned
that a new polarization will take root, and that this city and our
country will again find its vital energies drained by contention and
dissent. I am concerned about all the many fine variations of what
may be done to us in the name of “protecting” us.
It is bad enough living on the edge. It may be worse should
we cross that edge. I hope we do not. Yet I fear that, given time,
we just well may.